I can’t believe I actually need to explain this.
Suppose Comcast made the following offer: If you vote “yes” on a ballot initiative we like (and agree to take a pocket recording device into the voting booth with you so we can have proof), we will pay you $50.
Most of us would not only say that this is wrong, we would have no problem understanding why that’s a crime. We would not be persuaded by Comcast defending itself by saying “well, Free Press and other organizations have campaigned in support of the bill and are calling people to ask them to go out and vote — they even provide free rides to people likely to vote for the initiative. That’s just like paying people directly to vote the way we want.” In general, we recognize a difference between organizing ad trying to persuade people to vote the way you want and actually paying people for their vote (and wanting a receipt).
More below . . . .
There is something so poetic about Comcast “delaying” members of the public from actually getting into the FCC hearing on Monday. But it is the claim that this is somehow the same as Free Press organizing folks to attend that just boggles my mind.
So for those just tuning in. In theory, the thing that makes democracy work as a system of government is that it provides a way for citizens to get together and discuss issues and come to a liveable consensus (implemented through elected representatives and other mechanisms). When people can’t have that level of healthy discussion — either among themselves or between themselves and the people charged with implementing the consensus through the mechanisms of government — then democracy becomes dysfunctional and starts breaking down. Take a look at Kenya if you want an idea of what happens when people en masse stop believing that the government reflects the genuine political consensus and start believing that the only way to have impact is by money, influence, or violence.
So we in functioning democracies care a lot about making sure our citizens have real conversations with each other rather than simply reflect whoever has enough money to buy more people. Yes, its balance and gradation. The freedom to talk also means that those with more money can spread their message more effectively. They can buy ads, hire people to argue their case, etc. etc. But even here we place limits — or try to. Most importantly, we do not let people pay people to vote a particular way.
Which brings us back to Comcast. This isn’t some gray area of giving local employees the day off with pay and a free ride while others had to take time off ad make their own way. This is just hiring warm bodies to block others and — if they stay awake long enough — to applaud on cue. The notion that this is in any way comparable to the kind of civic conversation that democracies depend on and the sort of organizing that Free Press engages in — citizens persuading other citizens and urging them to make their voices heard — is worse than ignorant and beyond Orwellian. It is downright insulting. It takes our most fundamental right and responsibility as free citizens and transforms it into a mockery. It is literally to defend the practice of placing democracy up for sale, and to reduce our democracy to the level of a banana republic.
Again, if it had been some other group like Progress and Freedom Foundation organizing their supporters, I’d say “would that all the Children of Israel could prophesy.” (Num 11:29) That kind of debate is healthy and what our democracy needs. Even Comcast giving its employees paid time off to go to the hearing would be at least a gray area. But just paying people to show up and applaud on cue — like outright lying to your customers or buying votes — isn’t even a question. The fact that Comcast can even try to defend its conduct by comparing it to Free Press urging genuine civic engagement shows how out of touch with reality they have become.
Stay tuned . . . .