Politicians Need Privacy

Jordan Hedberg
6 min readJan 12, 2021


Having more transparency in the political process is a good thing; right? As a culture here in Colorado, and in the United States, there is an ever-growing belief that the ills of the political process can be solved using the tools of the digital era. These tools of transparency consist of live streaming, online meetings, and digital recordings of all meetings. Even during my short time as a reporter for the Tribune, I have seen Custer County Commissioner meetings go from a few people listening to a meeting, with official minutes posted almost a month later, to hundreds of people logging into a Zoom meeting to take part and watch live every moment of a Board of County Commissioner and Board of Health Meetings. These meetings are then posted to Youtube so that every second can be watched and dissected by viewers.

No elected representatives have privacy to make good policy

Custer County is not unique in live streaming government decisions, the push for transparency has infiltrated every part of the government with the exception of courtrooms (I will return to the wisdom of this later). There has never been a time in history where nearly every moment of an elected leader's decision-making process is recorded in such detail. All of this digital transparency has ushered in a new era of responsible governance where a majority of citizens overwhelming trust and respect the decisions of every level of government…Wishful thinking.

Mistrust of the government is as widespread as it has always been. A quick glance at the Wet Mountain Tribune from 1901 shows that the same types of arguments, the same circulation of political hogwash, the same politicization, mirrors that of today. All of the Sunshine Laws and other transparency efforts have done nothing to deal with the normal problem that arises from the political arena.

In fact, I am now going to argue that the massive transparency push has made political governance worse, not better.

The problem stems from a decrease in privacy in the modern era. Gossip between persons in a small community is natural and acts as a safety valve at a small, local scale. But with the advent of the printing press and newspapers, topics of gossip, which no human can resist, started to make it into print that had a far larger audience. The increased scale of gossip has caused lots of problems for several centuries now. If you glance at the Peaks of the Past section of this week’s Tribune, or any old paper, the meat of the newspaper was all of the gossip of who had traveled where, and who had suffered that, and so forth. Privacy is fading and the digital era has accelerated the destruction of our private lives.

It was the philosopher Umberto Eco that described the concept of the need for leaders to have privacy in the posthumous collection of essays On the Shoulders of Giants, a collection of oral presentations at the Milanesiana Festival in Milan. Eco argues that leaders need privacy to work out deals with adversaries, and the act of compromise means that some leaders will have to back-down from election promises to keep the peace. Without the ability for private discussions, leaders are forced to never back down from their political talking points because they will be viewed as traitors to the cause if they publicly reach compromise with political adversaries. Eco pointed out that if elected leaders cannot compromise, they cannot govern effectively and only the most radical diehards will end up winning elections. A bunch of political extremist leaders unwilling to compromise in order to never have to save face is an explosive recipe for disaster.

When I first read his argument, which was just a passing comment on his subject of “Untruths, Lies, Falsifications,” I was instantly jerked back to my first assignments covering the BOCC meeting in Custer County for the Tribune. At first, it was three commissioners holding public meetings in a small room where there was free (bad) coffee and nobody from the public. There was also no video or audio recordings. Those commissioners were replaced by three new commissioners that ran on a transparency platform and quickly set up video recording equipment for the meetings. A political upheaval and a recall soon followed that claimed two of the commissioner's jobs with just one barely surviving.

In hindsight, the difference between the first board of commissioners I reported on and the second, was the video camera. Commissioners' meetings can get tense, as different elected individuals representing different districts and with different governing ideals clash when certain political events arise. This is natural and expected. Politics evolved in large measure so that differences between different groups could be settled without actual violence and bloodshed. Compromise and settled deals, however imperfect, are better than armed conflict.

Before the live-streaming camera showed up, the discussion on some subject would get heated, it was uncomfortable to sit in the room with three commissioners occasionally shouting at each other. But through the anger and tension, agreements were made, and the business of the county went forward, often not in an optimal fashion, but with agreement from all the elected representatives involved. As a reporter, I focused mostly on the vote, and a few words would go to the discussion that led-up to the vote. While the commissioners often disagreed with what I wrote, the end message that got to the reader was the result of the vote, not the ugliness that led-up to the vote.

In retrospect, that changed with the camera being brought into the room. The focus of my writing moved from the result of the discussion to the heated discussion itself. This was because I could watch the video endlessly and quote the discussion and emotions second by second. If I ever glossed over a particularly heated part of the discussion, a reader or competing publication would be sure to bring back into focus that “so-and-so said this horrible thing at minute five of the recorded video and he should resign!”

How can our elected representative leaders come to agreements when every second of their actions are criticized? We do not live in a direct democracy. We elect representatives to do their best in our interest, not to endlessly micro-manage every action and word they make. But that is what is happening.

Already I have heard commissioners say that they cannot take certain actions because it would be “political suicide.” Leaders that do not carefully watch every word they utter and speak from their convictions are tarred and feathered because it is easy to go back through the video and pull factual, but out of context, statements from the video. The hardest actions for a leader to take are the ones that are right, but take courage to execute. But it seems impossible for courageous actions to come from an endlessly heckled leader.

I have not seen any courageous actions from leaders from the local to the national level during the pandemic. And it is during trying times that we expect a leader, somewhere, to show courage and do the right thing. But I cannot see how any elected leader could ever step away from the wave of populism that got him or her elected when they know they will be called out as a traitor the second they are seen as moving away from the platform that got them elected. Political platforms are often wrong, and we would want leaders that have enough sense to do the correct thing when the situation demanded.

But that is a tall order in the 24/7 streaming “transparency” world we have created. Perhaps it is time to give our elected representatives a little privacy to do their jobs.

-Jordan Hedberg