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An American Reformation: Draining the Swamp

Washington D.C is one of my favorite cities.   I have mentioned in several posts how often, in my younger years, I would visit the nation’s capital.  Each trip, my Aunt Sondra taught me the hallmark of “tour guide efficiencies.”  She knew exactly where to drop and then meet me, or where to park to avoid crowds (if possible).  She always had the itinerary laid out in her head.  That’s where I get it.  And I as mentioned before, on those tours, she would tell me everything she knew about the city, the museum, and the government.  I always left smarter, or at least with more trivia crammed in my head.

Like so many other aspects of our Constitution, the federal capital’s location was a compromise.  While the location and details of its construction are not included in the founding document, Article One, Section 8 of the Constitution gives Congress the specific power to govern and develop a 10 square mile federal district.  The location was solidified in the Residence Act of 1790 whereby George Washington, who was President at the time chose a ten square mile area north of his Mount Vernon home near the head of navigation on the Potomac River.  It was to be situated near Georgetown and Alexandria, Virginia both of which were thriving centers of commerce.

But locating a single federal capital in the south (rather than two regional capitals) was a result of a compromise agreement with Alexander Hamilton and the capitalist, banker establishment that he represented.  In return for the location along the Potomac, Hamilton would get his National Bank and the federal assumption of all Revolutionary War debt.  Given the power and influence that a national bank with crediting authority wielded at that time, this was a significant compromise, particularly to Thomas Jefferson and the other proponents of small government.

I always learned that D.C. was built on a swamp.  I even called that out in a blog post a while back.  It now seems I need to retract what I have come to learn is a myth, or perhaps better stated, “a lie.”  Perhaps the moniker came to mind and stuck out of a derogatory perception of government.  Alternatively, given the multiple bodies of water within the District at the time of its founding, it is possible that residents believed they were living on swampland.  Regardless, the idea that D.C. was built on a swamp has been debunked.

Draining the Swamp?  Battle Cry or Policy Plan?

President Trump was not the first to use the phrase, “Drain the Swamp,” and unless he does something incredibly dangerous, I doubt that he will be the last.   When used as an allegorical reference, there is great validity in the need to reform various government institutions and programs.  In fact, I have been working on a series of posts under the umbrella of “An American Reformation,” in which I identify a few key and necessary reforms that we need to prioritize in order to restore and sustain our democratic institutions.  Perhaps the most important in my view is constitutional campaign finance reform that will identify and limit the influence special interests have within campaigns and the government itself.

This post is specific to the phrase’s contemporary use by President Trump, his close advisors, and supporters.  During the campaign, Trump leveraged the “swamp” repeatedly in his rallies to the loud applause of his crowd.  I never attended a Trump rally but listened to several interviews with the candidate.  I think it is fair to acknowledge that Trump’s definition of draining the swamp did not equate to legislating incremental reforms.  While the President never suggested that his first option would be “blowing up the swamp,” I think even the most ardent supporter would agree that Trump would not seek to change the way government worked from within the system.  Instead, his natural tendency was to follow Steve Bannon’s preference of “tearing down the administrative state” and building something new, presumably with his name on it.

However, something far more insidious was apparent to me throughout the 2016 presidential campaign.  Every day, I had the feeling of standing in the middle of Times Square, New York.  Have you been there?  If you have, you will understand the analogy.  For those who have not, please hear me out.  Times Square is the gaudiest, loudest, and most optically polluted area I have ever witnessed.  To stand near the junction of 45th, Broadway and 7th is to overload the senses.  Bright lights, billboard screens larger than my entire living room wall, masses of people, and entertainers surrounding and invading your personal space.  It is at the same time, exhilarating and overwhelming.  If you suffer from enochlophobia (fear of crowds), I suggest you skip this part of the New York City tour).

The electronic billboards with the lights and the motion are meant to draw your attention as are performance artists and souvenir shops.  But while in Times Square, the blinking lights say “welcome,” and “come shop here,” in last year’s surreal universe, those same neon lights were issuing a very terse and high priority warning.  While for the duration of the race, it appeared to most, including me, that Hillary Clinton would win, there was still a nagging feeling whenever I heard Trump speak to his policy ideas (or really, just talk about anything).  I would see neon, flashing billboard that said, “WARNING!!  Proceed with great caution.”  Or how about the famous utterance on the Titanic, “ICEBERG ahead!!”

In this post, I want to share what I, Amy, heard when Donald Trump said he wanted to “drain the swamp.”   Further, I will explain where and how the President is ‘draining the swamp,’ as it is defined by him and why those measures are incredibly dangerous to the health and well-being of our republic.  Finally, I hope to convince you that Trumpism is now a political force we must manage else, it will destroy our democratic institutions.  Trumpism will outlast Trump and therefore, it is critical that we understand not only its ideology but learn how to effectively manage it within our political process.  Getting rid of Trump will not solve our problem.  There will be more Trumps and next time, they may know how to get things done in Washington, our state capitals or worse, our school boards, city councils and municipal commissions.

How Did ‘Draining the Swamp’ Become Deconstructing the Administrative State and Willfully Damaging Our Democratic Norms and Values?

Anyone?  Anyone?

I will resist the urge to describe a decade by decade historical accounting of how the GOP adopted xenophobic and nationalist policy prescriptions.  These views have been and will always be part of American culture but this is the first time in at least 100 years that this radical of ideology has been in a position of such great power.  I do think it important to note that I know a lot of intelligent Republicans who do not hold these same views and believe it was their trust in our institutions and our history of moderation that convinced them that casting their vote for Donald Trump would be “okay.”  I imagine that many of these Republicans and likely some Independents and Democrats asked themselves a variation of the following question, “How bad could he be?”

They did not hear what I heard.  They did not cringe at the bombastic rhetoric emanating from the rallies or become distraught at the violence inside the convention halls.  They must not have felt the chills up and down their spines at the sound of “Lock Her Up!” or at the sight of Trump supporters, some of them children wearing t-shirts stamped with the phrase, “Assassinate the Bitch!”  (This is true).  Maybe they thought Trump would eventually release his tax returns or did not realize how his complex financial holdings could be a liability should he be beholden to foreign powers.  A lot of people thought he would moderate.  “He’s surrounded himself with experienced advisors.  We will be okay.”

Or maybe they did not care.  Maybe they really did believe that Hillary Clinton was running a pedophilia ring out of a New York pizza restaurant.

For those who fell into the first category, you see, what most of these skeptical voters assumed, subconsciously, of course, was that Donald Trump would adhere to our well established and accepted democratic norms and values.  In fact, these values are so steeped in our history and culture, that I suspect many of us have to think for a minute in order to name a few.  That is not meant to be an insult to anyone’s education or knowledge.  We just take it for granted that our leaders respect the constitution and our democratic traditions.  Presidents going back to Washington have always – always – first been public servants.  I read an article not long ago about the qualities all Presidents tended to have in common (I believe the author left Trump out of the equation).  Ego and desire for power were certainly in the top five.  But consistently, across the centuries, historians and biographers reported that the single commonality among the 44 men was their commitment to public service.  Presidents Obama and Reagan may have different ideas of how to get to a destination, but they agree on the destination.  Both would put the health and well-being of the country and its citizens ahead of their own celebrity and success.  They have this in common with the 42 other men that share the title of President of the United States.

From the beginning of his campaign, I knew that Trump was different but like 99% of America, I did not give him much of my time.  Hell, this was all a joke right?  Conventional wisdom was that Trump launched a campaign for President in order to negotiate a better Apprentice deal with NBC and to increase its ratings.  So I, like so many others, sat back and watched the last 6 weeks of Jon Stewart’s, The Daily Show, where he skewered the entire GOP presidential field, including Trump, before retiring in August 2015.  I watched those clips for months.

I am not sure when the spine chills started but they were definitely a daily occurrence by the time Trump called for the Muslim ban in early December 2015.  By then it was as clear as the sky is blue:  Donald Trump was not only the most unqualified candidate to ever run for President.  He was also an existential threat to our democratic norms and values.  As his crowds grew and his message gained resonance, that threat heightened.  Now that he is President, this country is in grave danger of permanent scarring or even institutional death from which, we cannot recover.  We should not be casual and dismissive of the dangers.  In my post, Tyranny, American StyleI discussed the slippery slope toward autocracy and authoritarianism.  Abandoning democratic tradition is simply a step on that road.

What are these democratic norms and values and how does Trump violate them?

To clarify:  we are speaking of “democratic” as in “type of government,” not “Democratic Party.”

What do we mean by democratic norms?  What are democratic traditions and values?  Conceptually, they are all the practices, ethics and patterns of behavior that we have come to accept as the foundation of our democratic republican form of government.  These moral codes must be accepted as true by a super majority of the population to maintain civil society and government legitimacy.  When these standards lose their authority, we risk a social and civic breakdown which can then lead to revolution and autocracy.  So what are those foundational elements that we have come to accept as “institutional” and how does President Trump threaten them?  I think the answer to the latter question will become evident as you scan the list.

  • Respect for and acceptance of an independent media that has the freedom to report and publish factual and well sourced, albeit anonymous reports unfavorable to the President, his family, or his cabinet.
  • Abuse of power.  (Example:  Accusations of abuse of power in trying to suppress the Russia investigation).
  • Disregard for the rule of law and for an independent judiciary.
  • Unacceptance of the citizenry’s right to protest, loudly and frequently; references to protesters as unpatriotic.
  • Non-compliance with even the basic ethics rules around emoluments and disengaging from business entanglements in order to avoid conflicts of interests.
  • Willingness to consider and even threaten retribution against political foes.  (Example:  Continuing to lead chants of “Lock Her Up,” as POTUS and suggesting to rally-goers that they pressure Attorney General Jeff Sessions to the pursue Hillary Clinton for crimes associated with her use of a private email server when she was Secretary of State).
  • Disrespect for the federal bureaucracy and the important services it provides.   Example:  Look specifically to his nominations (so many unqualified and shady candidates) and nonsense about a “Deep State.”
  • Public focus on “voter fraud” without any evidence that there is a significant issue.  The initiative is meant to depress turnout among minority (and thus, Democratic) voters.
  • Skeptical acceptance of election results without evidence of fraud.
  • Complete disregard for constituent opinion.  Example:  I cite the many Obamacare repeal plans, all of which had less than a less than 20% approval rating among the public.  Republicans came within one vote (Senator John McCain) of passing that legislation and moving a “Skinny Bill to a conference committee who would have come up with some kind of compromise on which the Republicans would again be forced to vote favorably.  One vote away from cratering the American healthcare system.
  • Bombastic international behavior.  Example:  Insults of foreign dignitaries and foreign countries in general, using unstatesmanlike words like, “Rocket Man” and goading countries into attacking the homeland.
  • Denigration of public service and government institutions.
  • Total indifference toward facts and truth, culminating in the disrespect of American voters by believing that no one will fact-check a statement.

None of these statements should be surprising but placing them inside a post discussing the health of American democracy should give you pause.   A closer exploration of the subject (complete with several articles and a book by Fareed Zakaria), will leave you with not only a deeper realization of the dangers of illiberal democracy’s creep but that it has encroached on our own institutions for well over two decades.  It has been slow and incestuous, but the deterioration of our democratic traditions did not start, nor will it end with Trump.  It has happened over administrations of both parties and throughout both the public and private sectors.  Now it has a name:  Trumpism.

What is “illiberal democracy?”

Fareed Zakaria has summed it up nicely in a Washington Post piece, written shortly after Trump’s election.  Although it is important to note that he originally warned against the rise of illiberal democracy in a Foreign Affairs essay (which I could swear I read – it sounds so familiar), Zakaria now sees the same themes happening in America that he witnessed in so many nations two decades ago.

The idea of democracy is what we generally think of as mass participation in our political process; individual citizens voting for our leaders who act on our behalf.  As we all learned in Civics 101, the Founders feared democracy for its ill effects on minority rights.  Democracy provides for “majority rule,” and that can prove devastating for minority protections.  The checks and balances of the three branches, the state and municipal governments, the federated judicial system and the rule of law were all set up to guard against the infringement of liberty.  The Bill of Rights is really a list of infringements that the majority cannot impose upon the minority.

Liberal democracy is the combination of individual freedoms protected by the rule of law within a government chosen by the people.  Zakaria’s concern is that the forces at play in America are slowly eroding the “liberal” aspects of our democratic traditions.  If America follows the path of those he observed twenty years ago, we will be left with a democratic shell (one in which we vote for our leaders), without the norms and patterns of behavior necessary to support the individual freedoms we associate with democracy (think Bill of Rights).  Authoritarianism and autocracy are the typical results.  I am not a fan of either.

Violation of democratic norms or liberal complaint list against Trump?

During the campaign, many heard an actor and “marketing genius,” when they listened to a Trump speech or attended a rally.  Reporters talked to thousands of rally-goers and Trump supporters for well over a year to try to understand what had happened in the American political landscape.  “Anger” was the common theme which made sense given the Great Recession and the slow recovery.  Despite the number of books, conveniently timed for release around the one year anniversary of Trump’s election, I do not think we truly understand what happened last year and why.  I do not think we will truly understand the 2016 election for at least 20 years and even then, there will be variations in interpretation.

While Trump did not initiate the breakdown, it was his election that crystallized the problem and made it “real” for a large percentage of the American population.  The changing patterns of behavior and attitudes toward government, particularly on the right have been building for years.  Trump simply exposed the moral turpitude of his party and made the unacceptable, acceptable.  Ironically, what the right has accused the left of for years is now seen in their ranks.  The deterioration of norms cuts both ways; no one is blameless and everyone must engage if we are to self-correct.

Attempting to describe each of these bullets would take days if not weeks to thoroughly explain, provide examples, and brainstorm solutions.  These are all incredibly important modes of behavior that should be in place and self-audited regularly to ensure that we maintain the best democratic traditions possible.  Losing or allowing any of these norms to deteriorate is quite simply a travesty and a rebuke of our entire history.  That said, I do believe it imperative that I highly the 3 most important practices that undergird our primary democratic institutions.  These are the processes and organizations that, must be strengthened if we want our democracy to endure.

3 Critical Success Factors for Democracies

Respect for and acceptance of an independent media that has the freedom to report and publish factual and well sourced, albeit anonymous reports unfavorable to the President, his family, or his cabinet.

This is perhaps the most important of all the democratic norms.  Elected officials and the media are supposed to have a contentious relationship.  Despite their derision, our leaders rely on investigative journalists of all ideologies to disseminate their messages to the public.  Politicians complain when they dislike the coverage and spend fortunes crafting messages, but they would be lost without the media.  Likewise, the public relies on reporters to be its watchdog; we expect the media to root out corruption and bad behavior.  After the 2008 financial meltdown, the entire media establishment lost a great deal of credibility; Wall Street investment banks had leveraged themselves to such an extent that the entire global financial system was at risk of a meltdown.  This, just five years after invading Iraq based on incorrect intelligence information.  The media missed it all.

But these misses, while important, should not obfuscate the media’s critical role in politics and society.  And yet, polls suggest that the public’s faith has waned to the extent that a significant portion of the population believes that the news media is dishonest.  Just this week, USA Today reported a startling statistic, 46% of respondents (from a recent Political and Morning Consult Poll) believed that the major news outlets make up stories about President Trump.  Thirty-seven percent believed that the media did not make-up stories and seventeen percent were undecided.  This is shocking!

President Trump has escalated a long-running war on the media which was really initiated by FOX News.  The moniker, “fake news” is the most benign assault.  During the campaign, the journalists assigned to covering his rallies were relegated to “cages” (highly unusual) where the candidate would point and mock.  “Reporters are the most dishonest humans on the face of the earth,” was the nicest thing Trump said.  Most of the time he called them “scum” and “animals” which riled up the crowds.  By the end of the campaign, with the exception of FOX News, every journalist on the Trump beat had been assigned security.  In Katy Tur’s book,  “Unbelievable:  My Front-Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American History,” she talks about the crowds that threatened violence and the ensuing death threats she received.  Death threats.

The attacks have not stopped, rather they have spread throughout the Administration.  Just last week (or was it the week before last?), Trump attacked NBC and threatened to “pull its license.”  That statement went virtually unnoticed but should have scared a lot of people.  Why didn’t it?  Almost 50% of people polled believe that major news outlets are lying about the president.  This tells me that too many people have no idea how journalists approach their work or the sourcing that is involved before going to “print.”  They also have the right to protect their sources so yes, informants do not have to be named.  That is why reporters seek to confirm what they have been told by citing multiple sources.  Journalists have a code they live by, just like plumbers and electricians.  They follow a process.  That is why it is such a big deal when a major news outlet misreports something.  Fifty-percent of poll respondents do not accept or realize this?  Instead, they choose to believe a President who lies with impunity?

What is the reason for such disbelief?  The deterioration of trust in institutions has occurred over the last few decades, but we must look at FOX News and now the President of the United States as primary causal factors in the rapid disintegration of respect for journalists and what has come to be referred to as the mainstream media.  FOX has spent decades setting itself apart from other outlets by accusing their competitors of liberal bias and therefore, untrustworthiness.  The President, from the beginning of his campaign, in addition to attacking journalists and media institutions personally, has told supporters that the news cannot be trusted.  It is frightening that so many Americans seem to believe him.  It is almost cult-like.

Democracies do not stand with these statistics and Donald Trump must know this.  If Trump does not, his aides certainly do.  They understand that this presidency is dependent upon misinformation and disbelief.  When enough people do not believe the information that they read in a newspaper or online, or worse, only believe what they read on propaganda outlets like Breitbart, governments fall and authoritarian regimes rise.  We must counteract the deterioration of trust in our media institutions.

Legitimacy of Elections

Democratic governments receive their legitimacy from the people they govern.  If the people do not see their government as legitimate, we risk their adherence to the commonly accepted modes of behavior, like obeying laws and paying taxes.  In the final days of the 2016 campaign, candidate Trump who at the time was behind in the polls, repeatedly claimed that the election was rigged.  In fact, he had dropped hints of this throughout the summer but had limited his accusations to obscure dog whistles in areas that expected high minority turn out.  He asked his supporters to “monitor polling locations,” in “certain locations of Philadelphia,” because the only way he would lose was if “the other side cheated.”  Trump and his campaign team laid the groundwork early to a possible refusal to concede, citing “rampant voter fraud” without any evidence.

It is important to note that these accusations were completely unfounded and happened outside of the Russian interference campaign.  While Moscow was actively engaging in a disinformation effort to influence voters in favor of Trump, and if that did not work, damage a Hillary Clinton Administration, the President was talking about “millions of illegal immigrants voting illegally.”  Ironic.

Trump did not initiate “voter fraud” accusations in 2016.  The Republican Party has been crafting a message around “voter integrity” and “voter fraud” for decades, but have escalated their attempts to pass legislation to suppress voter turn out since 2010.  If you doubt me, I urge you to do your own research.  I posted on the subject which if read, will you give you an idea of topics to Google.  Or simply search for “voter suppression initiatives.”

How does voter suppression relate to the legitimacy of elections?

Republicans have long used election integrity as buzz words for voter id and other laws that are on the surface meant to ensure legitimacy at the ballot box.  But rather than supporting increased funding for cybersecurity or in “get out the vote” measures that would increase voter turn out and thus, ensure greater participation in the process, GOP state legislatures have focused solely on restricting who can vote.  Laws are passed that directly target voters that tend to vote for Democratic candidates.  Under the guise of reducing fraud, which has never been identified in any measurable sense, Republicans nationwide have sought to depress turnout, specifically that supporting the opposition party.

And then there were the Russians.

Americans have always trusted and accepted the results of our elections.   We have had questionable outcomes in the past (think 2000) and in every case, the losing candidate stepped up, conceded (eventually) and spoke to his or her supporters acknowledging the victor in his or her office, thereby giving the victor legitimacy.  I heard a lot of derision toward Al Gore in 2000 and even in 2016 because he had not conceded immediately.  Well if you remember, there was a legal recount underway in Florida, an unprecedented situation in the modern era.  Given the circumstances, both campaigns were doing the best they could.  When the Supreme Court ruled that the recount must cease, Gore conceded.  George Bush became President and immediately acknowledged his competitor in an attempt to unite the country.  Unity was Bush’s first priority (next to staffing his government).

Think about what happens in other countries when voters do not accept the end result as legitimate.  Whether it is low turn out or fraudulent, illegitimate elections can result in violence and coups.  At minimum – minimum – they can make governing nearly impossible.  And in this country, the United States of America, one of the two major political parties have made it a priority to disenfranchise voters under the guise of integrity.  Courts have intervened.  It is factual.  Now the President – the President – stands and lies to his supporters claiming that we have a problem with our elections that does not exist in order to sow the seeds of division and protect himself from the consequences of losing the vote count.  His “voter integrity commission” combined with Department of Justice initiatives were specifically designed for these purposes.  And all the while, the legitimacy of our entire system of government hangs in the balance.

Democracies must have election outcomes that voters trust.  We are at a precipice in which both sides are suspicious of the other; a situation that cannot stand.  The United States is not immune from the problems in developing or war-torn countries.  It may take several election cycles, but a violent breakdown of legitimacy can happen here.   Not only is it happening in front of our eyes, but we are complicit in the deterioration by not demanding more from our elected representatives.

The systematic decline and denigration of public service

Last week, I got into a Facebook conversation with a friend of a former classmate.  I knew what I was starting, but he posted something that irritated me.

The incendiary comment was about Hillary Clinton’s years in public service, a resume point that I deemed a benefit in the decision to hire her as the nation’s 45th president.  He disagreed citing that “all those years were the problem.”  I will dispense with my Facebook response and instead, share more insightful comments to those also concerned with the dangers associated with the decline in esteem for public service.

“Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country”

These were the words spoken by President John F. Kennedy, moments after taking the oath of office in January 1961.  Within three years, he would lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda, a victim of an assassin’s bullet, but his words lived on and inspired millions of young Americans who dedicated their lives to civic action and public service.

Government bureaucracy has always been an easy target.  Congress is perhaps the only business in which employees (House members and Senators) speak ill of their peers in front of their bosses (their constituents) in order to remain employed (re-election).  The rhetoric has always been negative but it has gotten so much worse in the last two decades particularly as the Republican Party has moved to the right.  As the GOP has become more conservative, it has adopted the anti-government, libertarian ideology required to pursue a low tax, low regulation, individual liberty agenda.  This, in addition to the Republican Party’s fiscal policies, has resulted in a net reduction of federal employees.  The same result is seen as the ideology filters down to the state level.  Government is targeted as the bad actor.

The impact is pronounced.  The federal workforce is smaller and aged.  As employees retire, they are not being replaced thus, government agencies lose institutional knowledge.  We are already seeing the impact of these losses in the Department of State and the Foreign Service.  We will see the impact increase substantially in the years to come if we do not reverse course.  Employees with less experience and no one from whom they can learn will result in mistakes and longer wait times which will only exacerbate the perception of government incompetence and bloat.

Government agencies are like any business in that they require talented resources to provide ongoing public services, without which problems arise.  Working in the public sector comes with inconveniences.  Depending on the agency, employees are subject to security clearances, background checks, financial disclosure laws, email restrictions and numerous other annoyances.  Salaries can be frozen for years, depending on state or federal budget issues and benefits can become politicized.  Government positions typically come with pensions (one of the last to do so), but those too are waning.  The one recruiting technique that government employers have, that the private sector does not, is the appeal to public service and civic action.  Kennedy’s call to serving one’s country still resonates, but the constant denigration acts as a countervailing force.  It is this long-term denigration that has led to the idea that “years of public service is the problem.”

It is not the problem.  The problem is the denigration.  The problem is the disrespect.  And this denigration and disrespect are killing our democracy.

The Military as Deity

Each bullet point I cited is a significant concern because the underlying norm is a critical dependency to a healthy democracy.  Given that there are so many at risk, we have seen numerous academics and political scientists raise the red flag to draw attention to the potential dangers.  But while the authors conclude that there is no immediate danger, they argue that Americans must take action now and reverse course to restore our democratic norms, else we find ourselves on a pathway to illiberalism and autocracy.  Buried in the article, typically is a note about public animous; that except for the military, Americans holistically have little respect and regard for our primary institutions.

Every time I read that sentence, however, it is phrased I feel that chill on my spine.  It is the same chill I felt when General Mike Flynn led the “Lock Her Up” chant at the Republican National Convention last summer.  It is the same chill I feel whenever the President insults NFL players who kneel during the national anthem.  For the reverence, this country has for the military in the context of the breakdown of democratic norms and values should worry government leaders, academics, and elites alike.  Because in other countries that share these commonalities, military juntas take control of democratically elected governments that are then ruled with an iron fist.

Now let’s be clear.  I am not predicting a military coup d’etat, nor am I suggesting that our military is not due the respect of the citizenry it serves.    But we should be honest with ourselves and admit that we hold our military service members in such high esteem, I dare call it reverence.  Just this past week, the White House Press Secretary chastized the WH Press Corps for daring to question Chief of Staff John Kelly because he was a 4-Star General.  The ability to question a 4-star general is exactly what I expect from the White House Press Corps and every American should expect the same.  Respecting the military is not the problem.  Respecting the military in absence of regard for our other democratic institutions is the problem and can result in a grave moral hazard.

What to do?

Focused, intelligent reform.  We must begin a broad-based and holistic reform initiative to address the root causes that led to the decline of democratic norms and values.  What will follow this post, over time, will be a few ideas.  They are not mine (I’m not that precocious), nor do I have easy and uncontroversial answers.  Every area necessitating reform is difficult, which is why they have not been ameliorated to date.  And any initiative worth passing will take years and will face intense opposition.  We have seen how challenging it is to pass sweeping legislation (think “Obamacare) but iterative and incremental change takes time and it is easy to lose momentum, especially in the fast-pasted, social media world in which we live.

Our democratic norms and values have been passed to us from previous generations.  Some had to fight harder and sacrifice more to preserve those foundational elements in order for us to inherit them.   For nearly 230 years, America has been lucky.  Lucky because our ancestors passed down at a minimum, the democratic patterns of behavior I noted above to those who became leaders and to those who granted them their legitimacy.  But do we recognize that fact?  Or do the majority of Americans believe that the United States is unique among nations and history; that somehow, we can escape that which other democracies or republics have fallen victim.  Ignoring the inevitable and refusing to recognize what is blatantly obvious is an affront to history and will only end in disaster.

In conclusion, I circle back to the anger fueling Donald Trump’s election.  Trump’s victory was a culmination of forces that had grown in intensity over many years and administrations.  In time, we will see it either as a mere stop on the road to disintegration or the turning point toward redemption.  But as we all sit back and continue with our individual lives, we need to consider our priorities.  The anger that both the left and the right felt was driven largely by economics.  Parents felt that their children would be the first generation that would not rise higher than they did as if this expectation were a guarantee.  College graduates found themselves living in their parent’s basement because they were unable to find a job in their chosen field.  The anger, in sum, was due in large part to fear over the legacy parents would leave their children.

Assuming that we somehow avoid meandering into a war with North Korea, America will survive Donald Trump.  But “Trumpism” will remain because it was embedded in parts of our culture before the President entered the political scene.  Dissolution of our democratic norms and patterns of behavior will exacerbate and aid the rise of the nationalist and xenophobic policy prescriptions of candidates that will follow.  So this problem is not going away.  If we are so concerned with the America we leave our children – we should all be active in preserving democracy for those same descendants.  It is too important to ignore.


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