Americans are about to elect one of the most secretive presidents in recent memory, regardless of which major party candidate wins. Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton either don’t understand or simply reject the virtue of transparency.
Why should you care? In our personal lives, most of us value privacy: We don’t necessarily want everyone to know how much money we make, how we spend it, how healthy we are or what we say to friends and colleagues. So what’s the big deal if some government officials or candidates for high office get to keep some of that information private, too?
The key reason transparency is so important is the unique power that governments wield. Voters cannot make informed choices unless they have all the relevant facts about candidates and issues. Taxpayers can’t be sure that their tax money has been spent as intended unless government expenditures are audited and published.
As President Obama said in his second day in office: “The way to make government responsible is to hold it accountable. And the way to make government accountable is make it transparent so that the American people can know exactly what decisions are being made, how they're being made, and whether their interests are being well served.”
The beginning of the Obama administration appears to have been the high point for government transparency at the federal level. Obama promised the most transparent administration in history, and took a number of measures to back up that promise. For example, the administration created a web site to show how all the money from the 2009 stimulus bill was spent.
Unfortunately, critics found large errors on that web site and it is no longer active. As time passed, Obama de-emphasized transparency and the administration became more secretive. Last year, for example, the administration exempted a key White House office from having to comply with the Freedom of Information Act.
Even though his administration fell short, at least Obama’s heart was in the right place. The same cannot be said of the two individuals vying to replace him.
Lacking a background in government or a publicly listed company, it is fair to say that Trump hasn’t had much reason to think about open records. Since his family-owned enterprises do not have to file periodic SEC reports, he has been accustomed to making business decisions in secret. His refusal to release his tax returns or detailed medical records appear to be grounded in a private individual’s preference for secrecy — or perhaps a businessperson’s desire to find an edge wherever he can. But by becoming a public figure, not just in the reality show sense but as a candidate for the world’s most powerful office, he forfeits this right to privacy. Yet Trump has been fairly described as the least transparent presidential candidate in modern history. The fact that he stubbornly conceals his business dealings and thus his numerous potential conflicts of interest is a serious concern.
Trump’s approach to transparency may be rooted in his business background. Hillary Clinton’s may come as the result of her decades of political experience. One of her formative experiences was listening to Richard Nixon’s presidential tapes as a lawyer for the House Judiciary Committee. The recordings revealed Nixon’s profanity, bigotry and complicity in criminal activities; they played a pivotal role in ending his presidency and destroying his reputation.
By 2009, email messages had replaced taped conversations. Clinton chose to avoid Nixon’s mistake by keeping her public records on a private email server, beyond the reach of FOIA requests. On some level, her choice was understandable: During her husband’s administration, Republicans used whatever transparency tools were available to unearth embarrassing information that might drive him from office and she did not want to be subject to similar attacks. Unfortunately, that vulnerability goes with the territory when one seeks high office.
For some Clinton supporters, preventing a Trump victory is more important than open government, so they have started to attack the whole concept of transparency. In a Vox article entitled “Against Transparency,” Matthew Yglesias argues that government officials’ emails should be private because email is a conversational medium. The fear that emails will become public prevents officials from candidly discussing policy options, undermining government effectiveness. And, in Yglesias’ view, Americans are more concerned with government agencies being effective than being transparent.
The problem Yglesias’s line of reasoning is that effectiveness is highly subjective. The EPA is arguably most effective when it fulfills its environmental mandate by shutting down businesses that pollute, but it does so at the cost of destroying jobs. Further, most of us would prefer a government that is ineffective at the task of breaking into a political party’s offices to plant listening devices, and one that is ineffective at killing civilians on inner city streets or overseas.
Kevin Drum in Mother Jones gets to the core of the pro-Clinton, anti-transparency narrative when he complains that “Between Benghazi committees and Judicial Watch's anti-Hillary jihad, Clinton's emails have been steadily dripped out practically monthly, even though there's never been any compelling reason for it. It's been done solely to keep her alleged corruption in the public eye.”
On one level, I am sympathetic with Drum’s concern: Far more deaths have resulted from the errant decision to invade Iraq than from the failure to fortify the American outpost at Benghazi, yet the latter has received far more congressional scrutiny. But the drip of emails he complains about is mostly the result of the State Department’s slowness in complying with orders to release the material. Further, the Benghazi investigations did unearth the existence of the private email server and also showed that administration officials knowingly lied about the attack being caused by a controversial anti-Islamic movie when they knew that it was a planned terrorist strike.
I can understand why Yglesias and Drum make such arguments; indeed, I agree with them that the country will be better off if Clinton wins. That said, they should not throw the cause of transparency under the bus to secure her election.
Last week, the Sunlight Foundation, a pioneering nonpartisan nonprofit that has advocated for open government, announced it would retrench and possibly close. That sad news capped off a bad year for advocates of transparency, and the next four years look likely to be tough ones. Even so, as we saw this week at the Data Transparency 2016 conference in Washington, D.C., open government initiatives have received bi-partisan support in the current Congress. I can only hope that journalists, good-government types and civic hackers will continue to work together to ensure that sunlight shines on the darkest corners of the bureaucracy.