Thursday, January 7, 2010

You Won't See Me 3

I've been talking about transparency.  In the last part of this, I said that there's a problem with transparency as a principle, and that's what I have left to discuss in this part.

I think the best way to see this is through the idea of representation.  Representation is a relationship between representatives and those who are represented.  When the relationship is strong, constituents develop trust in their representative.  In other words, when David Sirota complains about transparency, what I think he's really saying is that he doesn't trust his representatives.

But there's more to it than that. 

How does representation work?  Politicians as they run for office negotiate representative relationships with their constituents, who then hold them accountable in the next round of coalition-building and elections.  What promises are made -- even what kinds of promises are made -- will vary widely.  Some of the promises are about substantive issues ("I'll support a health care bill.").  Some might be what we think of as demographic, descriptive representation ("I'm not one of those Ivy League elitists," or "It's time we had more women in the House").  And some might be about the continuing process of representation, such as Obama's promises about openness.  There are plenty of this type; some representatives promise (explicitly or implicitly) that they will always check with their constituents before doing anything; others promise to be experts who will act in the interests of their constituents. 

So when I say that there's something wrong with the principle of transparency, what I'm saying is that all of these things -- process, policy, descriptive representation -- are properly, in a representative democracy, things to be negotiated between representatives and their constituents.  Transparency isn't a principle of democracy; it's one of the things that's up for grabs in a democracy, just as health care is up for grabs.  Nothing wrong with supporting it, but it shouldn't be confused with democracy itself.

Now, here's where it gets complicated.  Iin a presidential election with hundreds of thousands of voters, there's going to be a lot of murkiness about exactly which promises -- even which types of promises -- were the "real" ones.  Some people (and I think it's probably fair to put Ezra Klein in this camp) are going to hear the policy promises a lot more than they hear the process promises.  Since, however, Obama certainly did make the openness promise in the campaign, it's not a cheap show for David Sirota to call him on it -- and if most of Obama's supporters believe that transparency and other process promises that Obama may wind up breaking were central to his campaign, then naturally they will wind up not trusting him.  If, however, more of Obama's supporters mainly heard the policy (or other) promises, then they won't care much about this broken one.

I think that's what both David and Ezra are missing in this discussion.  The question about representation isn't really about which individual votes were swayed by this or that promise.  It's about whether representational relationships are weak or strong, and breaking promises without good explanations weakens those relationships.  Pols make promises when they run for office -- implicit and explicit promises, issue and process and descriptive promises -- because that's what representation entails.  That's a large part of what democracy is.  It won't necessarily decide elections (Democrats will likely vote for Obama regardless, since the alternative is going to be, for them, worse), but it can have real behavioral consequences, and even without those I'd argue that the intangible consequences are important, because representation is important in and of itself. 

And that, I think, is what I have to say about transparency.  I really didn't think it was going to go so long.  New Year's Resolution?  More short posts.

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