Ciara Torres-Spelliscy of the Brennan Center has an article in The Hill in which she invokes Ronald Regan’s famous dictum “trust but verify” in support of more disclosure laws for those who spend money on political ads. It may seem overwrought to compare spending on political speech with nuclear arms races, but I suppose a writer’s got to find their metaphors where they can.
More to the point, Ms. Torres-Spelliscy’s central claim—that “the voting public cannot tell who is paying for a growing percentage of political ads, leaving them in the dark about who is trying to sway their vote”—is just not true.
In fact, it’s exceedingly easy to figure out who is trying to sway your vote in each election. All you have to do is examine the issues and think a little. Businesses tend to oppose high taxes and regulation, especially those that impact their own industries. Labor unions support policies, like collective bargaining, for example, that benefit them. Ideological and policy groups take positions that are consistent with their world views.
If you aren’t sure how particular policies impact the various interest groups and industries out there, there are plenty of sources of that information available, from newspapers and magazines, to talk radio, to television news programs, to blogs and other websites, to your friends, neighbors, and colleagues. There is so much information out there about politics and policy these days that you really have to work hard to ignore it.
This is probably the reason that few people ever check state or federal campaign finance reports. Even the media don’t report that information very often, other than when it is particularly relevant—such as when disclosure itself is a hot topic. This would seem to indicate that there isn’t a huge demand for this information. That’s not surprising, as you can easily evaluate a message without knowing who the messenger is or who funds him.
But disclosure laws have always been more about attacking the messenger than evaluating the message. Criticizing the Chamber of Commerce for failing to disclose all of its funding sources or the tea parties because they’ve received funding from the Koch brothers is a lot easier than rebutting their arguments.
People are of course free to make ad hominem arguments if they want, but it’s not at all clear why the government should support their efforts with disclosure laws. Ms. Torres-Spelliscy claims that “we’re told to trust, but can’t verify,” but that’s wrong on both counts. The truth is, we are free to decide for ourselves what to trust and perfectly able to verify it. The First Amendment “confirms the freedom to think for ourselves,” as the Supreme Court put it in Citizens United, but it doesn’t appoint the government to do our thinking for us.
“Trust but verify” is a clever slogan, but the better approach is to verify or don’t trust and to take the responsibility to do both of those things yourself.