Blog Credo

The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.

H.L. Mencken

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Nixon's Children

Matthew Yglesias has an interesting take on the out-of-date disclosure rules surrounding emails.  He notes that phone calls are pretty much impossible to have a public record of, unless you tape them like LBJ and Nixon.  And no one is going to tape their phone calls after Nixon.  

Buried within his argument is a critical point. He cites a talk by Cass Sunstein about the difference between disclosing government inputs and government outputs.  There is a difference between knowing about a secret war in Cambodia and discussions about whether or not to have a secret war in Cambodia.  He uses, as a good example, the Constitutional Convention:

By the same token, historians surely would wish that there were a complete and accurate record of what was said at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 that, instead, famously operated under a policy of anonymous discussions.
But we should be cautioned by James Madison’s opinion that “no Constitution would ever have been adopted by the convention if the debates had been public.”
His view, which seems sensible, is that public or recorded debates would have been simply exercises in position-taking rather than deliberation, with each delegate playing to his base back home rather than working toward a deal.
“Had the members committed themselves publicly at first, they would have afterwards supposed consistency required them to maintain their ground,” Madison wrote, “whereas by secret discussion no man felt himself obliged to retain his opinions any longer than he was satisfied of their propriety and truth, and was open to the force of argument.”
Here is the critical problem.  We want to know everything that our government does, but we shouldn't always know everything our government considers and talks about.

The great myth of American politics in the 21st century is that if Congressmen just sat down together and had whiskey together like Ronnie Reagan and Tip O'Neil, we would see real bipartisan comity again.  Like I said, it's a myth.

Typically, I've traced the decline of that myth to ideological partisanship.  As the parties have become more ideologically "pure" they simply have less common ground to make policy on. Add in Mitch McConnell's neo-nullification strategy and you have a dysfunctional government.

But the post-Nixon mania for full transparency - aided by the Tea Party assault on earmarks - has made it impossible to govern across the aisle.  Look at that last Madison quote again.  Right now, every politician in America has already publicly committed to her position on...whatever.  Planned Parenthood, tax rates, trade, that position is locked in.  And the incentives to change your mind are vanishingly small.  Emerson said that "Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds" and that is especially true in politics.  In Philadelphia in 1787, men could be persuaded, because they weren't locked into a public position.  Today, that's impossible.

And the desire for complete transparency is to blame.

You want to know exactly how a House member will vote on any issue and then you lock that person into those positions.  Let's say you've committed your House member to no new taxation and no new government spending.  In the course of being a Congresswoman, she is persuaded that we must have infrastructure repair and that it will cost billions.  So, she agrees to vote for a massive infrastructure repair bill funded by a tax on financial transactions.

Then she gets primaried and losses her seat.

In an age when we expect to have a personal say in who makes it to the next round of our favorite reality competition show, when choice is paramount in every consumer transaction, we expect democracy in our politics.

We don't live in a democracy; we live in a Republic.  We elect people to make difficult decisions for us, because those decisions are difficult.  Here's an example: Global warming is the gravest long term threat we face.  The easiest solution is to ramp up renewable energy, like windmills.  But no one wants windmills in their town.  NIMBY rules are democracy in action.  But NIMBY rules mean that critical actions are left undone.  

What's more, we need to have those discussions - private, confidential discussions - in order to arrive at the best outcome.  At the Constitutional Convention, Alexander Hamilton apparently argued for an elective king.  No one was convinced, but his argument for an elective monarch helped create space to create the powers of the president, who would be elected every four years.  The confidentiality of that space allowed for all options to be considered, which made it possible to arrive at the best possible result.  (Ironically, that confidentiality was violated in later years by Hamilton's enemies.)

What we must have - what Susstein talked about - is transparency of outputs.  And then we must hold our elected and appointed officials accountable for their policies.  We should have prosecuted those officials who made America a torture state.  In a parliamentary system, anyone who strongly disagrees with a government policy has to either suck it up or resign.  It's called collective responsibility.  We could use some of that here.

Transparency makes sense when we are talking about a Nixon or a Cheney talking about violating existing law.  But when we are discussing a transportation bill, there needs to be some measure of confidence.

This is how the legacy of Nixon poisons good government from beyond the grave.  This is why violating fundamental norms of American politics creates rules (rather than norms) that wind of stifling the ability to the government to work properly.

Needless to say, it's a powerful argument against electing a demagogic charlatan who would eviscerate whatever norms are left in our system.  It turns out Nixon damaged our politics more than we knew.  God knows what Trump would do. 

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