Why Bridgegate proves we need fewer hacks, machines, and back room deals, not more

I had been mulling a rebuttal to my colleague and friend Jon Rauch’s interesting—but wrong—new Brookings paper praising the role of “hacks, machines, big money, and back room deals” in democracy. I thought the indictments of Chris Christie’s associates last week provided a perfect example of the dangers of all of that, and so of why Jon was incorrect. But in yesterday’s L.A. Times, he beat me to it, himself defending the political morality (if not the efficacy) of their actions, and in the process delivering a knockout blow to his own position.

Bridgegate is a perfect example of why we need fewer “hacks, machines, big money, and back room deals” in our politics, not more. There is no justification whatsoever for government officials abusing their powers, stopping emergency vehicles and risking lives, making kids late for school and parents late for their jobs to retaliate against a mayor who withholds an election endorsement. We vote in our democracy to make government work, not break. We expect that officials will serve the public, not their personal interests. This conduct weakens our democracy, not strengthens it.

It is also incorrect that, as Jon suggests, reformers and transparency advocates are, in part, to blame for the gridlock that sometimes afflicts our American government at every level. As my co-authors and I demonstrated at some length in our recent Brookings paper, “Why Critics of Transparency Are Wrong,” and in our follow-up Op-Ed in the Washington Post, reform and transparency efforts are no more responsible for the current dysfunction in our democracy than they were for the gridlock in Fort Lee. Indeed, in both cases, “hacks, machines, big money, and back room deals” are a major cause of the dysfunction. The vicious cycle of special interests, campaign contributions and secrecy too often freeze our system into stasis, both on a grand scale, when special interests block needed legislation, and on a petty scale, as in Fort Lee. The power of megadonors has, for example, made dysfunction within the House Republican Caucus worse, not better.

Others will undoubtedly address Jon’s new paper at length. But one other point is worth noting now. As in foreign policy discussions, I don’t think Jon’s position merits the mantle of political “realism,” as if those who want democracy to be more democratic and less corrupt are fluffy-headed dreamers. It is the reformers who are the true realists. My co-authors and I in our paper stressed the importance of striking realistic, hard-headed balances, e.g. in discussing our non-absolutist approach to transparency; alas, Jon gives that the back of his hand, acknowledging our approach but discarding the substance to criticize our rhetoric as “radiat[ing] uncompromising moralism.” As Bridgegate shows, the reform movement’s “moralism” correctly recognizes the corrupting nature of power, and accordingly advocates reasonable checks and balances. That is what I call realism. So I will race Jon to the trademark office for who really deserves the title of realist!