By David K. Shipler
As billionaires exercise their First Amendment right to freedom of speech by assaulting the country with propaganda, the poor remain quiet. Even as half a dozen Republican governors insist that they will not accept a penny of the federal government’s money to provide expanded Medicaid health insurance to the nearly poor, those citizens do not raise a voice.
The reason is obvious, but sometimes the obvious needs to be stated. The poor cannot afford to buy TV ads, produce slick Internet messages, or hire fancy public relations pros to manipulate vocabulary and insinuate their versions of reality into daily news coverage, talk-show babble, and political agendas.
This is the other side of the coin of freedom that the Supreme Court struck in its Citizens United decision overturning federal limits on campaign spending by corporations, unions, and other groups.
People with money get to speak widely and loudly; people without money get to talk among themselves, if they have the time and energy for it. The poor have not coalesced into an interest group with the skills necessary for mastering social media, and even the anti-Wall Street Occupation movement has failed to mobilize a commitment to address poverty.
In First Amendment jurisprudence, there is an old, noble rebuttal to efforts to suppress certain speech because it is offensive in some way. The answer to offensive speech, the courts remind us, is not censorship, but more speech. It’s a sound principle and a nice sentiment, but “more speech” is a luxury the poor cannot afford. Their poverty muzzles them, and they disappear from the public square.
Americans at the low end, who ought to be heard in the midst of current economic hardship and important policy debates, usually depend on others—the not-poor—to speak about them and tell their stories. Even the best talk show hosts—Diane Rehm, Terry Gross—do not invite poor folks to the microphone. Their listeners periodically hear about the poor, but not from the poor. (Bill O’Reilly once planned to invite a down-and-out man I’d written about to his show, but only to ridicule him; O’Reilly didn’t get him in the studio and settled for slandering him in absentia.) And so, except when a stray reporter seeks them out, and writes or broadcasts their stories, the poor and the nearly poor do not have a chance to participate in the national discourse.
This is a loss not only for those who would speak, but also for those who would hear. Free speech, after all, benefits the listeners as well as the speakers—to state the obvious once again. A voice silenced is a voice unheard.
You might argue that the ballot box is the great leveler, where the billionaire and the destitute each has the same element of power—no more, no less than the other. It would be satisfying to see those in and near poverty line up at polling stations against those governors and state legislators who turn down the offer that nobody could sensibly refuse: “Obamacare’s” provision to pay for all the costs of the expanded Medicaid program for the next four years, then 95% beginning in four years, and 90% starting eight years from now.
But the poor do not vote in nearly as high percentages as the rich. The lower the income, the lower the turnout. The difference is so acute that in the close, disputed election of 2000, 75% of those with family incomes over $75,000 voted and only 38% of those under $10,000 cast ballots. Since low-income citizens tend to vote more Democratic, it’s likely that if their turnout had been as high as those in the upper-income bracket, Al Gore would have won by even more than the 500,000 vote margin that he had nationally. Florida would have gone his way. The rest would have been history.
And that’s exactly why Republicans across the country are hastily enacting voter ID laws, figuring that lots of poor people who don’t drive won’t have licenses or any other government identification.
Many people in poverty say that they cannot sort through the swarm of lies that surround campaigns, that they don’t think any politicians of any stripe will make a difference for them, that they don’t have time in their harried lives to go to the polls. They are more deeply alienated than the rest of us.
Still, mobilizing silent, impoverished voters ought to be the highest priority now. Years ago, I saw this sign on the counter of an office in Imperial Courts, a public housing project in the Watts section of Los Angeles, addressed to its residents: