Civil Liberties

'Dark Money' and Anonymous Speech Are Awesome, Unless You Want Political Thugs Jumping on Your Head

Exhibit A: Sheriff Joe Arpaio



Embattled Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, Arizona's own dose of seemingly unshakeable political herpes, is asking supporters to cough up cash to fund his defense against potential federal criminal contempt of court charges. He'll probably get it too. His opponents, even though they finally sense weakness in the old bastard, are unlikely to have the same luck shaking the tree for money. That's because Arpaio has a history of crude and brutal retaliation against anybody he perceives as an enemy. If America's toughest sheriff isn't strong evidence in favor of anonymous political expenditures, then nothing is.

Arizona Republic columnist Robert Robb made this case yesterday:

If Arpaio is to be defeated, the business community probably has to conclude that he's enough of a damaging menace to warrant funding an independent campaign in that range. But the money isn't the only hurdle.

With Arpaio, there's a risk of criminal investigations and bogus criminal charges if you oppose him. That's part of what makes him a damaging menace. So, any such independent campaign would likely have to be by a dark-money group that didn't disclose its contributors.

Yes, you read that right—criminal investigations and bogus criminal charges. This is a "lawman" who has jailed journalists and political opponents, spied on critics, stolen documents from defense attorneys, and sent deputies to raid the offices of other government bodies. Forget a little trouble with your permits down at City Hall; if you piss off the sheriff, he goes full Third World on your ass.

And yes, he remains popular with the yahoos who have repeatedly elected him to office through all of his shenanigans. He's the sort of populist demagogue who puts the lie to chatter about the self-correcting nature of democracy.

He also puts the lie to goo-goo nonsense about the glories of open politics and full disclosure about political funding and speech. Transparency has become a bit of a fetish in recent years, and it is a good thing when you're talking about government. Government officials, after all, command vast coercive power—in the form of law-enforcement agencies, for example. It's not too much for the people forced to fund their efforts and live with the results to demand an accounting of what they do and how they do it.

But people taking on those officials face a different situation, illustrated in the starkest way by Joe Arpaio. If attracting a politician's attention has a history of drawing surveillance, police raids, and phony criminal charges, there's a certain disincentive to lending identifiable support to opposition efforts.

Retaliation isn't always so crude, of course. Usually, it occurs in more subtle ways as politicians manipulate the tendrils of our intrusive modern state. Publicly speak out, and you can suddenly suffer refusals of permits, surprise inspections, and tax difficulties. Try to prove there's a connection.

And it's not just a problem for localities. The Internal Revenue Service, which has featured in news headlines recently for targeted scrutiny of conservative non-profit organizations, has a history of service as a political weapon.

"My father," Elliott Roosevelt said of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, "may have been the originator of the concept of employing the IRS as a weapon of political retribution."

Richard M. Nixon demonstrated that politicians of both major parties could play at that game.

Politicians are often scumbags, and they have the tools of government at their hands to hurt their political opponents. Joe Arpaio, who has freely wielded the power to ruin people's lives, is living proof of why it's so important to be able to anonymously oppose government officials.