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December 1, 2008

truth is not power

(On the USAir Shuttle to DC) Mark Danner in the New York Review of Books:

But today, Danner writes, scandals have no repercussions. Powerful people are "exposed" doing bad things and just keep on doing them. "Revelation of wrongdoing leads not to definitive investigation, punishment, and expiation but to more scandal. Permanent scandal. Frozen scandal."

The present situation is the typical one, I believe, and the Watergate era was an exception. In general, information is not a form of power. Information and analysis are essential conditions of good political action, but they do not cause things to happen. We expect far too much from disclosure and transparency, when we actually need motivated, skilled, and organized citizens. The important truths are already clear enough; we need ways of acting on them.

There is a great old American tradition of believing that publicizing and exposing once-secret facts will influence power. According to the historian Robert Wiebe, the Progressives of 1900-1924 believed that "the interests thrived on secrecy, the people on information. No word carried more progressive freight than 'publicity': expose the backroom deals in government, scrutinize the balance sheets of corporations, attend the public hearings on city services, study the effects of low wages on family life. Mayor Tom Johnson of Cleveland held public meetings to educate its citizens. Senator Robert LaFollette of Wisconsin heaped statistics on his constituents from the back of a campaign wagon. Once the public knew, it would act; knowledge produced solutions." Lewis Brandeis captured this theory in an aphorism: "Sunlight is the best disinfectant."

The edenic period to which Danner refers, the 1970s, saw a revival of these ideas. John Gardner, Ralph Nader, and their allies were heirs to Brandeis and La Follette. They won and used the Freedom of Information Act, sued corporations to force disclosure of their records, and barraged the media with statistics. Meanwhile, the New York Times fought the Pentagon in the Supreme Court, and Woodward and Bernstein interviewed Deep Throat in a parking garage. Thanks to their efforts, William Greider argued at the time, "information, not dirty money, is the vital core of the contemporary governing process." This idea could be raised to a very high principle. Dr. King had preached: "We shall overcome because there is something in this universe which justifies William Cullen Bryant in saying truth crushed to earth shall rise again."

A whole slew of liberal "public interest lobbies" arose, whose role was feed hitherto secret information to the public through the nonpartisan and professional press. David Vogel writes that in the early 1970's, nearly 100,000 households gave "at least $70 a year to three or more of the following: Common Cause, Public Citizen, ACLU, public television and public radio, and environmental lobbying groups"--institutions that attempted to check power with data. Senator Abraham Ribikoff observed, "instead of the big lobbies of the major corporations dominating the hearings process, you have had practically every committee in Congress according 'equal time' to public interest people."

Today, I sense a revival of the Brandeis theory of power-through-transparency. It is a reaction to the indefensible secrecy-mania of the Bush years, and it embraces the Internet as a powerful new tool for disclosure. But the previous waves of transparency proved disappointing, and we should bear their lessons in mind.

First of all, more information is not better. Torrents of information can be overwhelming. For instance, what are we supposed to do with the names, addresses, and employers of the millions of people who made political contributions in the 2008 election? We can sort and analyze the data and look for patterns. I helped with that kind of analysis when I worked for Common Cause, and it can be done even more effectively today with new software tools. Hundreds or thousands of meaningful patterns can be found in campaign records. Tens of thousands of people can collaborate in this analysis. They will add little to the obvious truth that politicians take lots of money from individuals with interests before the government, and the same interests typically prevail.

Second, facts and values are not starkly and cleanly separated. All policy debates involve differences in values as well as complex factual premises and causal theories--each involving much uncertainty. In periods of broad ideological consensus, facts become powerful tools in debates. For instance, if all our leaders are Keynsians who expect the government to intervene in certain ways in the economy, facts about incompetence or malfeasance become influential. But if our leaders hold profoundly different views about the proper economic role of government, facts matter much less. They become debating points, and every side can cite its own.

I am not an epistemological skeptic. There are truths and there are falsehoods. But there is also much uncertainty and complexity in the world. If the political culture expects information, everyone will start producing information to support their views, and fundamental truths will (if anything) look more elusive. After the open government reforms of 1972-1976, David Vogel writes, "It took business about seven years to rediscover how to win in Washington." Corporate America appropriated the tactics of the public interest movement, including the "sponsorship of research studies to influence elite opinion, the attention to the media a way of changing public attitudes, the development of techniques of grassroots organizing to mobilize supporters in congressional districts, and the use of ad hoc coalitions to maximize political influence." Some of what business argued was valid. Some was partial or downright false. Regardless, the impact of the public-interest groups declined precipitously, because each of their press releases and studies was now met with a counter-barrage of facts and claims from the other side.

As a political strategy, "exposure" requires organized and motivated organizations that can be trusted to take action in response to problems. Such institutions are weaker today than they were in the mid-20th century. There are many reasons for their decline, but growing transparency certainly didn't help them. In the liberal era of 1940-1960, workers had considerable influence, because the Democratic Party, labor unions, and liberal media were powerful. Rank-and-file constituents of these huge organizations trusted their leaders to tell them how to vote and when to strike. Although this trust could be misplaced, it was often salutary. To acquire political information is difficult, time-consuming, and expensive, so most people don't participate at all unless they are guided by trusted institutions that embody their core values. One set of institutions, political parties, suffered when the campaign-reform and civil-service bills of the early 1970s struck at their main sources of power: fundraising and patronage. The press lost public trust for a whole variety of reasons, including poor media ethics. But I think part of the reason was growing transparency. Readers knew more and became more skeptical about reporters' and editors' motives, and as a result the impact of any given newspaper shrank.

Meanwhile, unions lost members rapidly as a result of mechanization, foreign competition, and weak labor laws. Workers and middle-class consumers did gain the support of lobbies such as Common Cause and Public Citizen, but these groups had far less power than the old party structures had. In 1994, just 2.8 percent of the population said that they were members of "some group like the League of Women Voters, or some other group which is interested in better government." By contrast, almost one third of nonagricultural workers had belonged to unions in 1953, and 47 percent of voting-age Americans had identified themselves as Democrats. The rise of organizations like Public Citizen could hardly compensate for a 50 percent drop in union membership or a 25 percent decline in support for the Democratic Party.

The moral of the story is not to expect that reforms will follow transparency, or that scandals will discipline the powerful. What we need most of all is organization; there is no substitute for it. I am open to the idea that online organizing can complement or even possibly replace offline organizing. But online organization does not equal websites with information, or even computer-based discussions. It means networks of people who are able to get each other to act.

[Note: portions of this post are adapted from my 1999 book, The New Progressive Era, chapter four.]

December 1, 2008 9:44 AM | category: none


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