The founders and the 501(c)(4)s

We honor fifty-six men today who were unafraid of being known although they knew their lives were at risk and an enemy was nearby. We should ask ourselves today how poorly we are keeping faith with them.

Your observer is intrigued by the idea advanced by some that people giving large sums of money to organizations that influence political decisions should be protected while the people on my quiet street who might give twenty dollars to a campaign cannot hide.

The issue came up late in the regular legislative session when some senators defending a colleague who was personally attacked by a dark money political action committee tried to pass a bill requiring such committees to disclose their donors.  Regular campaign committees have to list their donors in filings with the Missouri Ethics Commission.  But the Super PACs, as they’re called, are formed for people who don’t want anybody to know who they are or how much they give. And these organizations appear to attract big-money donations that can finance anonymous personal attacks on other individuals in the political system or influence leaders to see things their ways.

Defenders of the dark money organizations say the secret organizations are necessary to protect donors from political retaliation.  It’s a freedom of speech matter, they say; these people would not be free to express their political positions if they had to do so publicly.

That’s kind of hard for the twenty-dollar donor who lives next door to understand.  How is it that somebody who lives in a big mansion can afford MORE freedom of speech than the people who live on my street in nice but modest homes can afford?  Are not we all equal under the First Amendment?

Apparently not in today’s political climate.  Twenty dollars donated to a candidate or a cause requires your name be on a list that your neighbors of differing political beliefs can see.  And if the candidate you support makes irresponsible claims, you can be held partly responsible.  On the other hand, if your candidate shows inspirational leadership, you can take some of the credit.

It takes courage to donate twenty dollars in the sunshine.  Cowardice lurks in the dark where much bigger donations flow. Our nation was not born in such cowardice.

Let us ponder how different our nation would be today if fifty-six men in 1776 anonymously issued a broadside accusing King George III of all kinds of awful things. Suppose the accusations carried the tag line, “Paid for by Citizens for Free Colonies,” an eighteenth century Super PAC that was not required to file any reports showing who was behind the attack.

But they didn’t do it.  Various sources estimating the wealth of those 56 signers show Oliver Wolcott, John Witherspoon, George Walton, Robert Treat Paine, and Samuel Adams were estimated to be worth 100 British Pounds in 1776.  University of Wyoming professor Eric Nye, on his Pounds Sterling to Dollars: Historical Conversion of Currency website, calculates those five men would be worth $16,358 today.  On the other end, Charles Carroll III of Carrollton, Maryland and Robert Morris of Pennsylvania were worth 110,000 British Pounds in 1776 (http://www.raken.com/american_wealth/encyclopedia/1776.asp), which Nye calculates would be just short of $18 million today.  John Hancock of Massachusetts, whose signature is the boldest, was the third wealthiest at about $12.8 million in today’s money.

Five men who were well below today’s poverty level were joined by men who could buy my entire neighborhood in speaking freely to absolute power.  And they knew full well what “political retaliation” could await them.

Fifty-six men who knew they were risking the noose or the firing squad were unafraid to let it be known what they were supporting politically. They were unafraid to pledge their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor.

Our founders had the courage to proclaim their positions in the most public manner of their times. We became a nation because rich men and poor men, those living in privilege and those living in poverty, alike shared the personal courage to speak freely and openly.

What kind of people have we become that some of us are so afraid of “political retaliation” that is so mild compared to what our founders risked? What kind of people have we become that we will tolerate the argument that freedom of speech, the freedom to criticize those we elect, as well as the freedom to support those we select, should place those who can afford to attack from the darkness into a protected status?

Dare we continue to tolerate the noise from unknown voices in that darkness, and their defenders, and allow them to overcome the quiet sound of quill pens writing signatures on our founding document if we are to consider ourselves true descendants of those fifty-six men who had the courage to stand in the light?

Let me know what you think......