Arts page 2

Mr. Roberts tilts balance for Mr. Potter

Published in the April 23-April 29, 2014, print edition of the Irish Echo

By Peter McDermott

There is a type in public life that sounds like a preternaturally clever 17-year-old.

It’s part of MIT Prof. Noam Chomsky’s peculiar charm, for instance, that even in his 80s, he’s still the adolescent challenging his elders with his new-found wisdom. He’s brilliant, you think, and has great potential, but when he matures a little he’ll find out that there are other dimensions to the real world.

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It’s the same with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. You might not normally see him in the same frame as Chomsky, but they both possess a natural genius. Alas for the left, the MIT professor’s is in the area of linguistics theory, whereas Roberts’s is his ability to strategize for and lead the conservative majority on the United States Supreme Court.

There’s the same ignoring of reality, too, with the clever arguments – as we’ve seen in the McCutcheon case, which removed important limits in election finance. That follows the hugely controversial Citizens United decision four years ago. With each new radical decision, long-time Supreme Court correspondents always manage to sound not surprised and yet flabbergasted.

For Roberts, suitcases full of $1,000 bills are protected speech. For most of the rest of us – 80 percent, polls suggest -- it’s the naked buying of influence, and is tantamount to corruption. (Roberts has narrowed his definition of corruption to bribery. The “quid pro quo” has to be provable – a smoking gun is not enough.) People used to say “money talks.” Now it screams, thanks to the Roberts court.

Previously the Supreme Court had been concerned with even the appearance of corruption. That’s because the large-scale buying of influence, and the appearance of corruption undermines the average citizen’s faith in the democratic system. We know that from history.

Justice Stephen Breyer said the concept of “free speech” doesn’t exist in a vacuum. In his dissent for the moderate/liberal minority of four on the court, he wrote: “Where enough money calls the tune, the general public will not be heard. Insofar as corruption cuts the link between political thought and political action, a free marketplace of political ideas loses its point.”

The better off you are in our society, or in any society, the more clout you have. That’s a given. You have connections, influence and status. You’re more likely to get your way than the guy who has little or no money. That’s the case before a single dollar is spent on the political process.

Think of Mr. Potter in the post-war classic and perennial Christmas favorite “It’s a Wonderful Life.” I’m sure the police chief answers when he calls. What, then, if you gave him the green light to exercise his “right to free speech” in elections? Bedford Falls would still be a free society. You could give Mr. Potter the finger as he passed in his Rolls on Main Street, and not get dragged off to jail. That would be protected speech. The banker, for his part, would be free to return the gesture.

Also protected, however, according to the Supreme Court, would be Mr. Potter’s ability to influence elections. He could use his cash to frame the issues and to help handpick the leading candidates. Bedford Falls, thus, would be Pottersville before any formal renaming could take place. What could George Bailey do about that?