Baring It All for Campaign Finance Reform

When hundreds of women marched topless through the streets of New York and other cities last summer - part of the 8th Annual GoToplessDay - their protest on behalf of gender rights exposed far more than bare skin. That's because they were the just the latest in a long line of protesters who are focused on changing culture before they change any laws.

Needless to say, the media - photo buffs in particular - had a field day, giving this issue some truly 'out-sized' attention.

The protesters chose to bare it all in honor of Women's Equality Day, which commemorates the pivotal movement in August 1920 when women earned the right to vote. For the protest participants, being able to go topless was another right grounded in gender equality, just as a women's right to vote once was. While judges in the state of New York have ruled in favor of a women's right to go topless in public, most other places have yet to follow suit.

The marchers believed that only total transparency of a breast-defying nature would lead lawmakers across the country to change archaic laws.

It's a controversial approach that could bear fruit in the current presidential race when it comes to campaign finance reform.

When the Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United that corporations could fund candidates as if they were individuals, many threw up their hands in dismay. How easy it would be to hide behind a non-individual entity!

The antidote might be an act of "disruptive transparency" that finds common ground with the disrobing female protesters in New York. In campaign finance reform, of course, the goal is not to remove one's clothing, but to unveil the names of one's campaign donors.

The idea is simple and targeted. A candidate who believes that campaign finance reform is critical to the future of our democracy would step forward to set a new standard. Every ad, website and social media communication would include the names of the candidate's top three donors - whether it be an individual, corporation or labor union. This new standard of transparency would send a signal to all of the candidate's SuperPacs and political nonprofit groups that they, too, must publicly disclose the names of their donors. The information would be audited by two reputable accounting firms. It's a basic process that would be verifiable and, quite possibly, disruptive.

The presidential candidates should declare that public service begins with being public. It would mark a new starting point for political campaigns and create a new set of expectations. If Bernie Sanders were first, he would set The Sanders Standard.

The purpose of this approach is to garner a reaction - changing culture before changing laws in a way that forces other candidates to follow suit. It follows a long line of protestors who have used disruptive transparency as their weapon of choice when it comes to social change.

Those topless marchers in New York? Their protest on behalf of women's civil rights forced a reaction that continues a debate about issues once considered below the radar, if not below the belt.

When millions of gay men and women came out of the closet, they provoked a reaction among their families, friends, co-workers and neighbors. Gay marriage was not on the minds of these closet exiters -but their very presence in the midst of our daily lives made us reconsider who gets to enjoy a walk down the aisle. Our culture had to change before it was reflected in our laws.

Or consider the recent tribunal in Guatemala that revealed in detail how top government officials used their positions to steal public money. After years of hopelessness, the corrupt president of Guatemala resigned and citizens ushered in a new era of transparency.

People aspiring to public office often trumpet endorsements from elected officials, professional groups and other public figures. How can they take pride in these supporters and not from those who are actually funding their campaigns? Pride in ownership should be a standard starting point for public figures.

Indeed, in the Citizens United case, all but one justice reaffirmed the constitutionality of disclosure requirements for election-related spending. According to the court, disclosure laws serve governmental interests in "providing the electorate with information" which allows voters to "make informed choices in the political marketplace."

Lest you think that no public official would have the courage to go public with the names of his real supporters, consider these ringing words from the 2010 Supreme Court ruling in Doe vs. Reed:

"Requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed." Those are words of Antonin Scalia. How could the Koch brothers find fault with him?

Down the road there will be ballot initiatives, new legislation, constitutional amendments and elections galore. But why wait? Any presidential candidate could step forward tomorrow to set a new standard.

Who will be the first candidate to go 'topless" in this year's election parade?


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Michael M. Appell (left) is a senior lecturer at Brandeis University's Heller School for Social Policy and Management and the assistant director of Heller's MBA in Nonprofit Management program. Gary L. Appell (right) is a volunteer with the California Clean Money Campaign.