Slate.com’s “The GOP’s War Against Facts” by Dahlia Lithwick and Raymond Vasvari puts the high beams on a fundamental change in American politics that you’re not going to hear much about in the traditional broadcast and print media. Subtitled “The truth became dangerous for the Republican Party when it ran out of arguments,” Vasvari and Lithwick open their case with a point about the much-noted “decline of reasoned discourse in America”:
…The real end of civic discourse can be traced to the new conservative argument that facts themselves are dangerous…It’s a dangerous contention not just for what it hides, but also for what it reveals: a lack of any other arguments…First Mitt Romney–interviewing for the position of president–declined to release his tax returns because, as he explained, the Obama team’s opposition research will “pick over it” and “distort and lie about them.” He isn’t actually claiming that his opponents will lie. He’s claiming he’s entitled to hide the truth because it could be used against him. As Jon Stewart put it, “You can’t release your returns, because if you do, the Democrats will be mean to you.” These are tax returns. Factual documents. No different than, say, a birth certificate. But the GOP’s argument that inconvenient facts can be withheld from public scrutiny simply because they can be used for mean purposes is a radical idea in a democracy. It has something of a legal pedigree as well.
Probably not coincidentally, last week Senate Republicans filibustered the DISCLOSE Act–a piece of legislation many of them once supported–again on the grounds that Democrats might someday use ugly facts against conservatives. The principal objection to the law is that nasty Democrats would like to know who big secret donors are in order to harass, boycott, and intimidate them. The law requires that unions, corporations, and nonprofit organizations report campaign-related spending over $10,000 within 24 hours, and to name donors who give more than $10,000 for political purposes. Even though eight of the nine justices considering McCain-Feingold in Citizens United believed that disclosure is integral to a functioning democracy, the idea that facts about donors are dangerous things is about the only argument Senate Republicans can muster…
Lithwick and Vasvari quote Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell whining that “This amounts to nothing more than member and donor harassment and intimidation” and relate it to identical language used in Republican efforts to prevent a California ruling that the state had a compelling interest public disclosure of campaign contributions.” The authors add:
The California case was brought by James Bopp, a conservative Indiana lawyer, who has relentlessly challenged campaign disclosure laws in the courts with only limited success. Mitch McConnell borrowed a page from his playbook last week when he warned that forcing deeply established and well-funded groups to make their donations in the bright light of day would invariably bring howling mobs to their doors. In an effort to do away with transparency, McConnell needs to paint an apocalyptic image of wealthy donors in fear for their very lives. Enemies lists! Intimidation! Nixon!!!!
..There is a shameful irony in Mitch McConnell and James Bopp attempting to shield the political contributions of the well-funded establishment–indeed, in the senator’s case, the economic elite–from public gaze through a doctrine meant to protect the weak and disenfranchised; cynically invoking the legacy of the Edmund Pettus Bridge to let the Koch brothers write their massive checks in private. Overheated rhetoric about violent protest and “enemies lists” is supported by no factual showing. It’s a fantasy used to obscure the truth about who is buying and selling our candidates and state referendums.
Three years ago, James Bopp sued the state of Washington, seeking to prohibit the disclosure of names on a ballot initiative that would have put the question of repealing domestic partner benefits just extended to same sex couples to a vote. In 2010, the Supreme Court rejected the plaintiffs’ claim that making the names of those who sign petitions public always threatens to silence political speech because signatories might fear retribution.
Eight justices rejected that argument, none of them so strongly as Justice Scalia, whose distaste for political anonymity lead him to write separately a warning that merits repetition here, both with respect to the DISCLOSE Act, and the argument that truth must be hidden because some people may be mean someday.
There are laws against threats and intimidation; and harsh criticism, short of unlawful action, is a price our people have traditionally been willing to pay for self-governance. Requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed.
Someone should tell Mitch McConnell.
McConnell’s whining is about what you would expect from a leader of a political party that has run out of fresh ideas. For Dems, however, the challenge is to put full disclosure of all large-scale campaign contributions in the forefront of voter priorities.