Sunday, March 5, 2006

Only a Congress addicted to power would try to blame its internal corruption problems on too much citizen participation in politics. Addicts often blame others for their addictions. Congress is no exception, based on several legislative proposals to “fix” its own internal ethics problems.

Congress’ ethics problems involve money and gifts for political favors, a reflection of Congress’ addiction to power. Rather than curing the cause of corruption, proposed lobbying reform bills would regulate “grassroots lobbying.” That’s the term given to citizen involvement in matters of public policy, and it is the antithesis of corruption in Washington. Grass-roots lobbying involves multiple rights protectedbytheFirst Amendment speech: the “press” via the U.S. mail and the Internet, petitions, and fostering associations of citizens.

Washington is about power. Power is addictive, and it corrupts. Those who have power fear losing it. Legislators will often seek creative ways to silence their critics and curtail their critics’ involvement in politics. Independent grass-roots causes inherently threaten incumbents’ power by empowering citizens. Some in Congress would pre-empt critics by imposing prior restraints with burdensome quarterly reporting, making grass-roots lobbying too expensive for small and unpopular causes.

The proposed regulation of the grass-roots, under such soothing titles as “Honest Leadership and Open Government Act,” would result in that most un-American of all concepts: censorship of political speech.

Grass-roots lobbying differs from other press communications by being interactive, allowing citizens to speak back. Grass-roots causes allow citizens to assemble across the country on matters of importance to them. Many incumbents are threatened by independent grass-roots causes that hold them accountable. Those incumbents prefer to control the message through their own communications, and prefer not to compete for contributions against grass-roots critics, especially from their “own side.”

In 1965, when I opened my direct mail agency, there were just the three television broadcast networks, and there was no cable television. The New York Times had long branded itself as containing “all the news that’s fit to print,” and no Fox News was in existence to dispute that claim.

Because the Fairness Doctrine mandated “equal time,” radio stations would not venture much into political talk radio. The Internet was not invented, and many of today’s bloggers weren’t even born yet. With no competition from the new or alternative media, news in 1965 was quite limited by today’s standards.

While difficult to comprehend today, since many candidates now brand themselves as conservative, 40 years ago conservatism was a small dissent movement on the sidelines of politics. Conservative activists were convinced, however, that the people were more conservative than their elected officials in Washington. We had neither access to the cameras and microphones of the networks nor insider tracks with journalists. We were confident, though, that if Americans heard the message of conservatism, the strength of that message would win out in the marketplace of ideas.

Commercial direct marketers had achieved success in expanding their audiences by using printing presses and computerized databases of names. Conservatives needed to convey their message to the grass-roots via some mass medium, so I studied the giants of direct marketing and applied their methods to grass-roots causes.

I started building the equivalent of newspaper subscriber files for grass-roots causes by mailing millions of letters. Causes appealed to citizens for small-dollar contributions, often just $5 to $25.

Citizens who associated with the causes would receive subsequent mailings. This grass-roots format was soon copied by thousands of nonprofit organizations and political committees across the political spectrum. Grass-roots communications now reach tens of millions of citizens of all ideologies and interests, transforming and transcending politics. The marketplace of ideas has given new and unpopular causes a chance.

The 18th-century English jurist William Blackstone said that the liberty of the press guarantees the right to fearlessly advance new doctrines and point out errors in the “measures of public men.” Our First Amendment comes from such principles, which is why Congress must not pass laws that abridge those rights.

Richard A. Viguerie is chairman of and co-author of “America’s Right Turn: How Conservatives Used New and Alternative Media to Take Power.”

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