Is Anonymity the Enemy of Democracy?

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          Democracy in Athens, as practiced in the 5th century B.C., was far from perfect. Aristotle and Thucydides were both keen observers of the Athenian democracy and understood that the city's politics were in fact run by a small elite of wealthy males, who were able to deliberate and vote on important matters because of the vast numbers of the poor, called Sixth-Parts-tenants, who labored daily in the fields as virtual slaves on behalf of the elite. In addition, slaves, non-citizens and women were denied the right to participate in the Athenian model of democracy.


             There 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.

             To 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 influence. 

             There 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 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 monikers.

             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, 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."

             The Times 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."

             Equally 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 elections."  

            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.

             There 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.



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