Belmont Club

Secrets, Not Constitutional Authority, Are Now the Coin of Power in Politics

J. Edgar Hoover (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

By 2017 it was obvious that the 20th-century institutions were reeling under the impact of the information revolution. The old hierarchies and the authority they had wielded from prestige, authority and celebrity were, if not in a state of collapse, at least badly degraded. The leak of secrets showed how incompetent and mendacious the elites were and the MeToo and Jeffrey Epstein affairs demonstrated how venal.

The last redoubt of establishment legitimacy rested on the claim that it was democratic, protected individual rights against the power of the police; kept the secrets of the ordinary people from any would-be STASI and that the Will of the People as expressed through the ballot box was supreme.

Now, even this last claim has collapsed. For nearly four years both sides of the populist divide have been exerting every effort to convince the publics both foreign and domestic that the executive branch is working for the KGB or that the past administration’s stay-behinds in Congress are embarked upon a coup d’etat against the Constitution. The public is watching a double-feature showing the Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May, each side depicting the other in the worst possible light.

Together they have done a terrific job of convincing anyone who will listen that U.S. government institutions, including the president, DOJ, FBI, CIA and the Congress consist of a bunch of lying, power-mad sociopaths; that foreign money runs the backstairs world; and that the talking heads of the media are mercenary mouthpieces working for whichever side pays them most. Neither side will emerge unscathed to reclaim the crown of legitimacy they once enjoyed. The impeachment of President Trump is unlikely to restore the lost luster, whatever the Senate decides — if Speaker Pelosi even decides to send articles to the Senate. Old Washington has suicided.

As Andy McCarthy put it, “if it can be done to Trump, it can be done to the next president and the next and the next. … And now, each party’s base will demand that it be done. If each side doesn’t impeach the enemy’s president, it will mean their partisans in the House aren’t trying hard enough.”

The current challenge is less to limit damage to the status quo ante than to find some trajectory that will eventually increase the chances of reaching a new consensus way of routinely changing political leadership. In other words, finding an off-ramp from the highway to hell. The key to achieving this may lie in changing the management of official secrets. The information revolution that made it nearly impossible for individuals to protect their privacy has also made it impossible for authority to be founded on trust.

Secrets, not constitutional authority, are now the coin of power in liberal democratic politics. Perhaps the only hope of re-establishing civility and stability is to level the field through compensatory transparency. The most eloquent analysis of the problem remains Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s.

Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, chairman of the bipartisan Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy, here presents an eloquent and fascinating account of the development of secrecy as a mode of regulation in American government since World War I―how it was born, how world events shaped it, how it has adversely affected momentous political decisions and events, and how it has eluded efforts to curtail or end it. Senator Moynihan begins by recounting the astonishing story of the Venona project, in which Soviet cables sent to the United States during World War II were decrypted by the U.S. Army―but were never passed on to President Truman. The divisive Hiss perjury trial and the McCarthy era of suspicion might have had a far different impact on American society, says Moynihan, if government agencies had not kept secrets from one another as a means of shoring up their power. Moynihan points to many other examples of how government bureaucracies used secrecy to avoid public scrutiny and got into trouble as a result. He discusses the Bay of Pigs, Watergate, the Iran-Contra affair, and, finally, the failure to forecast the collapse of the Soviet Union, suggesting that many of the tragedies resulting from these events could have been averted had the issues been clarified in an open exchange of ideas. [emphasis mine]

Secrecy as a mode of regulation has collapsed because the public knows how flawed the institutions are. They no longer trust the media to be the disinterested leakers of exposes. Worse, the putrefaction of confidential knowledge has turned the institutions against each other as secrets are used not for time-critical action against the nation’s enemies but are hoarded as a means to blackmail other political players.

Stability will never return to liberal democracies until excess secrecy is sanitized by sunlight and the great bureaucracies can no longer bludgeon each other and the public with weaponized information. It is one of the ironies of intelligence that secrets cannot be tracked unless there is some way of knowing how many there are. What 2016 showed is that nobody knows how many or where they all are. Some were doubtless being held back. Now they are all slithering out of the cracks to bite the trusting and unwary to make even elections an uncertain thing.

Until Democrat and Republican parties evolve beyond a model of authority based on secrets, not only will the national political life, but also their ability to govern remain increasingly at risk.

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Support the Belmont Club by purchasing from Amazon through the links below.

Books:

Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies, by Ben Macintyre. Operation Fortitude, which protected and enabled the Normandy invasion, and the Double Cross system, which specialized in turning German spies into double agents, deceived the Nazis into believing that the Allies would attack at Calais and Norway rather than Normandy. For the first time, Macintyre tells the story of one of the greatest deceptions of WWII and the extraordinary spies who achieved it.

The Triumph Of Numbers: How Counting Shaped Modern Life, by I. Bernard Cohen. From the pyramids to mortality tables, Galileo to Florence Nightingale, this book explores how numbers have come to assume a leading role in science, government, business and in many other aspects of life. a vibrant history of numbers and the birth of statistics. Cohen shines a new light on familiar figures such as Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Charles Dickens, and reveals Florence Nightingale to be a passionate statistician. This is a vibrant history of numbers and the birth of statistics.

Grant and Sherman: The Friendship That Won the Civil War, by Charles Bracelen Flood. The first book about the victorious partnership between William Tecumseh Sherman and Ulysses S. Grant during the Civil War and the deep friendship that made it possible.

Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society, Author Nicholas A. Christakis introduces the idea that our genes affect not only our bodies and behaviors, but also the ways in which we make societies, ones that are surprisingly similar worldwide. With many vivid examples — including diverse historical and contemporary cultures, and even the tender and complex social arrangements of elephants and dolphins that so resemble our own — he shows that, despite a human history replete with violence, we cannot escape our social blueprint for goodness.

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Did you know that you can purchase some of these books and pamphlets by Richard Fernandez and share them with your friends? They will receive a link in their email and it will automatically give them access to a Kindle reader on their smartphone, computer or even as a web-readable document.

Open Curtains by George Spix and Richard Fernandez. Technology represents both unlimited promise and menace. Which transpires depends on whether people can claim ownership over their knowledge or whether human informational capital continues to suffer the Tragedy of the Commons.

The War of the Words, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres

Rebranding Christianity, or why the truth shall make you free

The Three Conjectures, reflections on terrorism and the nuclear age

Storming the Castle, why government should get small

No Way In at Amazon Kindle. Fiction. A flight into peril, flashbacks to underground action.

Storm Over the South China Sea, how China is restarting history in the Pacific.