As TAP has documented, this election season has seen more than its share of organizations buying expensive airtime to run ads in favor of candidates and issues. Here's a breakdown of spending by 501(c)s -- organizations with Orwellian names like “Americans for Prosperity” that can take unlimited contributions from anonymous, private donors -- in key races the last two weeks before the election:
As you can see from the table above, in a last-ditch effort to save the campaigns of Sestak and Bennet, non-disclosing Democratic groups actually outspent their Republican counterparts. But in Nevada and Wisconsin, Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce thumped the Democrats in media spending.
The problem with "non-disclosing, outside groups" is they allow voters to be bombarded with messages without also saying who exactly is behind them. While most states limit how much an individual can contribute to a campaign, anonymous donors can pump as much as they want into one of these organizations without revealing themselves.
Ushered in by Justice Clarence Thomas' decision to keep donor anonymity intact in the Citizens United ruling, this state of affairs is all-around regressive. It's bad for shareholders, an example of the classic libertarian misunderstanding of "freedom."
As Stanley Fish has argued, without knowing who made a statement or expressed opinion, you can't completely understand what it's trying to convince you of. Donor anonymity robs voters of that context, ultimately preventing them from fully understanding the messages that slug them. One is also left to worry about foreign money creeping into these organizations and influencing elections. It's happened before, and whether you think the U.S. Chamber of Commerce used foreign funds or not, the more important point is that there's no way to know. Especially in light of recent studies on the power of networks and crowds in decision-making (call it the Mexican Coke effect), there's no defense that self-governance, autonomy, or individual liberty is lifted when you're left in the dark about what you've been led to think. Even David Brooks once thought that way.
-- Sam Petulla