In “Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde“, Robert Louis Stevenson describes how the eminent Henry Jekyll wanted to be relieved of his conscience. From time to time Jekyll had indulged in shameful vice. However his enjoyment was ruined in two ways: first by the fear of discovery and second, by the guilt which he felt afterward. Thus torn, Jekyll resolved to let it all hang out yet somehow retain his respectability.
I saw that, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness … I was radically both … If each, I told myself, could but be housed in separate identities, life would be relieved of all that was unbearable; the unjust delivered from the aspirations might go his way, and remorse of his more upright twin; and the just could walk steadfastly and securely on his upward path, doing the good things in which he found his pleasure, and no longer exposed to disgrace and penitence by the hands of this extraneous evil.
The result was the famous dual personality Jekyll/Hyde. There seem days when politicians, like Dr. Jekyll, seem weary of maintaining the pretense and tempted to simply drop the mask. James Taranto writing in the Wall Street Journal notes that Hillary Clinton is responding to a request for her official emails in a calculatingly insulting way. She’s turning over the emails as printed pages, almost as if to show her displeasure at being questioned, the way a man might resentfully pay the balance of his home loan with barrels full of pennies.
If you were following the revelations about Hillary Clinton’s private State Department IT operation last week, you probably heard that, as the initial New York Times story put it, “55,000 pages of emails were given to the department” in December after being selected by a private aide to the former secretary. You might have wondered: What does that mean, 55,000 “pages”? Or maybe you just read it, as the crack fact-check team over at PolitiFact did just last night, as 55,000 emails.
It turns out the reference is to literal physical pages. From Friday’s Times: “Finally, in December, dozens of boxes filled with 50,000 pages of printed emails from Mrs. Clinton’s personal account were delivered to the State Department.”
Why did Mrs. Clinton have her staff go through the trouble of printing out, boxing and shipping 50,000 or 55,000 pages instead of just sending a copy of the electronic record? One can only speculate, but there is an obvious advantage: Printed files are less informative and far harder to search than the electronic originals.
Because State has only printouts of emails, department personnel responding to a Freedom of Information Act request have to go through the whole haystack rather than type “needle” into a search engine. At best, that would mean long delays in FOIA compliance.
Likewise, printouts are not subject to electronic discovery in the event of investigation or lawsuit. The Times reports that department lawyers responding to a request from the House Select Committee on Benghazi took two months to find “roughly 900 pages pertaining to the Benghazi attacks.” And printouts do not include electronic “metadata,” which can provide crucial forensic evidence.
It’s not just Hillary either. President Obama told the public with a straight face that he only learned that his Secretary of State used a private email account from the news media. Bill Clinton has responded to reports that his foundation has received large sums of money from Middle Eastern potentates with a breezy ‘why not?’ “We do get money from other countries, and some of them are in the Middle East,” Clinton said. “I think it’s a good thing.”
When the great realize that nothing can actually stop them then the temptation to dispense with the inconvenience of pretense grows too great to resist. It’s getting hard to be just plain folks for show any more.
Matthew Yglesias, writing in Vox, indirectly captures this desire to give free rein to ambition when he argues that America is doomed because the Constitution is flawed and standing in the way of progress.
America’s constitutional democracy is going to collapse. … In a parliamentary system, deadlocks get resolved. A prime minister who lacks the backing of a parliamentary majority is replaced by a new one who has it. If no such majority can be found, a new election is held and the new parliament picks a leader. It can get a little messy for a period of weeks, but there’s simply no possibility of a years-long spell in which the legislative and executive branches glare at each other unproductively.
But within a presidential system, gridlock leads to a constitutional trainwreck with no resolution. The United States’s recent government shutdowns and executive action on immigration are small examples of the kind of dynamic that’s led to coups and putsches abroad.
Things worked well when politics consisted of backroom deals. But somewhere along the line politics got polluted with principle and the machine ground to a stop on a whole range of issues.
While Gilded Age members of Congress voted in a highly partisan way, their voting didn’t reflect any polarization of ideas evident in broader American society. As Charles Calhoun, a leading scholar of Gilded Age politics has written, the main concern of actual members of Congress was not policy, but “patronage power, the privilege of placing one’s political friends and supporters in in subordinate offices. …
Today’s partisan polarization, in other words, is not the same as its Gilded Age predecessor. The old polarization was about control over jobs and money — the kind of thing where split-the-difference compromises are easiest. That polarization was eventually undermined by a new politics built around principles. For decades, politicians found themselves cross-pressured between their commitments to a national party network and to various ideological causes. Today, however, politicians are no longer cross-pressured. We have strong Gilded Age-style parties, but organized around questions of principle rather than questions of patronage.
It’s possible that back when culture and religion were widely shared the dominant ideology was simply implicit. There was an ideology but not many competing ideologies. As the gangster Eddie Valentine in the Rocketeer said to the man unmasked as a Nazi paymaster who offers him money “I may not make an honest buck, but I’m 100% American. I don’t work for no two-bit Nazi. Let the girl go!” The Golden Age of wheeling and dealing which Yglesias is nostalgic for had many degrees of freedom precisely because it had only one constraint: an American identity. By contrast today’s gridlocked society has multiple constraints — identity politics, single issues, etc — and no global objective function.