Politics is an arena in which there are many gray areas, but, because it can simultaneously benefit the good guys and the bad guys, "dark money" may be the grayest of all.
Dark money is anonymous contributions used to fund partisan campaigns, either directly in appeals to vote for or against a particular candidate or indirectly through advocacy on behalf of or in opposition to a cause.
Liberals generally are determined to stamp out dark money, while conservatives tend to be worried about the potential for suppressing unpopular political speech. Both sides have philosophical and practical considerations behind their arguments.
The good side
Transparency in campaign finance is always a good thing. Voters have a right to know who a candidate depends upon for contributions because that provides a roadmap for how he or she is likely to vote if elected.
This may be the major point on which there is the most widespread agreement among liberals and conservatives. Everybody benefits when politicians have to disclose all of their funders.
Full disclosure is backed by The Wall Street Journal editorial page, The American Prospect and just about everybody else in between.
The bad side
It's not so simple, however, when the dark money is funding political advocacy by non-candidates. Liberals are crusading now to force donors to 501(c)(4) nonprofits to be disclosed.
Their point is that voters should know if advocacy on behalf of or against a particular government program or public policy proposal benefits the funder of that advocacy.
Or, to come at it from an angle that gets too little attention in this debate, does a bill before Congress give a senator or representative the power to extort contributions from successful businesses? Peter Schweitzer's recent book on this theme ought to be a wakeup call for everybody.
The ugly side
All of that said, there remains the reality that anonymity is sometimes essential to the protection of unpopular political speech.
The Supreme Court recognized this reality in its 1958 NAACP v. Alabama decision that affirmed the civil rights organization's need to protect its donors from segregationist violence. The court also recognized the due process and equal protection of the law aspects of protecting anonymous speech.
The same concern is an ever-present reality for highly visible donors to controversial proposals like Soros and the Kochs. Death threats are an all-too-familiar reality for such individuals, regardless of where they stand on the ideological spectrum.
Dark money is a tough issue that ought not be decided on the basis of cliches or political expediency. But if the First Amendment is to be upheld as the Founders intended, it is a circle that must be squared, somehow.
On today's washingtonexaminer.com
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New Republic: Liberals have a problem with bright, shiny objects.
UTNE Reader: The dangerous return of water privatization.
Powerline: The Dave Camp tax proposal and Republican reform.
Marginal Revolution: What I worry about.
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