What obscurity do we reserve for political donors?

On Monday, Joaquin Castro, the Congressional representative for San Antonio, Texas, tweeted this:

As a result, a call for his impeachment is trending on Twitter with some 50,000 tweets (though many of them are bots) and even people like New York Times journalist Maggie Haberman thinks Castro went too far in identifying these people en masse via his Twitter platform. People are saying that Castro has “doxxed” these residents of San Antonio. They’re saying people shouldn’t be “intimidated” because of their political views. People, the critics say, should be able to participate in the political process without fear of repercussions.

To which I say: Nonsense.

As a society, we decided to make these types of contributions to political campaigns public for a reason. We simply have to know where the money is coming from. Not only because we need to know if the money is coming from outside the United States or in larger sums than is allowed, but because this is how politics works: We support candidates because we think they’re going to improve our own lives and the lives of the people we care about.

If someone I trust or think highly of chooses to support a particular candidate, that resonates with me. If they choose to support a different candidate, that resonates with me as well. If a candidate is supported by certain people, that resonates with me. If they aren’t, that might resonate more.

Now, the counter-argument to that is that public FEC filings were never supposed to work quite this way. In the days of paper and everything being in big metal filing cabinets, if we wanted to know who contributed to whom, we had go to an actual place and make an actual request and look through actual pieces of paper.

Now that it’s all databased and on the internet and easily searchable, we’ve eliminated a particular obscurity and made things much less private, allowing for rollups of names and businesses like Castro’s that we perhaps didn’t envision before.

Woody Hartzog probably makes this argument the best. You can get a flavor of it here (from 2013, but the fundamentals haven’t changed, which tells you a lot about privacy policymaking in the U.S.):

So, it basically boils down to an ethical balancing test: Does the obscurity (privacy) of the political donors outweigh the people’s right to know that the businesses they are frequenting are donating money to the President of the United States?

On the side of the “good” being done by Castro: We have, in the President of the United States, the head of a campaign that frequently talks about the “invasion” of the United States at the southern border. If you’d like to see just how often the campaign talks about it, you should check out this amazing ad-tracking tool for Facebook and Instagram: ad.watch. With it, you can see just how many ads the Trump campaign is running, where, and with what exact language. Here’s some data from my little state of Maine:

Trump Invasion Ad stats

This “invasion” rhetoric was espoused by the man who just traveled to El Paso, a border city, and targeted Latinx people, killing more than 20 people and injuring more. By publishing the names of businesses who have contributed to that campaign, you allow people to decide not to fund that exact campaign by giving money to those businesses. This supports the public’s right to know how campaigns are being funded, who in their community is contributing to a campaign they might not want to support, and gives people political power in that they can “vote with their dollars,” as the phrase goes.

I think that is significant good. Obviously that “good” is debatable. If you think we’re ACTUALLY being “invaded,” you will have a different opinion. If you have that opinion, I’m not sure we’re experiencing the same reality. Or maybe you’re arguing that “invasion” is some kind of euphemism, and that Trump doesn’t REALLY think we’re being invaded, he’s just using the term for effect. If that’s your argument, I’d ask you to head down to El Paso and ask them if they think words matter.

Now let’s look at the harm: Those who argue that publishing this list of names goes “too far” argue that these people are largely not public figures. That they may be targeted by Trump’s political opponents with violence. Maybe their stores would be vandalized. Or they would receive online threats of some kind. Worse, maybe people would come to their homes to commit violence.

That would certainly represent significant political harm.

But those are all illegal acts. Neither Castro nor anyone publicly supporting him has espoused that people should take this information and commit illegal acts.

Opponents argue that whether they espouse it or not, it could happen. But they don’t present evidence that Trump’s opponents have any sort of history of committing violence against their political opponents. Where are the mass shootings accompanied by anti-Trump manifestos? Where is the evidence of large-scale (or even small-scale) violence against Trump supporters or donors? Where is the incitement to violence that’s even comparable to using a term like “invasion”?

If you’re pointing to Sarah Sanders getting asked to leave a restaurant (or ridiculed in public) or someone spitting in a Trump son’s food or something, I think you’re being disingenuous.

No, rather, the harm these businesses are likely to suffer is a lack of revenue from people choosing not to do business with them (if even that happens). Which is how this is all supposed to work, right? Don’t we make these things public so that people are accountable for their political speech? Isn’t it basically a priori at this point that you have the right to free speech but not the right to a lack of consequences for that speech in the public political discourse?

Further, I’d argue that owning a business, and having the means to make $2,000 contributions to a political campaign makes you a public figure in the first place. My personal annual revenue at my little business puts me in the top 10 percent of all earners in Maine, and I could never afford to give $2,000 to a political candidate. These are extreme political actors, which makes them more than fair game for public scrutiny.

In this case, I think the ethical balancing test pretty clearly leans more toward good than harm. I’d love to hear an argument for the opposite. I think this concept of “obscurity” is incredibly interesting. I think social media and the publishing of public records online has seriously harmed lots of people. But, in this case, I think this is the transparency we need to keep our democracy intact.

Sam Pfeifle