The work of politics requires backrooms, closed doors, and confidential communications. This reality is often undervalued today. We live in an age where everything can potentially be captured on camera or shared across the country for anyone to view. In the United States we have passed laws opening up the legislative process, freeing up information and communications, and bringing transparency to the political process. Doing this however, has made the actual process of governing and reaching legislative decisions nearly impossible.
Jonathan Rauch writes about this reality in his book Political Realism and he argues that there are some things in government that have bad optics, but are necessary for a functioning political system. He writes, “In full public view, complicated deal-building is hard to do, indeed usually impossible; therefore machines tend to prefer privacy.” In order to build a coalition, leaders and individuals need to be able to bargain and compromise. A bill that may be incredibly beneficial for one group of people or for a certain state could be completely unfavorable for a different group of people or for individuals in a different jurisdiction than the target population. Anyone representing the group that does not get anything will be politically pressured to oppose the new legislation, even if it makes a huge difference for a politically sympathetic group someplace else. Deal-making, compromise, and making trades allows coalitions to be built in these situations, but this type of deal-making must be done in private. In the open, trading votes in such a way can be ruinous.
Politics requires a delicate balance between transparency and privacy. Too much privacy and we risk corruption, but too much transparency and we risk unending political fights with no path forward for even sensible legislation. In the United States Congress is one of the most open institutions. Congressional emails are saved, debates and meetings are televised, and reporters swarm the capital every day. As a result, our representatives must be open about their processes, goals, and deal-making activities. What we ultimately see, is a branch of government that cannot move forward with major pieces of legislation and has incredibly low favorability.
In contrast, out nation’s Supreme Court is relatively well liked. It is closed from the public and allowed, even expected to have, deliberations in back rooms and behind closed doors. Decisions must be made and when they are, they are usually well accepted. I don’t think congress should operate like the Supreme Court, but I think Rauch’s argument should be taken seriously. We should find ways to allow political decisions to be private and safe for legislators, so deals can be made that help our nation move forward, even if they are politically toxic for some members who must go along with the rest of congress.