No, sharing political donations data is not McCarthyism – stop being ridiculous

There is a debate to be had about the level of privacy that can be expected by political donors, regardless of their affiliations. But let’s keep charges of McCarthyism out of it

Clémence Michallon
Saturday 10 August 2019 17:10
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Earlier this week, it was revealed that Stephen Ross, the billionaire businessman behind brands such as Equinox and SoulCycle, would host a fundraiser for Donald Trump on Friday 9 August at his home in Southampton. At that time, Ross’s name might not have been particularly recognisable, but the ventures funded by his fortune certainly were.

Equinox and SoulCycle in particular (which represent a relatively tiny part of Ross’s business catalogue) stuck out, perhaps because they embody a particular type of ethos – the big-city, liberal-voting, college-educated elites that believe capitalism is the devil but will spend £28 on a spin class in the name of self-care – and seem completely at odds with the president’s base. It doesn’t help that both Equinox and SoulCycle have made a point of celebrating Pride, when the Trump administration has attacked LGBT+ rights on many occasions.

It didn’t take long for Equinox subscribers, including celebrities such as Chrissy Teigen and Jonathan Van Ness, to declare they would cancel their memberships. Others (Sophia Bush, Mika Brzezinski) swore they would never set a cycling-shoe-clad foot in a SoulCycle class again. Equinox and SoulCycle have publicly disavowed Ross and his fundraiser in a joint statement, but the controversy shows no sign of waning. Protestors were planning to gather in front of the Equinox gym in West Hollywood on Friday afternoon, which happens to be right next to a SoulCycle location.

This all happened around the same time as Texas representative Joaquin Castro tweeted a list of Trump donors from the city of San Antonio, who he said contributed the maximum amount allowed by federal law in 2019. “Sad to see so many San Antonians as 2019 maximum donors to Donald Trump,” Castro (a San Antonio native himself) wrote. “Their contributions are fuelling a campaign of hate that labels Hispanic immigrants as ‘invaders’.”

Castro’s list included details of the donors’ professional activities, such as the names of their businesses. The implication seemed rather clear: if you spend your money with these businesses, you might be funding the Trump campaign.

Castro’s list, as well as people’s announcements that they would no longer spend their money at Ross-funded ventures, have been met, among other reactions, with cries of McCarthyism.

“This goes to show you how unhinged the left has become,” reads one tweet responding to SoulCycle’s statement seeking to detach itself from Ross. “Their Mccarthyism-style witch hunt is unhealthy for the country.” “The silent and not so silent majority are going to rise up against this modern incarnation of McCarthyism,” reads another message, this time responding to a tweet by Michael Moore about the SoulCycle controversy. “The left exemplifies everything they purport to hate.” Castro has also been accused of “representing a new form of McCarthyism” or “engaging in McCarthyism” with his list.

Comparing the SoulCycle/Equinox boycott or Castro’s list to McCarthyism is absurd for several reasons. Let’s start at the beginning: Wisconsin senator Joseph McCarthy was elected in 1946, and infamously claimed communists had infiltrated the US government.

In turn, McCarthy led a series of outrageous investigations, attempting in vain to expose communists, bringing public condemnation on some officials and causing them to lose their jobs. McCarthy was censured by the Senate in 1954, following the 36-day, televised McCarthy hearings, during which the senator unsuccessfully went after the US army.

While the term McCarthyism emerged in reference to a particular point in history (the height of the second red scare in America), it has since been used to refer to a purported effort to defame someone or otherwise tarnish their reputation, particularly via unsubstantiated allegations. There is also a public shaming connotation to McCarthyism, which is presumably how McCarthyism found its way into the SoulCycle/Equinox/Castro list debacle – but neither comparison makes sense.

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In both cases, it’s crucial to note that political donations data is publicly available in the United States. The Federal Election Commission, an independent agency of the US federal government, makes campaign finance available to the public via a dedicated website, which enables anyone to look up specific politicians and donors.

A quick search on the FEC’s website, for example, will tell you that Donald J Trump for President, Inc received a $5,000 (£4,140) donation from the National Rifle Association’s America Political Victory Fund (the NRA’s political action committee) on 19 March. It will tell you that the NRA’s political arm has received more than $5m (£4m) in contributions so far in 2019. In other words, campaign finance data gives an absolutely crucial look into America’s political landscape and the forces that fund it. Making use of that data isn’t just the people’s right, it’s a crucial step in informing voters satisfactorily.

It should also be pointed out that McCarthyism was rooted in unsubstantiated accusations coming from the government and affecting the lives of individuals. When it comes to the SoulCycle/Equinox boycott, the dynamic is reversed: these are individuals making use of publicly available information to hold a powerful individual (Stephen Ross, whose influence extends far beyond the fitness world) to account.

As for Castro’s list, some might legitimately feel uncomfortable with the medium (a record of someone’s political affiliations for all to see). It can certainly be argued that Castro’s tweet put individual donors in the spotlight, which is different from appearing in a publicly searchable database. It can also be said that those singled out in Castro’s list aren’t exactly big-ticket donors (owing to the federal limitations on individual contributors), and that it wasn’t right or fair to name them publicly as Castro did.

There is a debate to be had about the level of privacy that can be expected by political donors, regardless of their affiliations. But if it’s going to be fruitful in any way, McCarthyism should not be the framework through which it is discussed.

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