Back in the day, during the Reagan era, New York Democrat and Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan termed the GOP the “party of ideas” because of their growing reputation for intellectual prowess.
At the 2016 Republican National Convention, despite all indications to the contrary, self-proclaimed idea-man Paul Ryan kept this illusion alive, declaring, “It still comes down to a contest of ideas, which is really good news, ladies and gentlemen, because when it’s about ideas that advantage goes to us.”
Whether or not Ryan’s assertion describes reality, it is still important to embrace the aspirational dimensions of the statement. He articulates the ideal of democracy when he says “it still comes down to a contest of ideas.”
Democracy is supposed to come down to “a contest of ideas,” and the likes of founding fathers Thomas Jefferson and John Adams believed deeply in funding schools to create an educated citizenry to assess those ideas and how effectively they served and forwarded the public good and national interests.
For democracy to function as this war of ideas, however, politicians actually need to present their ideas, not conceal them as some secret agenda or present them untruthfully so that the burden falls upon voters not just to assess them but to sledgehammer their ways through walls of deception to even know what those ideas are.
The recent controversy over Joaquin Castro’s tweets naming donors from San Antonio who have financially supported Donald Trump and, by extension, helped fund his inhumane policies and practices toward immigrants, reveals the extent to which we as a nation are drifting further and further away from the norms and ideals of a political culture of democracy that aims for ultimate transparency and truthfulness in the operations of the political system and for facilitating the people’s access to information, to the truth.
Castro simply tweeted, while listing the donors’ names: “Their contributions are fueling a campaign of hate that labels Hispanic immigrants as ‘invaders.’”
Keep in mind that this donor information is all public information. And yet, making this public information, well, public, somehow ignited a firestorm.
“Targeting and harassing Americans because of their political beliefs is shameful and dangerous,” said House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.
One might expect such a statement from a Republican House Minority Leader.
But then even respected journalists jumped on board. “I don’t want to put these people’s names in my feed because this is dangerous, by any campaign,” tweeted New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman. Journalist Yashar Ali wrote that Castro’s tweet was a “terrible and dangerous precedent to set.”
Apparently, it has now become dangerous to communicate public information to voters so they can understand which interests are funding political campaigns and supporting particular ideological positions.
This development, particularly when the free press joins the bandwagon, does not bode well for democracy.
Remember last June when the White House censored the written testimony from a State Department intelligence agency warning that human-caused climate change is “possibly catastrophic,” barring it from submission to the House Intelligence Committee?
The Castro controversy leads us into dangerous territory because revealing important information of dire public interest, once a bedrock of democracy, is even a controversy and because even institutions, such as a free press, are explicitly taking part in even entertaining a position suggesting that public information should not be shared.
This position implicitly endorses Trump’s refusal to make his tax filings public and to deny the jurisdictional rights and oversight obligations of Congress. Does the public not have a right to know if any business interests are entangling or supporting the President of the United States?
Would it be dangerous for the press to report on Jared Kushner’s financial relationships or on Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with Russians to discuss business deals?
The controversy of Castro’s tweets is that it is even a controversy.
The basic pillars of democracy, apparently, are now up for discussion.
This is what the Castro controversy reveals, reminding us once again how far the White House, how far Trump, has taken us off the course of democracy, drifting steadily toward an authoritarian political culture.
We have tended to discuss Trump’s persistent lying in terms of government corruption.
We need to remind ourselves that the lying is more than the run-of-the-mill corruption to which we have become accustomed at all levels of government.
Because access to the truth, to reliable information, to faithful representations of ideas is so vital to the functioning of democracy, the scope, intensity, and prevalence of the lying we are encountering these days from Trump and his administration constitute an existential threat to democracy.
Remember back in the day when Tea Party protesters routinely carried signs warning the U.S. government to get out of their lives and, particularly, to “Get Your Hands Off My Medicare”? Few, if any, Republicans bothered to correct these people to let them know that the government provided them with Medicare. No strenuous effort was made to help these protesters see the truth and assess their real interests, even from mainstream media. The “truth” was just one position among many.
These days, the truth is becoming a position that doesn’t even necessarily merit representation or outing. The prominent position now, ratified by increasing numbers, even former defenders of freedom and truth, is that truth should be repressed, even public information.
When the truth is frowned upon, when public information is not to be communicated to the public, then we must be aware that democracy is on the verge of collapse.
It seems hard, if not impossible, to sustain a democracy characterized by a war of ideas, if people do not want to own their ideas and what they support, much less articulate and disseminate them, preferring instead to conceal them.
Unfortunately, we are moving towards a political culture in which concealment rather than transparency is increasingly the acceptable norm.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.