Among the many phrases that have become popular in the social networking age, few capture today’s information overload as well as “too much information”, often abbreviated as “TMI” for those in the know. And in the age of Facebook, too many of us are “in the know” about too many people’s personal details. Whether candid pictures or embarrassing personal details, there are few taboos that seem to exist anymore.
In a way, this is a cultural outgrowth from our founding fathers and the Constitution they created. Those early political thinkers were influenced by the monarchies and church/state collusion found throughout Europe at the time. They, and those who followed, created a system of government based upon the idea that power should be distributed, and voters would make informed decisions based upon access to information.
Those principles are widely admired in the abstract, but difficult to attain in practice, and when looking at elections today there are a number of worrying trends.
During last summer’s recall campaign of Governor Walker, a number of Wisconsin voters were upset to receive a mailing sent by a pro-labor group which seemed to have a record of whether the household had voted during the initial gubernatorial election. A few weeks ago, I had a similar experience when a neighbor showed up at our door taking a survey for one of the political parties and said he was working off of a list of people who “had voted in the past” for that party.
I am fairly certain that when the architects of our democracy emphasized accountability and access to information, they were not intending for neighbors to have their voting history publicized. Yet as it turns out, there is an increasing trend across the U.S. for your voting history – specifically if you voted in an election or primary, not who you voted for – to be a matter of public record. Many voters find this to be, in a word, creepy.
Perhaps you would think that with all this open access to information in our electoral system it would be easy to find who is financially supporting the avalanche of tawdry political commercials we’ve been inundated with this year. I jest! If you’ve read this far then you’re too smart for that.
You can’t talk about elections without talking about money, and you can’t talk about political money without talking about Political Action Committees, also known as PACs. In the flurry of court decisions around money and elections, the PAC, and its new, improved version, the “Super PAC”, have become a way to funnel huge donor dollars into issue ads and various forms of advocacy that is both legal and shrouded in mystery.
When you see an ad on television, you may see that the ad is sponsored by a certain Political Action Committee. The names of the PACs appear to be created by the same people who create names for the mutual funds in your 401k, for example “Restore Our Future” (conservative) or Priorities USA Action (liberal). Actually, comparing PACs to mutual funds is unfair to the mutual funds themselves since most fund managers would kill to manage the cash assets of today’s big PACs.
So although the advertisement’s creator has to divulge who paid for the ad (good), and the PAC has to divulge where their money comes from (also good), there is a new trick where the PAC can raise money from murky non-profit entities that – surprise! – don’t have to report where their money is coming from, making the other disclosures of dubious value.
Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert skewered all of this by creating an actual Super PAC that he called “Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow”. Like actual political PACs, Colbert also created – legally and on the air – a Delaware-based non-profit which could hide the source of corporate money he sought to raise. He cleverly named the non-profit entity “Anonymous Shell Corporation”, and said in addition to political ads, the PACs money would be spent on “normal administrative expenses, including but not limited to, luxury hotel stays, private jet travel, and PAC mementos from Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus.”
I sometimes wonder what our founding fathers would make of all this. What if, for instance, James Madison was to appear before us, and we had to explain our current system to him? I don’t know about you, but I would squirm uncomfortably during the explanation. I suspect he would be stupefied by a generation in which the Supreme Court has established that money equals speech and corporations are people, and he would be disappointed that while voters can’t “follow the money”, their voting history is public.
I do, however, think he would find both Stephen Colbert and Facebook to be pretty cool.
Published October, 2012.