August 9, 2011; Source: Politico | The explosion of 501(c)(4) nonprofits raising anonymous money for the 2012 campaign in this post-Citizens United world is kind of disheartening. Having just watched in horror our lawmakers’ convincing portrayal of people unable to govern—resulting in debtageddon and a credit rating downgrade—we are equally distressed at the efforts of both political parties to gut the tattered remnants of campaign finance reform.

According to Politico, while anonymous political fundraising is a bipartisan affair, “independent” groups supporting Republicans are doing better than their counterparts supporting Democratic candidates and causes. However, the newspaper also says that “Democrats, who vociferously attacked that kind of fundraising last year, have set aside their qualms and are now active competitors in the anonymous donor arms race.”

For example, three anonymously funded groups—Priorities USA, American Bridge 21st Century Foundation, and Patriot Majority—have pulled in $3.7 million in anonymous dollars in the first half of 2011. That’s less than the $5.8 million in disclosed donations going to their affiliated PACs—Priorities USA Action, American Bridge 21st Century and Majority PAC—but experts anticipate that as the fundraising continues, the more dollars will flow to the anonymous (c)(4) side of the ledger.

Erica Payne, associated at one point with the Democracy Alliance, explained that Democrats “don’t have a choice, because the other side is doing it—would you send David to fight Goliath without a slingshot?” She added that many big donors “feel more comfortable donating to groups that don’t disclose” because they don’t like publicity and they don’t want their names and numbers to be “on the speed dial of every congressmen, committee and party that wants to raise money.”

Payne’s point about donors’ desire for anonymity doesn’t really wash. We suspect that in political circles, the big-time political fundraisers already know the names and numbers of potential donors. It’s the American publicthat doesn’t know who’s giving how much to whom.

During his 2008 campaign, President Obama said that the pattern of anonymous giving was “a threat to our democracy. The American people deserve to know who’s trying to sway their election.” But since getting out-advertised by Republican (c)(4)s last time around, the Democrats feel they have no choice but to play the game. Bill Burton, Obama’s former deputy press secretary who runs both the Priorities (c)(4) and its PAC, said, “We may not like the rules, but we’re not going to let Karl Rove and the [conservative billionaire] Koch brothers play by one set of rules while we are overrun with their millions.”

Even former Democratic Senator Russ Feingold, co-creator of the eponymous McCain-Feingold campaign reform law, has started his own 501(c)(4) organization, though he has pledged to disclose all donations and accept contributions only from individuals. He thinks that the Democrats are making a mistake by following the lead of Republican anonymous fundraising operations like those created by Karl Rove. “Democrats shouldn’t be in the game of influencing elections with anonymous, unlimited money,” he told Politico. “It’s dancing with the devil.”

If the nonprofit sector really does stand for a core commitment to small “d” democracy, maybe soon it should revive the debate over the kind of campaign finance reform that’s needed to salvage what little popular democracy we have left.—Rick Cohen