Campaign finance disclosure provisions, though still woefully limited in many instances, exist to inform voters and the general public about who is funding politicians and political speech generally. Disclosure is a critical component of our democracy, helping us to better understand efforts to influence our discourse and our votes.
Even the unfortunate majority opinion in the Citizens United case, authored by now-retired Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, found value in disclosure, noting that transparency in regards to political speech “enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages.”
Information about who donates to political campaigns is publically and readily available through the Federal Elections Commission. That’s a good thing. But access to that information, especially in today’s online climate of vitriol and harassment, necessitates that we all approach and share that information responsibly and with an understanding of how it might be used.
Democratic Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas — whose twin brother, Julián, is running for the Democratic presidential nomination — sparked deserved controversy last week when he tweeted a list of 44 people in the city of San Antonio, part of which he represents, who contributed the maximum amount to President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign.
After a torrent of criticism — much of it from conservatives and some of it surely based in political opportunism — Castro insisted that his sharing the unquestionably public information amounted to a “lament” that his constituents would support the president, rather than an attempt to target them for their political beliefs and financial support.
Castro is not wrong that this information was already public, and is often shared. But the way that he shared it, especially in an already-on-edge political climate, was irresponsible.
Even campaign finance reform and disclosure advocates like Fred Wertheimer of nonprofit Democracy 21 expressed caution about Castro’s tactic.
“I’m not sure Mr. Castro’s simply throwing out the names of people with no ties to specific policy issues is helpful in this day and age of social media,” Wertheimer said, according to The New York Times.
Highlighting Trump donor information in this way, as if to shame them simply for donating money to the (extremely flawed) president of the United States, is not a productive or smart use of the campaign finance information we have access too. That is doubly true in a climate where leaders, including Castro, are not hesitating to place the blame for violent action at the feet of political opponents.
If political rhetoric has the power to incite anger, hatred and violence — both online and in our communities — that power is not limited to one political party or ideology.
“A big question is, has the internet changed that calculus?” Richard L. Hasen, a professor of law and political science at the University of California, Irvine, told the Times. “The general conservative view is that conservatives are being targeted for their general views and that there’s a lot of harassment going on.”
Of course, there is an important distinction between unpleasant debate and criticism, and actual harassment and threats.
“If we see that people whose donations are highlighted publicly are being harassed, that’s a reason to be concerned,” Hasen continued. “If the concern is someone will have a nasty tweet sent to them because of them being named by Castro, well, welcome to the real world.”
Castro and many others rightly point to the large megaphone that Trump wields to spread division as part of a cynical, dangerous political strategy. If they truly believe his words have the power — not only to excuse hate, but to inspire and perpetuate it — then they must realize that their words carry a similar power. Their megaphone may be smaller, but they still must use it responsibly. Calling out individual Trump donors for no apparent reason other than to shame them falls well short of that standard.