Perennial campaign-finance scold Fred Wertheimer from Democracy 21 has never seen a speech restriction he didn’t like. So it comes as no surprise that Wertheimer recently published an opinion piece on CNN.com declaring the Super PACs are, in his words, “a disaster for democracy” and an “unmitigated disaster.” Why? Well, because Super PACs let certain people speak more than Wertheimer likes. So his proposed answer is to resurrect the long-dead DISCLOSE Act from the grave in order to get those disfavored speakers to shut up.
In its most-recent incarnation, the DISCLOSE Act would force independent groups—whose speech does not raise any specter of corruption—to list their top five contributors in each advertisement. And it would require the head of those groups to appear on camera and say that their organization approved the message. If those provisions seem pointless because 1) Super PACs already disclose the identity of their contributors and 2) the group wouldn’t have put out the advertisement unless it agreed with its message, you’re right. The dirty secret of this DISCLOSE Act, like its predecessor, is that it’s not about information; it’s about chilling speech. As my colleague Paul Sherman previously noted, “For the reform lobby, the fact that some groups might stop speaking rather than comply with these new burdens is a feature, not a bug.”
The chance that this newest speech-squelching legislation will become law is between slim and none, and slim just left town. That’s a good thing; although Wertheimer complains that Super PACs let “a relatively few super-rich individuals and other wealthy interests to have greatly magnified and undue influence over the results of our elections,” that view betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of how elections actually work.
The speech police see voters as empty vessels that candidates and groups can hoodwink and manipulate. That condescending view of the American electorate, however, is just plain wrong. Instead, the whole purpose of political campaigns is persuasion. Candidates and groups can only present information and arguments to the public. It is ultimately the voter who weighs that information and decides whom to cast a ballot for. Super PACs help improve democracy by giving voters another source of information to consider.
It’s odd to say that people can be made better off by limiting the voices they can hear from and consider, but that’s the argument that Wertheimer and his ilk make. Fortunately for Americans, “[t]he First Amendment confirms the freedom to think for ourselves” and to hear from everyone, Super PACs included.