Tuesday, June 04, 2013

The Democratic Partisan Backroom

Begin with the assumption, common among most journalists, that the principal purpose of the media is to provide people with the data necessary to form right political judgments, a theme that runs like a hot wire though most classic defenses of freedom of the press, including John Milton’s Areopagetica, a speech addressed by Milton to the English parliament subtitled “For the Liberty of UNLICENC'D PRINTING, To the PARLAMENT of ENGLAND.”

“This is true Liberty when free born men
Having to advise the public may speak free,
Which he who can, and will, deserv's high praise,
Who neither can nor will, may hold his peace;
What can be juster in a State than this?”

Milton’s speech was ignored by the parliament of his day but later made its way through the schools as a classic defense of free speech rights. It may still be taught in journalism classes; but if not, inquiring minds may pick it up on the internet.

What we might call the letter and spirit of the Areopagetica, one of the first and most vigorous defenses of free speech in the English speaking world, is often frustrated by political regimes for obvious reasons. The operative principle of most governing authorities – Yes, Virginia, even in the case of democracies – is this: That government governs best that governs in secret. All governments TEND towards secrecy. There are corollaries to this general tendency: In a democracy in which a free press has not been wholly co-opted by the governing authority, secrecy can only prosper with the willing acquiescence of journalists.

The governing authority in a democracy prefers to conduct its business in private back rooms because governing in the open is extremely difficult. Authoritarian democrats want to give the public an opportunity to ratify their decisions, but the public must be denied input while deliberations are in process. The United States, after all, is not a pure democracy but a republic, and it is the duty of every republican, as Edmund Burke once said, to exercise while in office one’s informed representative judgment.

In his “Speech to the Electors at Bristol, Burke said:

“Certainly, gentlemen, it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

The judgments made by republican legislators, Burke goes on to declare, cannot be a mere matter of will and inclination, and he warned specifically against what we might call the “politics of interests.”

Parliamentarians and congressmen are not “ambassadors from different and hostile interests” but “parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole; where, not local purposes, not local prejudices, ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole.”

Connecticut’s final gun bill, the most restrictive in the nation, was not exposed to a public hearing before passage; Republicans consistently have been barred from budget deliberations; the independence of various watchdog commissions has been compromised; and – this is but a partial listing – the oversight responsibilities of the Freedom of Information Commission could only be diminished by proposed legislation  that removes from the purview of the FOI law information that for decades has been available for public inspection. Windows are closed, doors are slammed shut. These are the marks of a state that, fearful of the public notice, is steadily drifting towards a ruinous paternalistic solicitude, the enemy of democratic self-sufficiency. 

Temperamentally at least, most journalists are opposed to the iron curtain many politicians cannot resist drawing down upon their deliberations – especially when journalists sense that congress itself has become an ideological assembly devoted to the interest of self-maintenance, a prospect much more likely in a one party state. Connecticut is tending towards a one party state, and in the unitary state, the broad and general good of the people is the first sacrifice to the interests of the ruling party.
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