21st century politics does not mean the Federal Government has entered a new, high-tech era of responsiveness, transparency, and accountability. Just the opposite is true. It means our sprawling bureaucracy’s inability to keep up with the times will become more glaring. It also means that timeworn campaign promises being made again for 2016 have to be refashioned so they still have some shred of believability.
Three big campaign promises best ignored
Campaign promises need to be glib. They need to be vague enough to leave room for backpedaling and outright denial. Most of all they need to be hopeful and forward-looking, even when they are so old voters stopped listening years ago. Three words fit the ticket: transparency, accountability, and participation. They are what everyone wants from government no matter how large or small. We want government to be open and honest. We want public officials to account for what they do. We want to feel like we have a voice. Barack Obama promised all three of these things when he took over:
My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government. We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.
Government should be transparent. Transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their Government is doing.1
These promises haven’t worked out so well for Mr. Obama. We still hear these words from the White House, but now they defend what happens when we don’t have transparency, accountability, or participation and get NSA spying and IRS treachery instead (see: Security, Protecting Privacy Are Not the Real Problems).
The one good thing about promising transparency, accountability, and participation is that they are values Republicans and Democrats claim to believe in. That doesn’t mean they deliver on these values. They just share them. When the time comes to run for office, they are stumping mainstays that harken back to what government could have been before politicians got their hands on it.
This is how these three promises work out away from the campaign trail:
Democrat and presidential candidate Martin O’Malley hit all the notes by insisting on a massive oxymoron, “transparent, accountable, high-performing government.”2 Big government can’t be any of these things, much less all three. That doesn’t mean that transparency is always being obstructed, though that certainly happens. The problem is there is too much to pay attention to and too many opinions on what transparency is good for. For example, Ted Cruz sponsored the Federal Reserve Transparency Act of 2015:
“… so the American people can fully understand the scope and consequences of the agency’s extraordinary monetary policy since 2008,” Cruz said.3
Candidate Bernie Sanders did not cosponsor Cruz’s bill, even though he tried the same thing in 2010. Sanders called for an end to secrecy at the Fed for a different reason, to further his never-ending crusade against big banks:
When trillions of dollars of taxpayer money are being lent out to the largest financial institutions in this country, the American people have a right to know who received that money and what they did with it.4
If Sanders wins the White House he’ll be asking wealthy Americans to be pretty transparent about what they do with their money, too.
This one applies to everything from legislating grants for body cameras with candidate Rand Paul’s “Police Creating Accountability by Making Effective Recording Available (Police CAMERA) Act of 2015,”5 to making sure government doesn’t spend too much money.
Nothing speaks to Washington accountability like the Benghazi Accountability Review Board. Among other things, the board recommended creating the usual panel of experts and a “Security Accountability Framework.”6 Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton moved on and is now running for president. That’s how accountability really works.
Some like to call this participatory democracy, but it hurts less just to call it participation.
Many of us aren’t interested in participating in politics. We show it by refusing to vote. Perhaps if we believed we had a voice and our voice was answered, we wouldn’t be so dissatisfied with Congress and our president.
This isn’t the kind of public participation candidates will talk about. Their kind of participation means convincing you that they represent your interests, as if what you want for this country mattered. It’s difficult to run a political campaign based on the ugly truth that what voters want is very low on any candidate’s list of priorities and counts for almost nothing between elections.
Public participation was one of the things Barack Obama talked about in those heady days of 2009 before political realities dashed his hopes for a legacy to end all presidential legacies. Public participation Obama-style means being told what we want and then blaming the Republican Party for not delivering. If we get a Republican president and a hostile Congress in 2016, we’ll hear the same thing from the right. At least we can count on a truism that never changes: if you need something and have to look to the government or politicians to provide it, you are already out of luck.