Over the last few days there have been a number of posts acknowledging the arrival of a more open and transparent presidency and government, including Mark Story’s piece here on Media Bullseye. Many are praising the White House blog, but that praise is tempered with wistful requests that the blog open up to comments. While the point of a more transparent government is an understandable one, I have yet to hear a good answer as to why the presidency should be more directly interactive with citizens. What, exactly, do people feel this will accomplish–what is the objective?
Let’s first examine the wish for a more transparent government. While I understand the desire, I question not only the practicality of this, but also the wisdom behind it. Mark tackled the practicality in his piece, so I’ll take on the wisdom. We’ve all heard the adage that making laws is like making sausage: you don’t really want to see how it is done.
What stands out in my mind are the significant pieces of legislation and historical events that only came about through back-room arm twisting, sleight of hands with committee selection, and other seemingly nefarious legislative activity–including no less than the 1964 Civil Rights act. Wikipedia has a fair description of some of the wrangling that went on, but I’d recommend reading “The Longest Debate: A legislative history of the 1964 Civil Rights Act” for a jaw-dropping examination of the legislative process behind the passage of this monumental piece of law. (Two other books along the same lines are A Man Called Intrepid (about WWII), and Charlie Wilson’s War (Soviet invasion of Afghanistan). I’m sure there are many others–if there’s one I should read, let me know in the comments.) The point I’m trying to make is that transparency is a double-edged sword: it will be very good for some things (e.g. exposing pork barrel spending), but could be counterproductive for others.
White House Blog: Comments?
Moving on, what is the objective in opening up the White House blog to comments? I am very surprised to see anyone advocating it, the problems with this should be so apparent they’re almost not worth discussing. But I will ask anyway–what does this accomplish other than giving people yet another sounding board to voice their opinions? There are already numerous ways this can be done, by contacting your Member of Congress, writing letters to the editor, comments on political blogs, submitting emails to the talking head of your choice on any of the major cable news networks, and so on. Do we really need yet another outlet for opinions?
I’m solidly against the idea of comments on the White House blog. First, let’s see if it can even provide interesting content. Given the complex web of regulations and laws surrounding what can be said through official channels, interesting content could be a challenge. The potential exists for this official outlet to contain the same type of content that makes people complain about corporate blogs–reconstituted press releases, announcements that we’d hear on the news anyway, and so on.
But, for argument’s sake, let’s say the content is interesting and informative, and gives us insight as to what is driving the executive branch’s decision making process in supporting a piece of legislation. What purpose is served by opening up comments? I don’t see the point. The President can’t *do* anything with those comments. They can’t be used to demonstrate support for a political objective because the system can be gamed. Were I a member of congress who was presented with a list of blog comments by the White House to show support for (or opposition to) legislation, I’d laugh out loud. Give me a scientifically valid poll demonstrating the same and I’ll listen. But blog comments moderated by the White House staff? No thanks. As far as I can see, allowing comments on the White House blog serve absolutely no purpose whatsoever short of making people feel good.
Action and intent
Do people advocating this interaction assume that the executive branch will act on content suggested through direct citizen involvement? If so, it might not even be Constitutional.
Now that I have your attention, I’ll admit that’s likely an overstatement. However, the fact remains that the United States was not set up as a direct democracy–it’s a representative republic; the branches of government are separate. The legislative branch is designed to be closest to the people, allowing them to best represent the general and specific interests of their constituents. If the idea is to circumvent the legislative branch, why’d we even bother getting rid of the king?
I’m interested in hearing what the proponents of a social government feel are the concrete, tangible benefits arising from direct interaction between the executive branch and the general population. I just don’t see it–and maybe it will make more sense to me after the release of the Open Government Directive, but I’d like to hear your thoughts now. For what it’s worth, it looks like the challenges are going to be more daunting than the White House staff might have initially suspected.