The first iteration of the Donald J. Trump White House was heavy on personnel and short on policy. Chief of staff Reince Priebus, chief strategist Stephen Bannon, senior advisor Jared Kushner and counselor Kellyanne Conway jockeyed for space and influence in a nebulous organizational structure. Despite being on the same team in theory, each staffer had an independent press shop and his or her own political apparatus. The results included personality wars via copious leaks, but official Washington was not bothered by it in the least. In fact, they ate it up.
Such is the state of politics today, argues Joseph A. Califano Jr. in Our Damaged Democracy: We the People Must Act. Califano, a White House staffer under Lyndon B. Johnson and a cabinet secretary under Jimmy Carter, turns his seasoned eye toward root causes when he examines our democratic processes and republican structures. Califano highlights numerous areas in which Washington has grown more dysfunctional: The power of the executive branch is wielded by White House staffers at the expense of cabinet leadership; Congress has abdicated law making for money making as it works less and fundraises more; the courts have grown to enjoy the coarseness of electoral politics; and the states have grown increasingly dependent on federal dollars for even the smallest projects.
Califano is not unique in asserting that our democracy needs a course correction, but he is particularly thoughtful in avoiding the cheap rhetoric of partisanship. He says that every president, regardless of party, seeks to expand power and marginalize oversight. Every Congress, regardless of partisan control, prefers the quick fix to the deliberative process. Institutional dysfunction, argues Califano, is a symptom of relational fault lines, be they racial, economic, educational or geographic. And while Americans are divided by these fault lines, the entire political system is ruled by money over purpose.
Califano is not unique in asserting that our democracy needs a course correction, but he is particularly thoughtful in avoiding the cheap rhetoric of partisanship.
Califano’s solutions to our political ailments may sound old-fashioned at times, but his focus on an educated electorate ready to participate fully in political discourse is the right one. If sensationalism is the lifeblood of the glassy-eyed, and if power grows easily in the presence of the duped, then an educated electorate can curtail Washington’s excess and hold elected officials and the media to account. Accountability breeds trust in relationships. Washington’s ability to rediscover trust can provide a platform for negotiated settlements instead of maximum trickery. Our Damaged Democracy is not afraid to step on toes for the sake of finding ways to fix our broken political system.
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