Of all the non-surprises in the much-hyped WikiLeaks release of hacked emails from the Hillary Clinton campaign, none was less revelatory than the predictable fact that she had preached the gospel of limited disclosure, behind closed doors.
“If everybody’s watching, you know, all of the backroom discussions and the deals, you know, then people get a little nervous, to say the least,” she told the National Multifamily Housing Council in 2013, apropos the legislative sausage factory. “So you need both a public and a private position.”
This was perfectly in character for the famously wary pol who declared, in 2003, that “I believe in a zone of privacy,” then acted on that belief six years later, when she became secretary of state, by using a home-brew email server instead of the official system as the rules required — followed by a fumbling coverup.
American moralism and election-year politics being what they are, her remark played as a confession of two-facedness — though it was mightily and, from Clinton’s point of view, blessedly overshadowed by the awful caught-on-tape sexual transgression of Donald Trump.
What really would be surprising, and pleasantly so, would be if the WikiLeaks raid on the Clinton campaign’s e-archives led to a more mature, differentiated debate about the uses of publicity and privacy in democratic politics.
Transparency is the ultimate guarantor of democratic accountability. Like all good things, however, transparency can be taken to an extreme. Recent events — including the convoluted spectacle of a democracy’s presidential candidate’s internal communications being stolen and selectively publicized by a totally nontransparent organization of computer hackers, perhaps backed by a foreign dictatorship’s secret intelligence service — suggest that we may be reaching that point.
The same technology that enables all of us, politicians included, to communicate globally nearly instantaneously is also exposing everyone to near-instantaneous disclosure, also on a global scale, of pretty much anything they might do or say. “In this world today you should have no expectation of privacy,” former George W. Bush political adviser Karl Rove remarked recently, with chilling accuracy.
This is a positive development with respect to wrongdoing, such as police brutality, that may no longer hide in the social shadows, because everyone with a cellphone — or, say, a video camera built into their eyeglasses — can be a documentary filmmaker. It is positive, too, in the sense that political chicanery and outright corruption may be more readily deterred.
To the extent that Clinton’s career-long quest for a zone of privacy has really been about securing protection for her husband’s philandering, or other questionable activity by herself and her associates, it is self-serving and reprehensible, as her critics say.
But one person’s corrupt bargain is another’s transactional politics. Much if not most of the internal Clinton campaign deliberations exposed by WikiLeaks were of the latter, run-of-the-mill stripe. It was actually reassuring to learn that the campaign considered the view of skeptical “liberal economists,” instead of buckling to Bernie Sanders’s demand for a $15 minimum wage for short-term political gain.
Insofar as Clinton’s 2013 speech was a plea for some space in which political leaders and their advisers could meet and discuss issues candidly among themselves, without grandstanding or fear of immediate leaks to the whole world, she was simply advocating a necessary exception to democracy’s full-disclosure rule.
There was something refreshing about Clinton’s willingness to embrace and acknowledge the inevitable public-private tension — albeit off the record! — instead of pretending, hypocritically, that “the process” would work better in the full light of day.
Confidentiality is no guarantee of policymaking success, as her own disastrous attempt to hammer out a health-care bill in secret demonstrated in 1993. However, then-candidate Barack Obama’s 2008 promise to air his health-care reform drafting sessions “on C-SPAN” (a quaint, low-tech promise in hindsight) was even sillier, as shown by his eventual resort to backroom dealings to get reform passed.
We still don’t quite live in the panopticon world of “The Lives of Others,” the 2006 film about East German intellectuals under the brooding gaze of that country’s secret police — Edward Snowden’s warnings to the contrary notwithstanding.
The present danger to democratically necessary privacy is not so much “the surveillance state” as it is something even more bewildering: surveillance anarchy.
We need to understand this challenge, and deal with it, if we are to reap the benefits of greater transparency while sustaining the basic interpersonal trust upon which democratic governance, like all decent social institutions, ultimately depends.
Hillary Clinton may not be the ideal spokeswoman for such an effort, for obvious reasons. It’s a valid effort just the same.
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