Leaky politics: the false promise of transparency

Why fetishizing information doesn't equal better politics.

Matthew Fluck Daniel McCarthy
23 December 2016

Dave McGowan. flickr/photographer Andrew Moreton. Some rights reserved. Leaks and exposés are central to our political lives. From leaks during the climax of the US election to revelations about Theresa May’s views on Brexit, their steady drip is aimed at eroding the structures of unaccountable politics. As important as the immediate (if ambiguous) effect of leaks may be, what they tell us about how politics is understood in contemporary liberal democracies is more significant.

First and foremost, the emphasis placed on leaks is indicative of a general distrust of politicians. For example, Americans’ trust in government has trended downwards for 60 years, from a high of 77% in 1964 to a low of 19% today. The British public trusts politicians marginally more at 22%. The sense that politicians and government are hiding something from us underpins the prominence of leaks. This translates into a belief that politicians are not acting in the best interests of the public. Only 19% of Americans believe that government is run for the benefit of all. 75% view corruption in government as widespread. This resonates with the wider atmosphere of distrust of politicians.   

Less apparent, but more fundamental, is the way in which ‘leaky’ politics have been shaped by the generally unacknowledged consensus that politics is about information as such. Once information is given pride of place, our understanding of what politics is changes. Rather than competition between opposed but possibly legitimate interest groups struggling over social and economic issues, lack of information becomes the defining political problem – if only we knew more we could make the right choice.

This assumption holds for voters and commentators on the Left and Right, ‘populists’ and ‘elites’ alike. In the aftermath of the surprise US election results, a common criticism is that Trump voters were ill-informed – as if this, rather than their values or interests, explains their rejection of the status quo. A similar attitude was apparent in the UK’s referendum on EU membership when ‘Remainers’ pointed to the supposed ignorance of ‘Brexit’ voters. For Trump supporters, it is secretive Washington politicians who have been preventing America from becoming great again. Politics becomes less about competing views of what is good or right and more about revealing the underlying facts.

This view of politics is sustained by simplistic understandings of power and knowledge. Power is imagined as individuals hiding behind closed doors to engage in secret practices of self-enrichment. For voters who embrace this ‘Wizard of Oz’ picture of politics, empowerment will come when the curtain is thrown back and the conspirators are revealed. The Trump campaign made this a central plank of their platform, engaging in talk of election-rigging long before it became prominent in media discourse. Indeed Steve Bannon, White House chief strategist-to-be, made his name as founder of right-wing news site Brietbart, which regularly hosts conspiracy-tinged news and editorials.

Against this background, it becomes plausible to characterize political opponents as evil incarnate. The problem, of course, is that one cannot compromise with evil. 

As Michael Barkun has noted, the large-scale application of conspiratorial thinking “implies a culture war far more extreme than anything seen previously.” Against this background, it becomes plausible to characterize political opponents as evil incarnate. The problem, of course, is that one cannot compromise with evil. This is the worst outcome of the ‘paranoid style’ of American politics.

Despite the high value placed on information, the complexities of knowledge production – for example, processes of scientific experimentation and justification – have no place in the world of ‘politics as information.’ In this context, it’s assumed that climate scientists engage in the same activities of secretive self-promotion as politicians. An expert is simply one amongst a multitude of information sources clamouring for our attention.

The depth of the problem is apparent when we consider those actors who find themselves increasingly at home in this political landscape. Putin’s ‘weaponized relativism’ involves a baffling deluge of information released with no regard for the niceties of justification. The American alt-right thrives on the ‘facts’ of pseudo-scientific racism. When combined with the cultural relativism implicit in the informational market-place – where feelings about information are claimed to provide the strongest guide to its factuality – the notion that the truth is being hidden from view seems ever more plausible. 

These problems don’t result from a lack of public education or sophistication. There have been endless promises that greater citizen access to information will lead to the improved responsiveness of democratic institutions. For decades now, corporations, politicians, media outlets and civil society organizations like Wikileaks and Transparency International have linked political empowerment with the possession of data. The language of corporations and politicians is littered with references to ‘transparency.’

Politics as information mirrors deeply embedded assumptions about how markets work. In the assumptions of neoclassical economics for example, full information allows markets to function perfectly. When politics is understood as information, the analogy from economics to politics is carried over. Citizens are supposedly empowered by access to information, just as buyers and sellers are empowered in the marketplace. This assumes that ‘perfect markets’ can be mirrored by ‘perfect politics,’ inevitably leading to disappointment when these utopian ideas are not fulfilled.

The political crisis currently engulfing the United States and other liberal democracies can be traced, in part, to the informational worldview. The emphasis on leaks, hacks, and information disclosures in the US presidential campaign were merely the latest manifestations of the increasingly impoverished political culture it has produced.

This is not the era of ‘post-truth.’ 2016’s ‘word of the year’ obscures the contradictory process through which truth, knowledge, and politics are trampled in the stampede for hidden information. Real long-term structural inequalities, deeply-ingrained conflicts of interests between social classes, and the actual substance of politics have been displaced. They have not, however, evaporated. Transparent politics, when understood as simply more access to more information for more people, cannot generate the political empowerment many citizens so desperately seek.

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