Political Front Groups Have It Backward
U.S. Political front groups that don’t have to disclose donors’ identities are inherently unethical. Pro or con?
Pro: An Un-American Affront
Political front groups, which prosper by misleading the public on their true motivation and intent, corrupt U.S. politics and are a disservice to the electorate. Without full disclosure of donors’ identities or of the motivating factors behind specific attacks and messages, front groups represent an insidious attack on the public’s trust.
The core issue is not the legality of front groups—both Congress and the Supreme Court permit their existence—but rather the ethical implications they pose.
As the PRSA Code of Ethics states, open communication is essential for informed decisionmaking in a democratic society. Without it we tarnish the foundation upon which our society is built: the free flow of accurate and truthful information.
Wrapping themselves in a cloak of anonymity may work for front groups while they have the law on their side, but it can lead to radical action and inflammatory comments that only serve to diminish the public’s esteem for politicians and the American political system.
Would front groups advance such extreme, and often misleading, positions if those providing the funding had to disclose themselves and their motivations? With the names of donors publicly disclosed, would they vet information more closely, thus better serving the public’s interest?
While politicians have rarely engendered a high level of citizen trust, associating themselves with front groups aimed at usurping open and honest communications with the public is even more of a detriment to faith in the system.
Only truth and full disclosure can restore historically low trust in politicians. Most front groups lack both.
Con: A Venerable Tradition
To call organizations that engage in political speech while protecting the identities of their donors “front groups” that are “inherently unethical” ignores our nation’s rich history of political speech. When Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay published the Federalist Papers, a series of essays that shaped the debate regarding ratification of the U.S. Constitution, they did so anonymously under the pseudonym of “Publius.” These founding fathers’ words and arguments have stood the test of time and remain essential texts for all who seek to understand our Constitution and our form of government.
The writers of the Federalist Papers count as just one example of anonymous pamphleteers who existed at our nation’s founding. Anonymous political speech is a key component of the American system of government. Today groups that include Citizens United, American Action Network, and Crossroads GPS carry on this tradition, engaging in political speech without disclosing the identity of their members. They choose anonymity in order to protect individuals’ right to engage in speech without fear of reprisal.
This kind of political speech is protected by the First Amendment but for years was criminalized by the McCain-Feingold legislation and by the bureaucrats tasked with enforcing it. The Supreme Court restored this fundamental right to political speech in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. The fact that groups now seek to exercise these restored rights does not make them unethical; it makes them American.