is one aspect of Athenian democracy, however, that is worthy of
emulation. Every Athenian citizen had a voice in the highest forum of
the nation, the ecclesia or assembly, that met
four times each month. On major occasions, when important issues were to
be decided, as many as 5000 citizens were known to have attended. Any
citizen was permitted to answer the herald's question "Who wishes to
speak?" After everyone who wished to speak had been heard, the matter
before the assembly was then put to a binding vote and became the
government's official policy.
the present, a somewhat similar kind of open, deliberative debate
process still survives in New England Town meetings: one in which
publicly identified citizens express their opinions on matters of policy
and town budgets, and are supported or challenged by other publicly
identified citizens who debate the issues at hand. After
the conclusion of debate, the proposed policies are then put of a vote
in which each participant has an equal stake in the outcome and equal
are, of course, important differences in the town meeting model. Unlike
Athenian democracy, the number of those eligible to participate in the
process is significantly larger, given the enactment of the 13th and the
19th amendments to the U.S. Constitution. In addition, the
time for debate is more abbreviated. Further, as the economic and time
pressures upon voting age men and women have increased, and overall
civic engagement has declined, participation in town meetings has
continued to decrease. Thus, the continued vitality of these town
meetings is now in question.
This model of open, participatory democracy is also increasingly under challenge as a result of the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U.S. 310 (2010) and the decision of the D.C. Court of Appeals in SpeechNow.org v. Federal Election Commission, 599 F.3d 686 (D.C. Cir. 2010) . Since those two infamous court rulings, a plethora of 501(c)(3) and (4) PACs and Super PACs have
emerged which threaten to further undermine this country's democratic
pretenses. If not curbed, this ominous development will solidify the
transformation of the United States into a plutocracy dominated by a
small elite who, as a result of the vast wealth, have the ability to
control the outcome of events through the funneling of hundreds of
millions of dollars through anonymous entities with patriotic sounding
The Wall Street Journal
reports that Super PACs alone spent $567,498,628 was in 2012 to
influence the outcomes of the Congressional and Presidential elections.
Predictions are that the sums of money spent by PACs and Super PACs will
continue to increase exponentially in each successive election cycle. To cite just one example, OpenSecrets.org has reported 1,310 registered PACs had raised $828,224,595 as of July 2013.
A New York Times
editorial on February 15, 2014 noted that Federal law currently limits
individual contributions to a candidate for federal office to $2,600 per
person. The editors observed that the easiest way to get around that
limit "is to give the money to the candidate's 'super PAC,' where no
limits apply, to pay for attack ads against the candidate's opponent."
added, "That's the path chosen by John Childs, a private-equity
investor, who gave $250,000 to Senator Mitch McConnell's super PAC,
Kentuckians for Strong Leadership. (Could it have anything to do with
Mr. McConnell's staunch opposition to a tax increase on hedge fund
managers, favored by President Obama and Democrats?) Joseph Craft, a
billionaire coal executive, gave $100,000, and Donald Trump gave $50,000
to the same group."
disturbing, although Super PACs are required to ultimately disclose the
identities of their contributors, under current rules their identities
can be shielded from public scrutiny by creating a string of entities
within entities within entities, including LLCs upon LLCs. Gail Ablow in
Moyers & Company ("On the Money: The Koch Brothers' Dark Money Network Keeps Growing," January 7, 2014) describes an investigation by the
nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics that found 17 interconnected
groups backed by the Koch brothers and other conservative donors was
able to raise $407 million in an effort to influence the 2012 campaign.
Ablow quotes Mattea Gold of The Washington Post: "Its
funders remain largely unknown. The coalition was carefully constructed
with extensive legal barriers to shield its donors." Ablow concludes
that "This opaque network is in gear again to attack the new health care
law, kill environmental regulations, and impact the 2014 midterm
Is there any way to reverse this trend? While
the signs are ominous, the Athenian model of transparent, public
disclosure by actors may yet provide part of a possible remedy.
is no provision in the First Amendment that prevents the Federal
Communications Commission, the Federal Election Commission, and the
Internal Revenue Service from requiring, as part of their administrative
rule-making, three things of every 501(c )(3) or (4) entity: (1) that
all PACs and Super PACs must provide, as part of the registration
process, and with monthly updates to each such agency, a complete list
of all human beings (as opposed to non-natural or artificial legal
persons) who directly or indirectly, with labor or money, have
contributed to that entity; (2) that all such registered entities, at
the time they release any studies, policy papers or political
advertising, must also disclose as a part of that release, the names of
each and every human being who has contributed directly or
indirectly to that effort; (3) and that the names and addresses of all
such human beings simultaneously be made available in a searchable
database on each agency's website.
Private media, including social media, can also strike a blow for open, deliberative democracy. Nothing, other than investor's jitters, prevents existing media sites, including social media, from requiring that every responder or blogger, as a condition of participation, must include, as a part of any communication, a link that accurately identifies the person and provides a brief biography.
Anonymity in all of its forms is the enemy of democracy; transparency, identification and accountability advance the public good. When individuals are permitted to influence political discussions and elections anonymously, whether through PACS or on blogs, democracy suffers as the public discourse inevitably becomes more shrill, more caustic, more negative, more mean-spirited. Civility in public discourse is more likely to be assured when every participant knows the real identity of every other person who is engaged in a political discussion.