Senator Dick Durbin (D. Ill.) appears to have stepped in it big time with his attempt to intimidate donors to ALEC, a bipartisan organization of state legislators with a conservative bent (which makes its members predominantly Republican). Some folks will remember that Democrats first went after ALEC in 2011 and 2012, accusing it of racism because, like a majority of Americans, ALEC supported voter ID laws. The tactic is simple: it doesn’t matter if your actual views are perfectly mainstream; if you can be caricatured as “racist” or radical or controversial, enough skittish donors – especially corporations worried about image – will decide to spend their money elsewhere rather than risk the controversy, no matter how ridiculous the charges.
Durbin wants to gin it up again, this time attempting to tag ALEC with the death of Trayvon Martin. He has sent letters to more than 300 groups demanding to know if they financially support ALEC and if they support “stand your ground” laws, which have rather inexplicably (because they were not at issue in the Martin shooting) become a cause celebre of the left since Martin was shot.
Durbin’s thuggishness here – and it really is hard to think of a better word for it – hasn’t played well. But what interests us this morning is Dick’s response. Durbin is doubling down on the thuggery. He responds, “My concern is with the lack of transparency. As a public official, when I take a position, I stand up to explain and defend it. I file annual financial disclosures, campaign finance reports and have to face the scrutiny of public opinion.”
Now, here at CCP, we’ve long said that the purpose of disclosure is to allow citizens to monitor government, not to allow government to monitor citizens. We recognize that in practice this distinction can dissolve. For example, if we demand to know who gave money to a public official, in order to monitor that official, we will necessarily give the government the tools to monitor us. But as a first principle for thinking about what disclosure is proper, it is a pretty good starting point. “Because Senator Durbin wants to know” is simply not a valid reason for the government invading your privacy. “As a public official” is the key phrase in Durbin’s response. He is a public official. We (meaning all the rest of us who are not public officials) are not. He has the power of the state; we do not. Does anyone seriously think a letter from Dick Durbin demanding to know if you financially support certain groups, and what you think of certain laws, with the openly stated intention to publicize your reponse in an official Senate hearing, is anything like receiving a similar request from, say, well, the Center for Competitive Politics?*
We monitor you, Dick. You don’t monitor us. That’s why you file financial reports and campaign finance reports. You are a public servant, not a public master.
This is not Durbin’s first attempt to try to silence his political opposition. Durbin is one of the Senators who specifically urged the IRS to investigate conservative non-profit groups, leading to the current IRS scandal.
We think it is time for Dick Durbin to retake a civics class, and learn that in our system, he serves us; we don’t serve him.
*And no, we don’t send out such letters.