Friday, June 17, 2011

Privacy, Democracy, and Deliberation

This week marked the 40th anniversary of the release of the Pentagon Papers. Daniel Ellsberg leaked the classified, massive report outlining the full history of American involvement in Vietnam to the New York Times who ran portions of it. It was the act that led Nixon to create "the plumbers," a group of covert spies working for the White House whose job was to sabotage the lives and work he saw as enemies.

Interestingly, this week, we also had a CIA operative come out and admit that the Bush administration told him twice to investigate Juan Cole, a political science professor at Yale whose blog offered the strongest and most well-reasoned arguments against the Bush administrations claims during the march to war against Iraq. This Nixonian behavior from an administration who was simultaneously arguing quite vociferously that all discussions with the President by anyone offering advice needed to be kept confidential so that the President would receive "unvarnished" recommendations. If the discussion could be made part of the larger discourse, then people would not really speak their minds, but say what would be popular, not what they really believed.

Our representative democracy is at root based on an Enlightenment concept that a well-informed electorate will make the best decisions. As such, for the people to decide whether an office holder is doing a good job and deserves re-election, we need to be well-informed about his or her decisions. Does this information include only the decision and the results of the decision or does the process leading up to the decision also need to be made public? Would such a move damage the deliberative process in the way the Bush folks claimed? If so, we have a conflict between democratic values and the ability of democratically elected representatives to effectively govern. Which ought to take precedent here?