Closed and Open Politics

C.P. Snow, in Strangers and Brothers, his series of eleven novels about life in academe, business, and government, often referred to “closed politics.” By this he meant decisions made on the basis of confidential consultations among politicians and public servants and announced as a fait accompli.

There is, of course, another side to political life. In a democracy, politicians must take into account public opinion and must ultimately submit to the will of the electorate, which Snow refers to as “open politics.”

In the exam in my graduate narratives course, I asked students to discuss how the following politicians practiced and conceived of the relationship between open and closed politics: Richard Nixon, Jack Kennedy, Charlie Wilson, and the fictional Jim Hacker. Here’s what I was looking for.

Richard Nixon was, more than any other, a practitioner of closed politics. He was an introvert who preferred to spend as much of his time as possible alone in the Oval Office. He once referred to it as his State Department. His famous opening to China, negotiated in secret by Henry Kissinger, was an example par excellance of closed politics.

Nixon didn’t like campaigning and didn’t think he was effective at it. The White House plumbers and their dirty tricks, including the Watergate break-in, were an example of closed politics of the worst kind – illegal – intended to achieve an objective in open politics, namely ensuring that the Democrats would nominate the weakest possible candidate. The tricks were initially successfully, but when they and the cover-up were exposed, he paid the ultimate political price.

Jack Kennedy, as illustrated by his handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis, liked both closed and open politics, was skilled in the use of both, and knew when to call on each to achieve his desired result. He set up the top-secret Excom for advice during the crisis but relied on the inner Excom – Bobby Kennedy, Ted Sorensen, Robert McNamara, and McGeorge Bundy – for support for his final deal with the Soviets. That deal was made in secret by Bobby Kennedy and Russian Ambassador Dobrynin and Jack Kennedy demanded it be kept secret.

At the same time, it was important to him that the Administration’s position was presented in as clear and compelling a way to the public as possible, at both the United Nations and the Organization of American States. Kennedy presented his case to the American public after the initial naval quarantine was implemented, and he was able to prevent the New York Times from publishing the story in advance. Part of Kennedy’s ease in combining both forms of politics was his skill as an orator, displayed, for example, in his famous Berlin Wall Speech.

Charlie Wilson was effective at both open and closed politics but the two were disjoint. He was always popular in his constituency due to his personal charisma, and no less to his ability to deliver the earmarks they wanted. In his closed politics, he pursued the cause that became his passion, winning CIA support for the Afghan Mujahadeen in their resistance to the Soviets. The cause was necessarily covert and not of much moment to his constituents. But he moved easily in both the worlds of East Texas constituency politics and CIA operations and back channel deals in Pakistan and the Middle East. Winning re-election was essential to providing the status necessary to play “the great game,” but his playing the game in no way contributed to his life in constituency politics.

Finally, Yes Minister. The television series was structured entirely around back-room deals among politicians and public servants, and the viewer never sees crowds or voters. This was in part a function of the BBC’s production format and the constraint that it be produced in studio before a live audience. But the politicians are certainly aware of the voters, and winning election or re-election is a prime motivator. In the episode we watching in call (“The Smokescreen”), Prime Minister Hacker is pursuing a tax cut that he thinks will be tremendously popular with the voters, the Health Minister undertakes a public campaign to pass anti-smoking legislation, which the Minister of Fitness and Sport opposes because it will put marginal seats such as his own at risk. But the deal that resolves the conflict is cut in private.

The conclusion. A really great politician is effective at both, understands the importance of open politics for legitimacy and validation, knows how to do what has to be done in private and how to sell it to the public.

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