Funding political battles in West Virginia has become a lot like internet trolling.
No one really knows who is on the other side of the screen, but they’re pumping money into groups like Americans for Prosperity West Virginia (an arm of the billionaire Koch brothers political machine) and the Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy.
By now, most West Virginians have seen or heard ads sponsored by one of these groups advocating for charter schools or public money for private schools or homeschooling (vouchers), although they’re couched in terms like “school choice” or “education savings accounts.”
Ask either of the groups who is footing the bill, as the Gazette-Mail did in a recent report, and they’ll likely answer that their donors should be afforded privacy in exercising “free speech” with their dollars.
Meanwhile, those who oppose the ongoing attempt at education overhaul and privatization have been exercising their right to free speech the old-fashioned way, by showing up at the Capitol in droves and protesting.
GOP Senate leadership has made clear what it thinks of this type of free speech, by putting a section into its latest education bill that would punish teachers and other school personnel for striking by docking pay or even allowing them to be fired.
So, to recap, according to the GOP and their backers: Public protest in which people use their right to free speech in person, where they are identifiable, is bad. “Free speech” through anonymous donations to political networks to run media campaigns is good.
Being brave enough to put yourself in a position where you might face consequences for expressing your views is bad. Cowardly hiding behind a faceless political operation is good.
That logic is twisted. Of course, if you’re spending tons of cash on a political movement that public school employees don’t like, you probably don’t want them boycotting your business. Best to not only stay anonymous but also get the Senate to try to punish them for defending their profession. (The House of Delegates’ version of the bill has removed the Senate’s revenge clause. Apparently, they’re not afraid of their constituents using their voices.)
Ads with dodgy funding sources have plagued local and national politics for some time now, and it’s not likely to get much better since the U.S. Supreme Court decided nine years ago that money equals speech.
West Virginians need to be vigilant. When you hear or see a political ad, ask yourself who might be paying for it and why, especially if the sponsor is some vague organization and not a specific person. It’s an unnecessary burden on the public that has become necessary through the continued corporatization of government.
If donors don’t want you to know who they are, there’s probably a reason. And it’s unlikely it’s a good one.