The U.S. Senate today rejected the Disclose Act, a bill that would have violated the privacy of donors and exposed them to threats against their livelihoods, businesses, and very lives.
The proponents of the bill did not lack for colorful (or actually, colorless) metaphors. Proponents have succeeded in persuading the media to call private, confidential donations to political causes as “dark money.” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) called these donations “a dark octopus of corruption and deceit.” Such funds, said Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) are “drowning out the views of citizens” and “disfiguring our democracy.”
This view overlooks the actual threat of disfigurement in this age of cancel culture, doxing, and the normalization of taking protests (and sometimes guns) to the homes of officials, including Supreme Court justices.
Consider what happened in 2009 after California donors who had given $100 or more in favor of a statewide amendment on marriage had their identities disclosed. Common web tools revealed their home addresses and other personal information. With their privacy exposed, donors experienced intimidation, hostility at the workplace, vandalism, slurs, and violence. Donors from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints were systematically targeted by one website. A Lutheran pastor was threatened with gun and firebomb violence.
The power of doxing can work against people of all political persuasions. A website called the Nuremberg files identified roughly 200 abortion providers, along with their personal information, home addresses, phone numbers and photographs. Some physicians targeted in this way were forced to resort to wearing disguises and spending thousands of dollars on home security systems.
Respect for donor privacy has a venerable history based on necessary concerns. In 1958, the U.S. Supreme Court protected the anonymity of donors to the NAACP from being reviewed by the State of Alabama, no doubt protecting those donors from harassment and worse.
Despite the partisan framing and party-line vote on this bill in this election season, people of all ideologies and both parties continue to have a stake in donor privacy. ACLU, hardly a bastion of corporate apologists, has opposed past versions of the Disclose Act. The donors at risk today may be well-heeled or not, but if you think the threat of violence, economic retaliation and social intimidation is not real, you’ve not been paying attention to the current state of the culture.
Today’s vote was a positive development. Next perhaps we can persuade the media to begin referring to the issue as one of “donor privacy” instead of “dark money” surrounded by evil octopi.