Why “Transparency” can Lead to Cramped Communication

In the latest issue of Communication Currents, Kate Kenski makes an excellent argument for why so much emphasis upon the value of “transparency” can lead to incredibly cramped communicative spaces and political styles–whereby options remain unexplored and posturing takes the place of robust conversation:

“While transparency is considered an ideal when it comes to good governance, the deliberative process between political elites is affected by the lack of private space where options can be discussed without concerns about immediate public sanctions over ‘potential’ ideas, let alone actual voting records. With continuous surveillance over every word uttered, the options and tradeoffs that should be considered when faced with a potential crisis are constrained.

While C-SPAN has provided a window into the world of Congress, it has also altered how politicians talk to each other as this window provides a grandstanding opportunity that they did not have before. Members of Congress are frequently tempted to address the television audience and not one another. In life, people make mistakes and they often apologize for them. With cameras recording nearly every political interaction, mistakes are not easily forgotten, preventing politicians from moving forward. This constraint of transparency is magnified by the reality that congressional representatives often come from relatively non-competitive voting districts where they are beholden to perspectives from one side of the ideological spectrum, hampering their likelihood of considering options and compromising on their initial positions.

What this means for people hearing these highly charged political interactions is that politics does not appear to be a place of productive decision making. Elite discourse does not mirror the types of conversation that everyday citizens often have to get through their daily lives, where compromise is key in the work place and in the family. It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that citizens who pay attention to the political process often feel like mere spectators rather than actors and many citizens simply tune out altogether.”