Does Democracy Depend on Anonymity?


Our era has redefined Tip O’Neill’s famous adage “all politics is local” to be “all politics are personal,” and I wonder if it’s what impedes effective debate.

We can’t discuss any issue or event without bringing up qualifiers about who’s doing the conversing: So-and-so belongs to one party or another, associates with so-and-so characters of questionable repute, gave money or attended a meeting for so-and-so cause, etc.

Gender and race are often deemed as relevant to a conversation as the topic discussed (or simply used to disqualify a point of view). Northerners can’t say anything legitimate about the South. Boomers’ opinions about Millennials aren’t credible. Al Gore can’t care about climate change because he travels in a private jet.

What we say or think is less important than who we are and, thanks to technology, it’s easy to research the identities and backgrounds of just about anybody. With our differences front and center in any debate, no wonder we can’t agree on anything.

It wasn’t always this way.

In the years leading up to the American Revolution, anonymous political arguments in newspapers were more the norm than exception. Sam Adams wrote as “Determinatus” in the Boston Gazette to argue for the rights of self-determination, and Tory opponents previously wrote as “Z.Y.” and “O.Z” in the Newport Mercury to oppose them.

They followed in Ben Franklin’s footsteps, who’d written over a dozen letters for the New-England Courant signed “Silence Dogood” in the 1720s (his epistles weren’t about politics, though).

Anonymity wasn’t just a feature of public media, but also used in private correspondence: For instance, a barrage of letters to members of Congress in 1777 disparaged General Washington’s leadership. Royal tax collectors received anonymous warnings, both textually and, occasionally, via burning effigy.

Of course, everyone assumed such political content was biased, if not wholly one-sided. But without the capacity to attack the authors, people were stuck debating their arguments instead. They struggled to discredit ideas because they couldn’t directly challenge one another.

The same went for public action. The Sons of Liberty were an anonymous mob that emerged in Connecticut in 1765 to oppose the Stamp Act. Their methods of protest included threats and crimes (including tar and feathering government officials), which were anything but democratic, but their anonymity focused the public debate on the issues.

And they evolved.

By the time of the Boston Tea Party in 1773, there were Sons of Liberty groups across New England, fielding candidates for public office and, as with Sam Adams, John Hancock, and Paul Revere, revealing some of their leaders, though most would-be revolutionaries continued to meet in secret at taverns and homes.

In fact, it was a big deal when the members of the Second Continental Congress signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776, as it wasn’t the practice for British or American legislators to sign their work (the only name put to British laws was the monarch’s). It was a conscious and purposeful act of public identification. A declaration by the declarers.

Even voting is done anonymously, even if it wasn’t always done in secret: Voting up to the start of the 20th century could be done orally, and even by pre-printed form (often provided by the newspaper of your preferred political persuasion), but then secret ballots became the norm.

Today, the loss of anonymity means that we debate about the debaters more than their opinions.

Participants in a march or protest can be identified by satellites hovering in space (or city cams much closer to home), and attendees to an in-person or online meeting can be similarly tracked. Exploring a topic on your computer or smartphone is recorded; the only question is with whom it’s shared, and what purposes it’s used for.

By destroying our anonymity, the technology that has connected us so intimately has set up barriers to our productive discourse. Be careful what you ponder, where you go, or what you say, since it can be discovered by others, and then used to challenge your opinions and beliefs.

Radical transparency is quite paralyzing, isn’t it? So much for democracy.