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Gadi Ben-Yehuda Headshot

SCOTUS: US Politics No Place for Sissies

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The Supreme Court has ruled 8-1 that Americans need to stop being such sissies. Clarence Thomas dissented.

Of course, they couched their ruling in legalese, and in response to a case (Doe v. Reed) that was ostensibly about some citizens' privacy vs. other citizens' right to know who was involved in policy decisions that would impact the entire community.

But it was really about a group of sissies. Specifically, some sissies who wanted to make public policy by signing a petition to put a measure on a ballot. And they didn't want their names to be known to people who were likely to oppose the measure. Because they might get unsolicited phone calls from people who disagree with their political position. Or angry looks at the grocery store.

In a recent Slate column, jurist Dahlia Lithwick presaged the decision when she asked "What happens to democracy when everyone's too scared to show up?"

Dahlia was posing the question with specific reference to people showing up in court as witnesses, but I want to ask the question with more a general slant. When our political activity will likely be known to our neighbors, future employers, potential in-laws, and every random crazy with internet access, are we setting ourselves up for a more constrained political culture? Or, worse, a culture dominated by the reckless fringes who court confrontation and bully moderates into silence?

Consider: I am represented by The Honorable Christopher Van Hollen. On the Federal Election Commission Web site, I learned that one of my neighbors, I'll call her Julia (not her real name), has donated nearly $10,000 to his various congressional campaigns. According to Spokeo, Julia is Jewish and lives not so far from my house. I probably see her a few times a month at my synagogue. I have never talked to her about politics.

Knowing that she has given so much money to my representative, though, perhaps I should start. I can only imagine that an introduction from her would help me receive more prompt constituent services. Also, and this is where things get interesting, if I felt strongly about an issue on which Van Hollen was a leader, wouldn't I want to talk about it with his biggest donors?

Because I'm a scrupulous person, I would never harangue anyone for being involved in a political cause that I oppose. But not everyone has such stiff moral fiber.

My scruples, however, would not prevent me from using that information in other ways. For example, if I wanted Van Hollen to take a certain position on an issue that was important to me, and I knew that Julia felt the same way I did, you can bet I'd ask her to come with me to his office (as I would the other 27 people in my ZIP code who donated to Van Hollen's campaign).

We're bringing sunlight to politics at an increasing clip, with the power to search public databases in the hands of private citizens. But some people (e.g. Washington State Sissies) warn of 'a likely chilling effect' on our political culture as people realize the volume of data stored on those databases. Another datum when anyone engages in political speech (including donating to a political cause).

The NRA certainly seems afraid of that sunlight, which is why it carved out an exemption for itself in the DISCLOSE Act, a bill (sponsored by Van Hollen, incidentally), that would force organizations to disclose their biggest donors.

But I hardly think it will end with the NRA. As more Americans grow leery of the number of digital fingerprints they are leaving, won't more of us decide it's better to treat politics like the circus animals: "look, but don't touch"?

Many of our national heroes reveled in their solitude, and jealously guarded their privacy; think Thoreau, JD Salinger, and every family that moved farther west when they felt 'civilization' encroaching on them. And we intrinsically recognize the power of not letting people know who we are -- the fundamental logic behind the Lone Ranger and nearly every cinema superhero (save, of course, Wolverine, who is Canadian).

In one way, this is actually a fight between two priorities of Gov 2.0 -- transparency and citizen participation. Clarence Thomas feels that the former threatens to diminish the latter.

If the forces of sunlight (and the other eight justices) are to prevail, it is because we have an equal and opposite force that finds its champions at the fountainhead of our republic: each and every signatory to the Declaration of Independence. If they had lost our seminal war, they all would have hanged. Surely a more troublesome prospect than receiving unwanted phone calls from political adversaries.

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