Friday, May 8, 2009

Transparency as Transformative

There was an interesting piece in Time yesterday by Michael Grunwald, entitled, "Republicans in Distress: Is the Party Over?"

The thrust of the piece is that the electorate just isn't interested in buying what the Republicans are selling (i.e., tax cuts, social conservatism, tax cuts, corporate welfare, tax cuts). It caught my attention because of what Patrick McHenry (a committed conservative) was quoted as saying:
"Marginal tax rates are the lowest they've been in generations, and all we can talk about is tax cuts," he said. "The people's desires have changed, but we're still stuck in our old issue set."
Coming from McHenry, that was, indeed, shocking. So, if it's true that the Reaganesque model of government just isn't attractive to people any more, what explains the shift? Before exploring that question a little bit, I should warn that my explanation is decidedly incomplete. But it is, I think, a piece of the larger puzzle:

The nature of the relationship between the government and the governed is changing.

First, welfare government is here to stay. People are not going to support the return to a pre-New Deal style of government. But that has been obvious for a while now. The difference is captured in one of the key themes of Obama's campaign: transparency. Set aside what you think about whether he has lived up to his broad promises for openness in government and focus on the fact that the message resonates with people. The information revolution, broadened and deepened by technological advances (starting with the internet itself), has profoundly altered our perceptions, and our expectations, of government.

Technology has given the general public visibility of their government. Government is no longer the mysterious source of benevolent assistance in times of need. The social safety net isn't an invisible mechanism that exists by the grace of a government beyond our reach. We can now peer directly into the heart of government and see for ourselves what is happening. We can read the budget, or the text of legislation, or proposed regulations, instantly, and that's just the very very beginning of what the information revolution has wrought.

We the People now have the tools to connect ourselves directly to the process of governance, if we choose to use them, but if government shuts us out, those tools are all but useless, except insofar as they allow us to force our way in. For example, if legislators make backroom, sweetheart deals with lobbyists, we may never know about it. Unless we have access to the records of contacts between lobbyists and politicians, of donations to political campaigns, of disclosure of potential conflicts of interest. And if they don't want to tell us about those things, we can find out. We the People have been empowered vis-a-vis our government, and there's no rolling that back now. The emphasis on transparency and openness in government recognizes the power we now possess. Perhaps the campaign pledge merely panders to that power, and when elected, politicians will not live up to their promise. I'd suggest that they do so at their own political peril.

To tie it back to the story in Time, people haven't rejected the basic ideas of Republicans because they suddenly trust the government, or believe it to be a reliable, and reliably benevolent, presence in their lives. I don't believe people trust the government much at all. Nor should they. Trust implies a measure of faith, and faith is the gap between belief and evidence. And the point is that we don't have to trust the government. "Trust, but verify" is an already outdated slogan. Transparency means that we have no need to trust government because we can see what is happening for ourselves. Big Government isn't as much of a threat when we can watch its every move. People generally favor the social and economic programs of liberals, but when the government that administers them is a black box, we are rightly skeptical. We want to know what's going on inside the box. Who's benefiting from it? What aren't they telling us? This attitude is classic American skepticism about government. About closed government.

In other words, my thesis is that the ideas of the Republican Party are not attractive to people who want help, who want a social safety net, who want some measure of economic equality and a full measure of social and political equality, and who can obtain those things in such a way that they don't have to entrust extraordinary power in an unaccountable way. If, but only if, we have visibility of what's going on in our government can we accept an expanded role for government. Think about the Treasury's response to the economic crisis and think about how objectionable people have found the withholding of basic kinds of information about who is getting what in the bailouts. I suspect that people recognize the need for government to do something, given the scope of the problem; indeed, the suggestion in the Time story is that failure to do something constructive could spell the end of this Democratic upsurge. People generally (notwithstanding the libertarian exceptions) want the government to do something to fix the economic disaster wrought by unaccountable banks, but we want the government to do it in the open. We want them to do it in the open because we believe in our power to pressure the government to do it right. We know the first desire of every politician's heart is to be reelected. We know their ambitions. And we're willing to give them the power they desire, but only if we can see what they do when they arrive. Thus, openness is (or is becoming) a condition precedent.

My concluding point is that the message of the story in Time is two-edged for Democrats. They are on the right side of the substantive debate, as Republicans themselves are beginning to realize (see the Patrick McHenry quote at the beginning). But being right isn't sufficient to win. You have to do it right, too, and that means conducting business in the open, in the full sunshine of public scrutiny. If Democrats do that, they have a very bright future.

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