Anonymous Funds and The Founding Fathers

AnonymousThe 2010 midterm elections have been marked not only by unprecedented amounts of anonymous corporate spending, but also piously patriotic defenses of these potentially corrupting expenditures. What would the Constitution's framers have really thought about unlimited amounts of anonymous corporate dollars influencing American elections?

Republicans conjure the Founding Fathers when defending secret corporate spending in elections, pointing out that The Federalist Papers, a series of essays originally published in newspapers, were written anonymously. Considering right-wing claims of constitutional scholarship, it is surprising that they cannot come up with something more compelling than this isolated example, much less an example at all related to corporate, rather than individual, speech. Besides, there is no way to know whether James Madison would have sided with the East India Company's "right" to secrecy if it were buying newspaper ads attacking the ratification of the Constitution.

Despite the GOP's professed patriotism, it should be obvious that right-wingers are invoking a supposedly unlimited right to anonymity to protect their corporate benefactors from the economic risks of boycott. Although they may claim “our political system is a direct by-product of anonymous political speech,” informed citizen boycotts of corporations are just as much a part of America’s history as newspaper essays written anonymously by individual persons.

Remember the original Tea Party, pre-Koch Industries? The “party” on December 16, 1773, where colonial activists threw tea into the Boston harbor, was the culmination of a four-month-long boycott of the East India Company, one of the largest multi-national corporations of the time. The East India Company was extremely cozy with the British government, and because the corporation was having financial difficulties, Parliament granted it a trade monopoly in the American colonies -- essentially a bailout for the troubled corporation. Although the corporate protest was fueled by a variety of issues, the East India Company bore the brunt of colonial rage in large part due to the corporation’s close relationship with the British government.

With this in mind, it seems likely that the Founding Fathers would have wanted an active, informed citizenry to apply their market-based power to effect political change. While anonymity of individual citizens is worthy of protection in many cases, secrecy when purchasing electoral influence is not healthy for a democracy. Even if secrecy gives corporatist politicians keys to the political kingdom, it conceals the enormous influence that the wealthiest corporations may have over some politicians and policies, allowing these companies to affect the outcome of our elections without fearing backlash from the people to whom this democracy belongs.

It is hard to imagine the architects of our constitutional democracy siding with the very kinds of monopolisitic or oligarchical interests they and their fellow citizens had rejected in our Revolutionary War. It is obvious why pro-corporate politicians on the right favor anonymity for their corporate benefactors, but it is rather disgusting for them to claim constitutional or historical legitimacy for this radical change in our elections.


Money laundering gets hung out to dry in this recent indictment: Briefly, a few large donors who wanted to protect legal gambling in Alabama paid big bucks to many PACs. Then lobbyists who conveniently ran many PACs handed over big donations to friendly lawmakers as separate checks from several PACs, to conceal the actual donor's identity.

There is an exellent book by Pulitzer Prize winning author, Gordon S. Wood, called "Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different". One of the main points of the book is how the founding fathers held the ideal of "dis-interestedness" of utmost importance in a leaders' character. And they lived it. Hamilton and Jefferson, while disagreeing on many issues, respected each other for this quality. No conflicts of interest, no personal agenda. Rather, the wellbeing of the citizens and the nation, being what matters. George Washington showed this quality when he quickly retired after the revolution was won. Then he retired from the presidency, surprising many who thought he should hold the office for life. After being asked, he later reluctantly took on the mantle of military leader again, and then once more retired. He would never have wanted to be perceived as someone seeking power, wealth, fame, recognition, or privileges of office. How things change.

George Washington came out retirement to forcefully put down a tax payers rebellion in Western Massachusetts. He agreed with Madison, Hamilton, Jay et al. that landowners ought rule the country, not the "Great Beast" (Hamilton) i.e. the masses, the people. I wouldn't say that was a very "democratic" attitude, however one may conjure up, an overall attitude of the country's "fathers" a la Gordon S. Wood. The "founding fathers" gave birth to the nation, but the nation still has a lot of growing up to do.

I love to point out that when the "Right-Wing" invokes the Founding Fathers, they conveniently overlook (or disregard) their warnings; i.e. Madison's Federalist #51 "...if all men were angels, no government would be necessary"