Early this summer, state Attorney General Tom Corbett made headlines by demanding to know the identities of two people who criticized him on Twitter. Corbett, who, as you may have heard, is running for governor, insisted the information was necessary for a political-corruption probe. But he abandoned the effort amid a storm of criticism, and some "I'm Spartacus!" shows of online solidarity.
Here's the funny part, though: Corbett's subpoena would have subjected two Twitterers to more scrutiny than we devote to the people spending millions on political TV ads.
Thanks to a series of Supreme Court decisions and Federal Election Commission rulings, organizations with sunny names -- and murky agendas -- now occupy ever-larger swaths of the political landscape.
Take Americans for Job Security, which might more honestly be called "Americans for Job Security for Republican Politicians." The organization is operated from an office sublet by Republican political consultants. And as The New York Times recently observed, "It is sometimes hard to discern the boundaries separating [AJS] from the consultants in its office suite and the interests of their Republican clients."
Locally, AJS has opposed the re-election bid of Congressman Jason Altmire, filling the airwaves with crotchety white people shrieking "It's time to vote Altmire out!"
"Jason Altmire is raising millions to tell you he's independent," one ad begins. That damn Jason Altmire ... doesn't he know you prove your independence by having a shadowy network of wealthy conservatives raise money for you?
That's how AJS does it. Most politically active groups have to disclose basic financial information, but as the Times has reported, the AJS gets around the requirement by constituting itself as a nonprofit "business league." It treats all donations made to it as "membership dues," which don't have to be publicly reported, even if they are spent trying to shape public elections.
A similar organization, Crossroads GPS, has launched its own ad targeting Democrat Joe Sestak. The ad faults him for Medicare cuts, which would be comical -- Republicans are against cutting government spending now? -- if it weren't so misleading. (The nonpartisan Annenberg Public Policy Center called the ad's claims "egregious.") Crossroads GPS doesn't disclose the source of its funding, either. But it is tied to another group founded by Karl Rove ... who, among other accomplishments, helped blow up the Medicare budget during the Bush years. No more deficit spending or politics as usual with this crowd!
It's no surprise that big money is trying to buy our elections. But in the old days, you had some inkling of who was making the purchase. The claims made in ads were slippery, but you could at least be pretty sure whom they were coming from. No longer. Now we've got people buying up our airwaves, while taking as much responsibility as an Internet troll posting anonymously in a chat room.
And it used to be that if you wanted to buy your own political ads, you had to jump through some hoops. Corporations couldn't spend money from their own treasuries; executives had to pay out of their own pockets instead. And usually they couldn't come right out and say, "Don't vote for this guy." They had to pretend that they wanted people to call the politician, and ask him why he voted in favor of, say, sodomizing puppies. But now even these modest restraints have been lifted, thanks to recent court rulings.
This is the point where conservatives say, "But the other side does it too!" Which is true. But so far, Democrat-friendly groups have been dramatically outgunned: In Senate campaigns nationwide, the Times has reported, Republican-leaning groups spent nearly $11 million in just over a month -- nearly 10 times what Democrats spent. In House races, the ratio was 2-to-2. And Republicans know a good thing when they see one: The GOP has fought a Senate bill that would require disclosure of the donors paying for such ads.
And why not? The current system seems to be working for them. Although polls suggest that Altmire will likely beat GOP rival Keith Rothfus, you can't be sure: Altmire has a 7-to-1 advantage in fundraising, but who knows how much money groups like AJS may spend? Democrat Sestak, meanwhile, is trailing Republican Pat Toomey, though he's still within striking distance.
The real problem, though, isn't that Democrats might lose the election. The real problem is that voters risk losing their democracy.