The New Left’s war on private civic engagement

Nick Dranias Vice President, Compact for America Educational Foundation
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First it was the Tea Parties. Then it was anyone or anything that supported the American Legislative Exchange Council. Now the New Left is coming for center-right think tanks and the private donors that support them.

Labeling 63 public interest groups “stink tanks” because they are supposedly “tied to the Koch dark money ATM,” the Center for Media & Democracy and Progress Now have brazenly launched ad hominem assaults on private donors and successful advocates of conservative causes. Rather than compete in the marketplace of ideas, the New Left spins tales of Kochtopi gardens and Vast Right Wing Conspiracies that would make Alex Jones and even Hillary Clinton blush. Their supposed goal: to force transparency on whoever is “really” behind groups like the Goldwater Institute.

But what is the New Left really trying to accomplish? By preserving the privacy of its donors, center-right policy organizations are not exactly flying under the radar and disguising their interest in limited government advocacy. There is simply no purpose in forcing the private donors of the Goldwater Institute or any other such organization into the public eye in order to gain some deep insight about our policy mission, message or motives. What we stand for is no secret.

Rather, this latest iteration of the New Left’s crusade against so-called “dark money” is political intimidation, pure and simple. The New Left viscerally hates center-right ideas like constitutional limits on debt, union reform, and educational choice. It hates those ideas so much that it is determined never to debate them on the merits. Instead, the New Left aims to suppress freedom-oriented public policy by drying up networking and funding resources for effective advocacy — just like the IRS tried to suppress political engagement by constitutionalists; just like Senator Dick Durbin, who, under the guise of convening a committee to investigate “Stand Your Ground” laws, abused his office to intimidate supporters of the American Legislative Exchange Council.

Simply put, flush with its own “dark money” and blind to its own hypocrisy, the New Left has become what the Old Left hated and feared. It has embraced the tactics of a hated historical enemy: Senator Joe McCarthy. It has stepped into the shoes of the Alabama trial court and Florida legislature that held the NAACP in contempt more than fifty years ago for refusing to disclose its membership lists.

And the shoes definitely fit. Like the misguided efforts in the 1950s and 60s to suppress civil rights activists and alleged communists, the New Left’s one-sided jihad against private civic engagement by the center-right is an affront to the principles of a free society. Indeed, it highlights the crucial importance of privacy in preserving free speech and free association.

In protecting the NAACP’s membership lists from forced disclosure in NAACP v. Alabama and Gibson v. Florida Legislative Investigation Committee, the Supreme Court ruled repeatedly that “[i]nviolability of privacy in group association may in many circumstances be indispensable to preservation of freedom of association, particularly where a group espouses dissident beliefs.” This observation remains true today.

But it is important to emphasize that private association is important to more groups than just tea parties, constitutionalists, civil rights advocates, and alleged communists. It is critical to the open discussion of more issues than just gay marriage and abortion. Private association is the lifeblood of nearly all significant public policy ideas — because the discussion of nearly all significant public policy ideas will incite someone, somewhere to threaten harm to others.

The Goldwater Institute has been on the receiving end of serious threats of bodily harm for opposing corporate subsidies. As Governor Walker has experienced, it is common for similar threats to be made against advocates of union reform — and yet prosecutors in Wisconsin are now callously using subpoenas to expose private donors who dared to support such reforms.

With the government increasingly controlling more and more aspects of our economy, the opportunities to exact political retaliation on those entrepreneurial Americans who dare to support center-right ideas are growing exponentially.

But not everyone can be Patrick Henry or John Hancock. As important as civic courage is, nowhere does the First Amendment make free speech and association rights contingent on the willingness to weather such abuse. If the identities of confidential donors were always forced into the open in all cases, there is no question that crucial relationships would be terminated, financing for reform efforts would be adversely impacted, and the ability to engage in high-stakes public policy advocacy would be severely undermined. For this reason, it is transparently obvious that the New Left’s effort to compel total transparency on civic engagement is nothing less than a war on hated ideas and the groups that effectively advance those ideas.

Of course, conservative groups are not alone in needing to protect the privacy of its donors to fulfill their mission of engaging effectively in public policy. The same is still true of many public interest organizations on the left. Preserving and protecting such privacy is neither partisan nor illegitimate. It should never be forgotten that our nation was founded on anonymous speech and private association.

The Founders — and those who supported them — deliberately hid their identities as they engaged in coordinated advocacy of the ratification of the Constitution in 85 pamphlets known as the Federalist Papers. The pamphlets were directed to state legislatures, as much as ordinary citizens, and they were crucial to rebutting the arguments of those who opposed the Constitution. They also cost money to print and distribute.

Without anonymity in speech and privacy in association, the coordinated arguments advanced by the Founders and their supporters could have been evaded with ad hominem attacks. Anonymity forced the opposition to grapple with ideas on their merits. This resulted in a better debate, which the Founders won on the strength of their ideas.

The experiences of the NAACP fifty years ago, Tea Parties last year, and groups like the Goldwater Institute today only reinforce the lesson that the marketplace of ideas is enhanced, not diminished, by protecting the freedom to engage in anonymous speech and private association. Indeed, genuine competition among significant public policy ideas often requires anonymous speech and private association in order for the truth to emerge.

If we don’t end the New Left’s war on privacy, the center-right movement won’t be the only casualty.