The marketplace of ideas concept has been around for a long time. In a democracy, it means that competing ideas are free to compete for influence over policy based on their merits compared to competing ideas. Politicians and other political folks occasionally mention it as something they do or should support. In theory, it sounds like a good idea and useful tool to inform society about competing political policies.
Does it really exist?: Is American politics dominated by a fair and honest competition between competing ideas and political policies? Is the competition fair and honest when special interest money behind a special interest idea in competition with a better idea with no money behind it? Free speech experts think about these things and they seem to think that money can affect the outcome.
If that is true, then special interest money can get its second best idea elevated to law and policy while the best idea is discarded. Is that a a fair and honest competition between competing ideas? Or, is that a failure of the marketplace?
Reasoned debate or deception and spin?: Consider how many politicians, political partisans and hard core ideologues usually conduct policy debates. Are the debates usually based on a fair and un-spun description of the preferred idea? Do opposing ideas always (or ever) get a fair hearing? Is the source of political discourse transparent and honest? For example, in the rhetoric leading up to the passage in 2010 of health care reform (Obamacare) were Republican criticisms, e.g., “death squads”, principled, fair and reasonable? Were those criticisms grounded mainly in facts or was that mostly spin aimed at stirring anger and/or fear? Is deceptive criticism and spin a fair use of the marketplace or is it abuse? Does spin help or hurt society, especially when it backs the win of a second or third best idea?
Dead or almost dead: Given the degree and scope of sophisticated spin in politics, it is fair to say that the marketplace of ideas either doesn’t exist or is almost non-functional. Competing ideas with no money behind them are out there, but they usually have no or low impact for lack of a national audience. That leaves the players with money and power to dominate political discourse.
Why have it?: If that version of reality is essentially correct, and I believe it is, then why do we have it? The answer is sad. A fair an honest marketplace of ideas threatens the status quo. The status quo favors individuals and entities with money or agendas. It allows politicians a way to get elected and re-elected. In other words, all kinds of players exploit the system to their advantage. That is just human nature.
The mirage: That status quo used to look like it worked fine because America had great wealth, unrivaled power and many resource and competitive advantages. On reflection, it appears that our wealth and advantages masked failure and corruption. Those days are gone and not coming back. Unfortunately, neither political party can change and allow a truly free marketplace of ideas. That would undermine their deeply held political and religious ideologies. Competing new ideas are too threatening. People and entities with money are going to continue to press their points using their spin advantage.
Real change can start once people decide to leave the two parties and work to form a pragmatic new party. A new party can institute a functioning marketplace of ideas. At the least, it would have no status quo to fear for. Until then, the marketplace is dead and we will continue to pay for it.