Whistleblowing has been present since the United States’ founding, but the concept means different things to different people. To have a meaningful national conversation on whistleblowing, we have to start with a common definition, stripped of partisan leanings. That is the only way to see what has changed and what hasn’t in the treatment of American whistleblowers.
For starters, just thinking oneself a whistleblower isn’t enough. A whistleblower cannot be defined as “an advocate for the change I’d like to see.” That definition confuses whistleblowing with political activism, and it invites partisan interpretations. The usually precise Oxford English Dictionary, showing an awareness of this confusion, skirts it with a circular definition: a whistleblower is one who “blows the whistle” on a person or activity, especially from within an organization. The Cambridge Dictionary definition is narrower: a whistleblower is “a person who tells someone in authority about something they believe to be illegal that is happening, especially in a government department or a company.”
The Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989, which was strengthened in 2012 through the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act, comports with the Cambridge definition.
Federal employees who disclose “illegal or improper government activities” are protected from supervisors’ or coworkers’ retaliation.3According to the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), whistleblowing is “disclosing information that you reasonably believe is evidence of a violation of any law, rule, or regulation, or gross mismanagement, a gross waste of funds, an abuse of authority, or a substantial and specific danger to public health or safety.”4
The MSPB’s “reasonable belief” standard depends on an evidence-based, nonideological approach to determining the truth. For our purposes, a whistleblower is an insider (meaning an employee, customer, auditor, or other stakeholder) who has evidence of illegal or improper conduct and exposes it, either to the authorities or to the press. In government, improper conduct is illegality or a violation of constitutional norms. In the corporate world, it is illegality or the violation of company norms. Put another way, whistleblowers draw attention to self-interested actions that undermine public trust. They often reveal misconduct involving the use of public power for private gain, otherwise known as corruption.
Whistleblowers thus betray their organization or its leaders in service of the truth. Their motives for doing so are irrelevant. Most are heroic. Some are saving their own skin. In the heat of the moment, motives can be impossible to identify with accuracy. Motivation is thus somewhat important but not definitive, especially in the corporate realm, where current law gives whistleblowers a share of the money recovered from a successful suit. That is why the main focus should be on whether behavior exposed is illegal or shameful.
Comparing this definition with partisan alternatives brings into fuller relief the vital role truth telling plays in sustaining civil discourse and American constitutional democracy. Whistleblowing is not merely a weapon for advancing partisan or personal interests in a fake-news world. Its purpose is not to denigrate others or vindicate our own political biases. The extreme Left and Right may view any revelation of secret information as whistleblowing, but that definition blurs important lines. All whistleblowers are leakers, but not all leakers are whistleblowers. Leakers expose secrets, but secrets are not always a cover for misconduct, even if their revelation can often embarrass individuals and destroy careers. Whistleblowers expose lies and wrongdoing.
Equally, dissent is not the same as whistleblowing. All whistleblowers are certainly dissenters in that they refuse to accept current circumstances, but all dissenters are not whistleblowers. Whistleblowers reveal truths that the powerful do not want to be made public, whereas dissenters simply disagree.
Whistleblowing is a cousin of civil disobedience, but they are not one and the same. For Hannah Arendt, “Civil disobedience arises when a significant number of citizens have become convinced either that the normal channels of change no longer function . . . or that, on the contrary, the government is about to change and has embarked upon and persists in modes of action whose legality and constitutionality are open to grave doubt.”Civil disobedients break laws that they want to see changed. In this sense, like whistleblowers, all civil disobedients are dissenters, but all dissenters are not civil disobedients. Yet whistleblowers differ from civil disobedients in that they appeal to the law or the Constitution—to the American rule-of-law tradition—for justice, whereas civil disobedients challenge the legitimacy of existing laws. Both variants of dissent require political judgment.
Arendt saw civil disobedience as uniquely American. It was a manifestation of what Tocqueville deemed America’s greatest strength, the vitality of its associations, more commonly known as civil society. “Civil disobedients,” wrote Arendt, “are nothing but the latest form of voluntary association . . . quite in tune with the oldest traditions of the country.” Civil disobedience is “primarily American in origin and substance . . . no other country, and no other language has even a word for it,” and “the American republic is the only government having at least a chance to cope with it—not, perhaps, in accordance with the statutes, but in accordance with the spirit of its laws.” “To think of disobedient minorities as rebels and traitors,” Arendt continues, “is against the letter and spirit of a Constitution whose framers were especially sensitive to the dangers of unbridled majority rule.”
The same can be said of whistleblowers, who often illuminate the gap between American ideals and a fact-based world. While whistleblowing is now a global concept, the United States has a unique and long tradition of respecting whistleblowers, especially in regard to whistleblower protection legislation, that is the envy of other countries.7In this sense, whistleblowing, like civil disobedience, is distinctly American and an indirect call to renew the rule of law through new legislation defi ning corruption and the abuse of power.
Since they challenge business as usual, whistleblowers are by definition troublemakers who remove blinders that many people would prefer to leave in place. For that reason, they can be difficult people. They do not turn away from wrongdoing but choose to confront it. They can be annoying to those averse to conflict, but they are also people of conscience who are willing to be seen as disloyal to the institutions that employ them in order to remain true to their own values. Acts of conscience are always motivated by loyalty to a conviction, but they usually demand defiance of other loyalties.
From Whistleblowers by Allison Stanger. Published by Yale University Press in 2021. Reproduced with permission.
Allison Stanger is Russell Leng ’60 Professor of International Politics and Economics at Middlebury College, Cary and Ann Maguire Chair in Ethics and American History at the Library of Congress, a Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences Fellow at Stanford University, and an External Professor at the Santa Fe Institute. She is the author of One Nation Under Contract.