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Anonymity in Democratic Society

Tuesday's New York Times editorial on the Chamber of Commerce's clandestine intrusion into American politics didn't go far enough in explaining why hiding the identities of donors to political ads is harmful to our democracy.

The editorial was, on the one hand, too concerned that the secrecy protected businesses from bearing the economic weight of their actions. It argued that if consumers knew more about what Domino's pizza was doing, then they might become bigger fans of Papa John’s so Domino's would stop supporting the policy it's consumers disliked. But applying this kind of consumerist, free market ideology to secret ads actually undermines the more fundamental point, as does their concern that anonymity reduces the voter's ability to assess the veracity of the ad their watching. The real point is that, beyond the particulars of any one ad, revealing donors identities will allow Americans to better understand free speech and influence in their democracy.

It's important to remember that America has a long history of anonymous propaganda. The Federalist Papers, which most consider to be the definitive exposition on our Constitution, were penned by Hamilton, Jay, and Madison under the pseudonym Publius. The anti-federalists similarly donned titles such as Cato. This was of course the standard of the day. It is not that any of these Founders or their opponents were ashamed of their views or the consequences of holding them -- if they had been, then they would not have signed the Constitution. Instead, they held an Enlightenment belief that arguments could be weighed on their merits alone, apart from the specific personalities that proffered them.

The New York Times and many others seem less than convinced by this argument. If cigarettes are being extolled for their impact on health outcomes, the Times believes that it makes a difference if the American voter knows that the sponsor is a member of the tobacco industry. I take the point. We want information from more independent sources like the Surgeon General. But I don't think any independent minded voter was confused about the anti-Claire McCaskill ad that elicited the Times' scorn. The presentation alone was enough to tell any voter, before the substance of the ad was introduced, what the advertisers thought of Missouri Senator. And I believe this is generally the case. The American people are generally smart (or themselves already biased) enough to make sense of political ads. Knowing the identities of the donors doesn't matter much.

Where it does matter is if we as Americans want a much better sense of who is commenting most frequently on our elections. Having complete knowledge about who is bankdrolling political ads would permit the American people to finally have an empirical conversation about corporate influence in, and elite domination of, our political debates. Imagine if, tomorrow, the New York Times revealed that 90 percent of all political ads were sponsored by the same 100 people. It might not change our reflections on the substance of the ads. Again, I believe we can ascertain out fact from fiction well enough now. But we might ask the more fundamental question of whether it is fair for so few to speak so frequently.

Many in the country already have an inkling that a plutocratic media doesn't serve the interests of the American people. That's what made the Citizens United decision so abhorrent: By asserting that money is speech, it asserted that imbalances in free speech were acceptable and not a fundamental affront to democracy. Americans know better. Each of us has a right to speak and to be heard as much as any other, and the amplification of our message should not be dependent upon the depth of one's pockets. These arguments are again apart from the substance of the claims being made. Americans reject tyrants and philosopher kings alike. What we hope and expect is that we are all treated equally, and that is why we need transparency in political advertising. Because until we have it, none of can say with any certainty who is dominating the people's conversation.