Last week, Congressman Ed Markey inadvertently injected some daring political thinking and a touch of historical imagination into the race to fill the US Senate seat vacated by John Kerry's appointment as secretary of state.
We say "inadvertently" because Markey created the stir during a routine stump speech in Pittsfield. In the course of the speech, Markey touched on a number of certifiably progressive issues: the need for gun control, women's equality, gay rights, and environmental action.
This was Markey's first campaign foray into Western Massachusetts, and the size of the crowd and its relatively warm welcome attracted as much media attention as the substance of his speech.
But then BuzzFeed presented a video of Markey saying the following: "I want to go to the United States Senate in order to fight for a constitutional amendment to repeal Citizens United. The whole idea that the Koch brothers, that Karl Rove can say we're coming to Massachusetts, that we're coming to any state in the union with unlimited amounts of undisclosed money is a pollution that must be changed, and the constitution must be amended. The Dred Scott decision had to be repealed; we have to repeal Citizens United."
Citizens United is, of course, the 2010 Supreme Court decision that overturned almost a century of congressionally mandated campaign-finance reform, preparing the way for unlimited campaign contributions by corporations and wealthy individuals.
Those who remember their American history know that the Supreme Court's 1857 Dred Scott v. Sandford decision was perhaps the most controversial ruling in the annals of US constitutional law, holding that no American of African ancestry had the standing to sue in federal courts and reaffirming that slaves were property.
After BuzzFeed broke the story of Markey's analogy, a number of black leaders objected, saying there was no equivalence between the horrors of slavery and campaign-finance law.
As if to prove that hypocrisy knows no limits in 21st-century politics, the Republican party, which has been working to disenfranchise black voters in a number of states (Florida and Pennsylvania being two of the most shocking examples), had the unmitigated gall to jump on the bandwagon in slamming Markey.
Markey, to his credit, has stood by his statement, pointing out that his comparison was between the two court decisions, not slavery and capitalism run amok.
This is not sophistry. It is an assumption on Markey's part that voters are smart enough to draw a distinction between legal precedent and the social horrors those precedents enable.
Unlimited corporate campaign cash is not an evil on the scale of 19th-century slavery.
But Citizens United does breed evil of a different kind that, over time, will surely rot the fabric of our political culture and exacerbate the growing gulf between the haves and the have-nots.
Markey's comparison was certainly provocative, but it was no cheap ploy. It was a rare instance of a politician challenging the public to think in big terms, to grasp the enormity of the wrongs being inflicted on the public not just by congressional Republicans, but by the right-wing Republican judges who now dominate the nation's highest court.
Markey's comments in Pittsfield may not warrant a chapter in the history books, but they represent a welcome footnote to our troubled times.