Dave Denison

Recent Articles

The Nader Perplex

A small minority of Americans--maybe two million people, maybe as many as five million--will vote for Ralph Nader for president this year. Most have gotten into arguments about the decision or have had someone try to talk them out of "throwing away" their vote. Many have been told they are doing something harmful or, at the minimum, irresponsible. Bush or Gore will be the next president. To pretend there is another choice is foolish. It would be easy to lampoon these arguments as the kind of talk that matters only in the dusty and cluttered meeting rooms of New York intellectuals and in the coffee houses filled by multiply pierced youth who aren't sure where their local polling place is. But democratic conversation happens in the damndest of places and can sometimes catch on in surprising ways. For my money, the disagreements about Nader's candidacy have been more interesting and worthwhile than most anything in the "real" campaign. To see truly frightening...

Political Meatballs

In the world of political campaign advertising, there is nothing sweeter than coming up with an ad that is so clever or outrageous it gets free publicity. Ralph Nader hit the jackpot in the fall campaign with his spot that parodied MasterCard's "priceless" commercial . Nader's campaign even ended up getting sued by the credit card company (a federal judge refused to order the ad off the air, it turned out). When wit isn't an option, though, the reliable approach is to see how low you can go. A tiny conservative group in Texas made national news in October with a remake of the famous 1964 anti-Goldwater "daisy ad," in which a girl pulls petals off a flower in a countdown to doomsday. In this case, the message was that Al Gore would blow up the earth by dealing in nuclear secrets with China. The competition for the cheesiest and sleaziest ads of the season was intense. Two nominations: First, "Meatball," by the Patrick Buchanan...

Electoral Dysfunction

As the nation begins to consider electoral reforms designed to prevent another Florida fiasco, a special challenge is in store for journalists. A story line is already developing that new technology will solve the kind of vote-counting problems that marred the presidential election. And when it comes to new technology, look out: The very words seem to bring out the gullibility of even the best reporters. Exhibit A is a February 12 article in The New York Times written by Katharine Q. Seelye. Under the front-page headline "A California County Touches Future of Voting," Seelye reports on the recent experience of Riverside County, California, with computerized touch-screen voting. She quotes a retired engineer declaring: "This is the only way to go. You can't say that I got cheated on my vote." She describes election-night results coming in "like greased lightning." She reports that touch-screen systems can easily handle long ballots and multiple languages. But nowhere in the story does...

Who Speaks for the Rich?

Unfree Speech: The Folly of Campaign Finance Reform By Bradley A. Smith. Princeton University Press, 286 pages, $26.95. Money Talks: Speech, Economic Power, and the Values of Democracy By Martin H. Redish. New York University Press, 319 pages, $35.00. I t's a shame that the debate over campaign finance reform as played out in the mainstream media is so shallow and so dull. While a distant clamor occasionally arises from Washington about such proposed reforms as the McCain-Feingold bill, the truly interesting questions about money, politics, and free speech go unaddressed and undebated by the American public. Is the act of spending or donating money a kind of speech? Does money talk, or is it, as one U.S. Supreme Court justice argued not long ago, just another form of property, subject to government regulation? Should corporations be entitled to full rights of free speech? If so, how is it that tobacco companies can be banned from advertising their (entirely legal) products on...

The High Cost of Speech

Sometime in the next few years, it is likely that the Supreme Court will be asked, "Are elections in the United States so distorted by the influence of money that they have ceased to be democratic?" It's not hard to imagine the average attentive American answering that question along the lines of "Hell yes!" But the Supreme Court will not say "Hell yes." There will be evidence to weigh, there will be the usual tangle of constitutional conundrums, and there will be the inconvenient fact that the campaign finance system we have grown to know and loathe is the direct result of the Court's 1976 Buckley v. Valeo ruling, which discarded a congressional attempt to limit the amount of money that can be spent in elections. The Buckley decision has been widely questioned. A New York Times editorial called it "untenable." To some legal scholars, the central part of the ruling--allowing limits on what individuals can contribute to campaigns but not allowing limits on...

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