The End of Democracy? [2]

Democracy is supposed to provide a means of aggregating diverse views into a coherent, consistent outcome. However, what happens when activists, interest groups, special interests, and other organizations start to understand the policy process so well that government screeches to a standstill? Today, almost every political decision is blasted by some group - making it literally impossible to actually govern.

The response to this environment was in the New York Times:

The remarkably rapid progress of the tax revisions - without a public hearing or town-hall-style meeting - provided the most striking illustration to date of Mr. Cuomo’s policymaking strategy: information is tightly controlled, negotiations are carried out behind closed doors and the debate is limited to just a few people.

The tactics, derided by government watchdog groups and some lawmakers, have proved highly effective during Mr. Cuomo’s first year in office, as he has pushed, against long odds, to win passage of same-sex marriage, a property tax cap, a reworking of ethics rules and extensive budget cuts. And his efforts appeared likely to be rewarded again this week: The Senate approved the tax code changes on Wednesday night, and the Assembly was poised to follow suit.

While derided as anti-democratic, these sorts of tactics are beyond necessary in a media and political system that emphasizes outrage and focuses on the extreme. Ideally, we elect politicians to solve society’s pressing problems through an open and fair process, where every citizen has the right to provide input and shape the final decision. Realistically though, open and transparent government rarely provides the environment needed for politicians to actually do their jobs.

This is one of modern laws of democratic politics: transparency prevents things from happening. If you want to shut down public schools, ensure that the data from those schools are easily available (while perhaps blocking access to the data from private/charter schools). Journalists and academics, who are rewarded and incentivized to find the most salacious pieces of data, will publicize the most damning pieces to a wide audience. You can pick any public policy issue and follow the same process. This is why groups like the National Rifle Association work so hard to prevent the release of data on guns and public health.

When activists demand the governor’s schedule, it is not for pedestrian reasons. Instead, it is to literally count the number of meetings with the opposing side in order to write vituperative press releases that blast him for having meetings at all. The level of transparency demanded creates an environment in which just meeting with a constituency itself is political, despite that activity being one of the core functions of being a politician in the first place.

More importantly though, data that comes out of these government transparency initiatives are rarely complete. There are immense politics to data, and all politicians and their aides are well aware that public opinion can be swayed by its careful release. As I have said on numerous occasions and will repeat here: looking at data is great, but looking at what data is absent is even more important. We analyze what we can see, and what we can see is often politically skewed (the Drunkard’s Search comes to mind).

I am not opposed to transparency. Instead, I see it as a tool like any other policy to form and shape the political debate. An overload of transparency prevents actions from occurring by providing data fodder for every interest group to build attacks. Governor Cuomo understands this, and so pays respects to the ideas of transparency while doing little that is transparent. That may not be democratic - but it sure is smart.