The great debate: Is political realism realistic?

I this week had the pleasure of doing a podcast debate with my Brookings colleague Jonathan Rauch on the question of whether we need stronger machines and weaker transparency in American government, or the opposite. Guess which side I took! This has been a long-running water cooler and cafeteria discussion between Jon and myself since I arrived at Brookings almost a year ago. While we find some areas of agreement in the podcast (more than you might think),I remain unconvinced by the so-called “political realist” school that Jonathan is a leader of. As I have previously written and blogged (here, here and here), I think the realists are fantasists, disconnected from the actual reality of politics, including its risks. We need more transparency, not less to deal with, for example, things like corruption risk, particularly in the post-Citizens United era. Indeed, that decision itself embraces the value of a vigorous transparency regime when other safeguards are relaxed. My belief is that Washington works both more efficiently and more ethically under the scrutinizing gaze of the American media, ngo’s and public. As former White House ethics czar, I often facilitated administration openness efforts, including as a means of accountability, for example helping put the White House visitor logs online.

Jon and my lively debate covers not only issues of transparency itself but also applies them to other current topics—the Affordable Care Act, Trade Promotion Authority, and much more. The debate was silently moderated by our colleague Ben Wittes as part of his “Chess Clock Debates” series. With only ten minutes on the chess clock each to make our points, it was a concise discussion that hit the fundamentals briskly. Thanks to Ben for inviting us and giving us a public forum to discuss this critical policy issue.