In his latest column for The Washington Post, Charles Krauthammer doesn’t merely embrace the idea that campaign donations are a form of protected speech. He goes a step further, arguing that deep-pocketed conservative donors’ activism should enjoy special protections that ordinary speech doesn’t: He thinks the well-heeled should have a right to “speak” with their dollars without facing criticism for what they say.
A web search reveals that Krauthammer had no problem with challenges to free speech in the past: He didn’t complain about the boycott of the Dixie Chicks — which is still in effect at many country music stations — after lead singer Natalie Maines spoke out against the invasion of Iraq. He didn’t write an anguished column when the University of Colorado fired Ward Churchill in retaliation for his controversial remarks about 9/11. And the orchestrated campaign to deny former DePaul University scholar Norman Finkelstein tenure for his controversial positions on Israel didn’t inspire him to rush to the professor’s defense.
But that’s traditional speech. When it comes to campaign donations, the columnist is incensed at the idea of people being judged for the positions they take. Krauthammer acknowledges that “money distorts.” “There is no denying the unfairness of big contributors buying access unavailable to the everyday citizen,” he writes. So he used to favor stronger disclosure requirements as a way of balancing wealthy donors’ right to participate in our political system with the public’s interest in curbing “the unfairness of big contributors buying access.”
But no more. “I had not foreseen how donor lists would be used not to ferret out corruption but to pursue and persecute citizens with contrary views,” he writes.
It is now an invitation to the creation of enemies lists. Containing, for example, Brendan Eich, forced to resign as Mozilla CEO when it was disclosed that six years earlier he’d given $1,000 to support a referendum banning gay marriage. He was hardly the first. Activists compiled blacklists of donors to Proposition 8 and went after them…
The ultimate victim here is full disclosure itself. If revealing your views opens you to the politics of personal destruction, then transparency, however valuable, must give way to the ultimate core political good, free expression.
So Krauthammer has been forced to rethink his support for disclosure. But don’t blame him for our slide toward plutocracy — he’s as sad about it as anyone else.
Our collective loss. Coupling unlimited donations and full disclosure was a reasonable way to reconcile the irreconcilables of campaign finance. Like so much else in our politics, however, it has been ruined by zealots.
His first problem is that he fails to provide a real-world example of these “zealots” engaging in the “politics of personal destruction.” He sets a low bar for “persecution.”
He tries. First, he digs out the claim that the IRS targeted nonprofits for their ideological perspective. Unfortunately for Krauthammer, that’s been debunked repeatedly — the real story is much more complicated.
There’s also a prominent conservative donor’s theory that his activism resulted in two IRS audits. But as Mother Jones reported, that donor happens to run a company that’s “had a run-in with federal regulators for allegedly making false claims” about its products — and that’s been called “little more than a pyramid scheme.” There’s zero evidence that the audits had anything to do with his political activism.
Krauthammer builds most of his case on Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich’s resignation. The problem here is that it was the company’s employees, not outside “zealots,” who first objected to his appointment, and it was Mozilla’s board of directors that determined that if he held the position it might put the firm at a competitive disadvantage given the culture of Silicon Valley. Meanwhile, some of the most prominent advocates of marriage equality rushed to defend Eich.
What we’re left with is a columnist embracing the kind of thin skin that led billionaire Tom Perkins to compare criticism of Wall Street with Kristallnacht, or Charles Koch to tell Forbes, “So long as we’re in a society… where the president attacks us and we get threats from people in Congress, and this is pushed out and becomes part of the culture… then why force people to disclose?” (In an earlier column, Krauthammer characterized a petition urging The Washington Post to stop publishing climate change denialism — which, it should be noted, The Post ignored — as “totalitarian” and a “show of intolerance.”)
But the fatal flaw in Krauthammer’s argument is that he misses the forest for the trees: while other forms of speech persuade, money corrupts. The truth is, many progressives were uncomfortable about Eich’s resignation under pressure, but ultimately Krauthammer’s “persecution” is mostly people signing petitions or using social media to express their own opinions. Being targeted by activists may not be pleasant, and can lead to real-world consequences, but it’s unconscionable to use that as an excuse to oppose stronger disclosure laws.
As Bill Moyers and Michael Winship wrote this week, the threat that torrents of anonymous cash poses to our democracy raises the stakes too high.
Recently, researchers at Connecticut’s Trinity College ploughed through the data and concluded that the US Senate is responsive to the policy preferences of the rich, ignoring the poor. And now there’s that big study coming out in the fall from scholars at Princeton and Northwestern universities, based on data collected between 1981 and 2002. Their conclusion: “America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened… The preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.” Instead, policy tends “to tilt toward the wishes of corporations and business and professional associations.”
With the current Supreme Court, disclosure is one of the few tools we have left to check that headlong slide toward plutocracy.
Louis Brandeis said that the best remedy for speech with which we disagree is more speech. Krauthammer wants it both ways — he thinks the wealthiest Americans should have the right to speak with their dollars, but doesn’t want us to be able to talk back to them with our activism.