Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Bill Cronon, ALEC, and Undermining Democracy

In a Slate op/ed, Jack Shafer wrongly argues that there's nothing problematic with the FOIA requests filed by Republicans to examine the e-mails of Professor Bill Cronon. Shafer contends that because the Republicans are within their rights to file such a claim, that they cannot but be right in doing so. This claim, however, is wrong.

If you haven't been following the Bill Cronon case, here's the quick and dirty. Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin, has been using the financial crisis as an excuse to put forward a radical conservative agenda that includes busting the state employees' union. Bill Cronon, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin, found that Walker has ties to the group ALEC, a fact that is relevant to the discussion of the governor's proposals and he filed FOIA requests to document the governor's connection.

ALEC is a non-profit organization whose mission is to bring together conservative law makers and corporations in a way that allows the writing of bills not just to be influenced by corporate interests, but taken over completely. Legislators are no longer writing bills that include goodies suggested by corporations, the corporate lawyers literally meet with the conservative representatives at ALEC events and give them the bills they want passed in their jurisdictions. Law makers are relieved of having to make laws and simply become couriers and enablers. Republican elected officials at all levels, from the local to the highest national, allow themselves to become puppets of corporate interests and ALEC is the place where they can stick their hand up the backside of their puppets of choice.

This is, of course, a perversion of democracy in itself. No longer are the elected representatives acting in the public interest, or even doing their jobs writing legislation. It undermines the structure and promote plutocracy over democracy.

What Professor Cronon was doing by bringing this connection to light is to inform the electorate. This is place number two where questions of functional democracy arise in this story. For a democratic system to work, the voters must be rational and well-informed in order to make good decisions. What Professor Cronon was doing was to try to bring relevant information to the electorate, information that the secretive group ALEC and the associated politicians wanted kept from view. As such, Professor Cronon's FOIA requests were designed with the explicit intent to add facts to the debate, to better inform the popular discussion. In this way, his FOIA requests were in the interest of democracy and the attempts to keep the facts hidden, a second place where democracy was being undermined.

When these requests were made public, a group of Republicans filed FOIA requests to get access to Professor Cronon's e-mails. As a professor at a state university, he may not use his work account for anything that is not related to his work at the university, especially political activities. These Republicans were fishing for evidence that he had used his work address to contribute to the recall effort of Governor Walker. If they could find such evidence, they could cause serious professional trouble for the professor. And even if they found nothing, they would be sending a clear message that anyone who dares to bring to light information that is inconvenient for the Republican majority would be made to pay. It was an electronic brick through his window.

Shafer argues that because Bill Cronon is an employee of a state university, that the FOIA request was legal. Indeed it is. But legality is not the issue here. Lots of threats are legall. But what was the point of the threat, of the fishing expedition through his e-mails?

It was meant to silence critics. It was a classic case of bullying. Legal bullying, granted, but bullying nonetheless. It was meant to silence a voice and that is point three where we see an undermining of democracy. A functional democracy requires an open marketplace of ideas with multiple voices not afraid to clash. Where Professor Cronon's FOIA requests were designed to add facts to the larger discourse, the ones filed against Professor Cronin were done not to add anything at all the conversation -- after all, his activities or non-activities are in no way relevant to the discussion. The intention was the opposite, to subtract a voice and the facts it brings from the conversation. To keep the electorate less informed and to make sure that any other do-gooders who would want to follow in his footsteps and bring even more information would hesitate and maybe even cease their activities in contributing to the democratic discourse.

Was such bullying legal? Yes. But legal does not mean moral, and it does not mean serving the democratic process. It is here that Shafer misses the entire point. This act was despicable. It needs to be called out and those who work to inform the electorate need protection. This, I suppose, is a point one hopes that journalists, of all people, understand.