Our Banana Republic

Scott Rosenberg over at Salon makes the case that an invisible hand is controlling our elections and we are owed an explanation as to whose it is. There are polar opposite views on the matter coming from The New York Times on the left and The Wall Street Journal on the right but which one is correct if either?

Observant readers will note that each paper’s version of this story neatly maps to the ideological positions their critics have assigned them. Blue-state liberals are outraged that the Supreme Court has allowed business to pour anonymous millions into this election cycle; red-state conservatives have long believed that business cash is only a necessary counterweight to the mighty electoral power of union dollars. The Times and the Journal are both playing the roles their opponents have cast them for in this partisan drama.

Still, campaign spending is one of those matters of fact that we ought to be able to nail. Somebody is the biggest “outside spender” in this cycle — either it’s a union, or it’s some conservative lobby like the Chamber of Commerce. Or it’s some anonymous group. Which raises the question of how either paper can make a claim to knowing who the top outside spender is in the elections, since it seems pretty clear that astroturf groups flush with unmarked bills are flooding these elections with unprecedentedly huge sums that no one has been able even to begin to count.

In order to argue about this picture with any confidence, you need data. You need to know who is spending what. And of course that is the problem with this election cycle: Thanks to the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn our already highly inadequate campaign finance rules, we voters don’t have even the most basic information about who is spending how much on the elections.

How can you even begin to claim to have fair elections or an honest government without transparency in political spending? Why should the right to free political speech also cover the right to anonymous political speech by the million-dollar-load? Until we repair this colossal breakdown of our system, we’ll be stuck in the 2010 cycle’s banana-republic mode.

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