Rebuilding Trustworthy Politics in a Post-Truth Age

by Nadia Hilliard – UPK author of The Accountability State; US Federal Inspectors General and the Pursuit of Democratic Integrity (April, 2017)

It will not surprise American voters that the Oxford English Dictionary declared the 2016 Word of the Year to be “post-truth.” The term resonates with all sides of the American electorate who, confronted with “fake news” and “alternative facts,” have struggled to know which facts are trustworthy enough to ground their political opinions and decisions. Yet while partisanship is always a feature of politics, it is rare for partisan arguments to be decoupled so starkly from truth, and for citizens to be so untrusting of the media and public officials. To whom can voters – and elected officials – turn for legitimate facts and narratives in this era of post-truth politics?

accountability-stateInspectors General (IGs) have quietly operated under the radar in the federal bureaucracy since the late seventies, auditing, investigating, inspecting, and acting as in-house management consultants. They are presidential appointees, but are statutorily required to be non-partisan, and enjoy bipartisan support. They are, moreover, Congress’s “eyes and ears” in the executive branch, and depend on congressional approval for their funding. But they are also full members of their host departments, and report directly to their department head, and indirectly, to the president. This divided loyalty reinforces their independence from any single institutional or partisan commitment.

Although individual IGs have at times been mired in scandal (recall the VA IG’s travails in 2015, or the State Department’s disgraced IG in 2007), their profile and reputation has grown in recent decades, and they are cited more and more frequently and positively in the press. More important, the outcomes of their reviews are trusted by Congress, and serve as an alternative source of facts to the host of incompatible narratives bandied about in the blogosphere. They are respected on both sides of the aisle, providing political leaders as polarised as Darryl Issa (R-CA) and Elijah Cummings (D-MD) with the rare opportunity to agree in their support of IG work.

Two major IG reviews are now underway to shed light on recent landmark political phenomena: FBI Director James Comey’s public suggestion of wrongdoing by Hillary Clinton in the weeks leading up to the presidential election, and the administrative unfolding of the Trump administration’s Travel Ban. While IG reviews are certainly used to partisan ends after their release, the best reviews refrain from drawing conclusions as a prosecutor would.  For instance, State Department IG Steve Linick’s June 2016 review of Hillary Clinton’s emails provided informational fodder for both Clinton’s supporters and detractors: while some media outlets focused on the finding that Clinton had indeed used a private server extensively, and criticized her heavily, others emphasized that the review unearthed long-standing State Department practices of avoiding department servers, and that she had not in fact broken any laws or even contravened any departmental policies.

1024x1024Justice IG Michael Horowitz, spearheading the Comey review, and DHS IG John Roth, leading the Travel Ban review, have both earned their laurels as trusted, rigorous IGs. The Justice Department Office of Inspector General has long served as a beacon for rigorous, non-partisan reviews accepted and respected by Republicans and Democrats alike, and Horowitz’s reviews have followed in this tradition.  Similarly, the DHS OIG investigation of the implementation of the travel ban equally promises to establish an accurate picture of the administrative decisions shaping the roll out of the recent executive order.

Arguably, the IGs are very well poised to investigate both of these events. IGs focus on procedure and adherence to rules and norms above all, and in both cases, much at stake regards adherence to protocol. Whether or not Comey broke department policy by announcing his suspicions of Clinton is a question separate from the possible partisan motivations he might have had in doing so, just as the legal status of departmental compliance with Trump’s executive order and the subsequent nullificatory court order is distinct from the question of overall discriminatory intent. It is not the IGs’ role to prosecute, or otherwise to initiate a political battle. Their immediate procedural focus permits the IGs to avoid the wider political significance of the events when constructing the narrative, leaving the political battle in the hands of elected officials, the media, and citizens. This deserves to be emphasized: IGs are unelected bureaucrats, and their legitimacy depends on their commitment to non-partisan work.  The facts need to be established outside of the political fray before any political battle can begin. Yet the political significance of their reviews cannot be understated.

If these reviews are welcomed as trustworthy sources of fact, there remains a pressing political question, with grave importance for the integrity of the political system: will these investigations go through without undue interference? Murmurs that the Trump administration contacted a handful of IGs to ask for their resignation prior to his inauguration bubbled into a hearing, and ultimately led to the Trump team’s abandonment of these plans.  Traditionally – at least since their appearance in 1978, and not withstanding Reagan’s routinely criticized, comprehensive sacking of the first IG class in 1981 – new administrations do not replace entire cohorts of IGs.  Stability of office and continuity of leadership affect an IG’s capacity to provide robust, non-partisan oversight of federal departments and agencies.  Despite having made challenges to other political institutions designed to keep the executive in check, the Trump administration has thus far refrained from a wholesale ousting of the current IG class. Yet the possibility remains for the president to oust any single IG – especially ones who investigate sensitive topics or unearth unsavory details about his policies.

The first step in rebuilding a functional political system, including restoring a healthy and vibrant ideological center, is to have common institutions trusted by all. In this post-truth era, we need trusted public intermediaries who not only have unfettered, protected access to the sources of fact – the relevant documents and interviews – but also independence and a commitment to offering non-partisan narratives to Congress and the public.  It is rare in this polarized age for an institution to command such bipartisan support and enthusiasm, and even more so for specific individuals – such as Horowitz and Roth, among many others – to command the respect and praise of both sides of the aisle simultaneously. The IGs’ legitimacy provides a starting block for rebuilding a healthy politics.

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Nadia Hilliard is Junior Research Fellow in politics at Balliol College, University of Oxford and a post-doctoral researcher at City University in London. Her book, The Accountability State; US Federal Inspectors General and the Pursuit of Democratic Integrity, will be released in April, 2017.