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Monday, November 03, 2003

Democracy between elections

It is election day in Kentucky (and in other places, like Mississippi and Pennslyvania).

Much of my academic work focuses on democratizing international institutions that do not have elections. How can the UN, WTO, World Bank, IMF and other similar institutions be made more democratic?

Over the years, I've borrowed a lot of political thinking from theorists who study the so-called "public sphere." Something like democratic deliberation is possible in political communities featuring inclusive membership, member equality, open (as opposed to secret) governance, and varied outlets for public discussion.

Even political systems featuring regular and fair elections can fall well short of deliberative ideals if their governing bodies attempt to exclude legitimate participation or embrace secrecy rather than transparency.

As I've blogged before, I fear the Bush administration greatly over-values secrecy, tough they usually justify their lack of transparency by referencing security needs.

Bush's affinity for secrecy is well documented. Rather than recount the classification of government records, the stonewalling of congressional investigators, and the removal of information from websites in the wake of 9/11, I'll send interested readers to a few websites that monitor this sort of information.

Jay Bookman of the Atlanta Journal Constitution had a very good op-ed on this broad theme in Monday's paper. Because my own work is quite consistent with the argument, let me quote several of his paragraphs: "Bush team's info-phobia hurts us, them."
the consequences of information phobia have run exceedingly deep. In essence, the Bush administration is denying itself the benefit of self-correcting mechanisms that have long made democracy the best form of government known to mankind.

Democratic theory holds that open, well-informed discussion by citizens -- competition in the marketplace of ideas -- will in time produce the best policy. The Bush administration, however, believes that it has already decided upon the best policy, and that open, well-informed debate within its offices or in the country at large could only mislead people.

So it attempts to deny people information that they would need to reach competing points of view. It attempts to silence others through intimidation or attacks on patriotism. It attempts to mislead if necessary. And any debate it fails to squelch through those means it simply chooses to ignore.
This is why citizens should be every bit as angry about secrecy as they are about potential denial of voting rights to citizens.

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