Our Damaged Democracy
Our democracy is damaged.
We all know it. Every measure of our people reveals their perilously low confidence in the potential of the presidency, Congress, and the courts to stem the damage to our democracy and repair it.
But we can do it. First we must recognize that while we do have foreign enemies and adversaries, the greatest threats to our way of life come from within our nation. We must also understand how these forces exacerbate the worst and most destructive aspects of each other.
In his Study of History, British historian Arnold Toynbee reminded the world that “civilization is not a condition but a movement, a voyage, not a harbor.” He concluded that the great civilizations were destroyed by self-inflicted wounds, not by enemies from without, but from within. As he put it, “In all cases reviewed the most that an alien enemy has achieved has been to give an expiring suicide her coup de grace.”
Our nation confronts the fierce foreign winds of ISIS, chaos in the Middle East, Russian hacking and meddling efforts to discredit our democratic system, and an ambitious and aggressive China. We face an unraveling European Union and globalization
fired up by an unprecedented technological revolution. There are nuclear weapons in the hands of North Korea and perhaps Iran, proliferating beyond our control. Extremists and enemies are capable of terrorism not only with guns and bombs, but also with biological, chemical, and electronic weapons.
These are serious threats to our nation and way of life. But the most menacing lesson of history—one we may repeat if we refuse to learn from it—is that the greatest danger to our democracy is from within, not from without.
You don’t need a high school diploma to know that Washington isn’t working. Nor do you need a course in history to understand that America today is a far cry from the America of a generation or two ago, much less the adventurous, heroic, and determined population of the thirteen colonies that founded this nation. Our leaders find it much harder to get government to work, to devise and deliver public policy that helps all our people, and to muster solid majorities of Americans behind it. It’s become a backbreaking lift to establish and nourish an economic and social environment that helps parents raise their children. We live in a savagely raw political culture. This is an era of double-edged swords like the technological and social media revolution that may be as much a challenge as a boon to our democratic way of life.
Only we the people can repair our damaged democracy. We must understand the various vexing challenges our nation faces and how they affect one another in order to confront and conquer them. This book reveals how and why our democracy is damaged and makes some suggestions for renovation. This nation is yours and mine. We have the opportunity and the responsibility to repair and renew it. I have long believed that once our people fully grasp the problems, they fix them. That’s why I wrote this book.
The dysfunction we see today in Washington is not something spontaneous that just happened. Nor is it the fault of one party or one branch of government. Nor of any one president, Congress, or Supreme Court. The damage to our democracy has been accumulating for many years. Any one of us who has exercised power in the world of Washington over the past several decades almost surely has some fingerprints on it.
We face a disproportionately powerful presidency, a gridlocked and distracted Congress, politicized courts, dependent states, and a big-bucks-shaped public policy. At the same time, media, economic, educational, cultural, political, racial, and religious fault lines fragment our society. My concern is that people see these as isolated problems. They are not. This book shows how they reinforce and aggravate the worst elements in each other. The incestuous and corrosive combination of these problems is a far greater danger to our democracy than the sum of their individual parts. It has diminished the ability of our public institutions and leaders to protect and enrich our inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
In Washington the three branches of government have lost their constitutional bearings. Much of their capacity to provide coherent and unifying leadership that serves all our people and maintains our leading role in the free world has been lost.
There is a colossal concentration of power in the American presidency with its palace guard of hundreds of professionals who answer only to the president. Concentration of power in one person or one branch of government amid fragmentation almost everywhere else is a recipe for damaging democracy.
Congress is crippled by a take-no-prisoners partisanship. The House and Senate are pushed and shoved around by all sorts of well-financed commercial, cultural, and single-issue special interests that call compromise a sellout.
The Supreme Court and many lower federal courts are riven by conservative versus liberal politics. This rift begins with politically charged litmus tests that dominate the presidential nomination and Senate confirmation processes. It widens with the blistering rhetoric in so many of the top court’s 5–4 decisions and the politically infused rulings of many district court judges.
A malfunctioning Congress enhances the power of the president. The partisanship that dominates Congress and its confirmation process undermines respect for the Supreme Court. For an increasingly powerful executive branch, the checks, balances, and separation of powers designed to protect our freedom can become lines in the sand that are easily breezed away.
As the fifty states grow more dependent on federal funding, they more readily bow to the mandates that accompany those dollars. They need the money to provide education, health care, affordable housing, and infrastructure renewal for their residents. This dependency is atrophying their political muscles. It suppresses their potential as laboratories for creative public policies and more efficient ways to deliver essential services.
The many millions of dollars—billions for wannabe presidents—required to achieve elective office trample the constitutional concept of one person, one vote. Those with enormous fortunes use their deep pockets to dictate federal, state, and local public policies. High rollers with fat bankrolls move from federal to state government, from Congress to state legislatures, from courts and local prosecutors to city councils and town halls, until they get their way. The demeaning conduct often required to raise political money affects the quality of the individuals willing to enter public life.
Campaigns for elective office and public service have become blood sports. The media, social, cultural, ideological, and racial
fault lines in our society inhibit the ability of our public leaders and institutions to function for all our citizens. Fewer qualified and outstanding individuals are willing to engage in, or be subject to, anything-goes, anonymous-sourced, social media political combat in order to win an election or become a federal judge or cabinet or subcabinet appointee. First-rate and courageous public leaders are critical to restore faith in public institutions and conquer cantankerous public problems.
The First Amendment is enshrined in our Constitution so that the press can fearlessly speak truth to power and uncover public and private corruption and incompetence. The press has been weakened by the lack of resources to pay reporters, editors, publishers, and broadcasters, whose bosses must show profits. Political correctness and follow-the-pack journalism in Washington often soften the punch that the First Amendment was designed to give to protected speech. Federal law enforcement and intelligence bureaucrats, sworn to keep secrets in criminal justice and national security matters, act like coup colleagues in a banana republic. They see selective leaking to reporters as a way to undermine senior officials they dislike and policies they disagree with. The anonymous internet fosters a kind of mob rule by irresponsible verbal assault as it distributes false news and unsubstantiated personal attacks. Social media provides fertile soil for the fragmentation of our society.
The First Amendment also protects our freedom of religion. Once universally cherished, respected, and appreciated, this freedom has become a source of confusion and conflict. Those who exercise it run into prickly political and cultural disputes instead of inspiring efforts to find accommodating avenues of public policy, individual conduct, and religious practice. The sacred and secular square off against each other in government health programs, lawsuits about the Ten Commandments carved on stone
in government parks, and the phrase “one nation under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance.
Ideological intransigence has created a monstrous traffic jam in the public square. America today is among history’s most multicultural nations. Unlocking the power and human beauty of its demographic mosaic has monumental potential. Too many white people and members of racial and ethnic minorities continue to live and play on separate sides of the street. Those who try to cross to the other side or reach out to shake hands sometimes get run over.
Income inequality allows the top 1 percent to gobble up the nation’s wealth and bunches millions of the neediest Americans in a pit at the bottom. The chasm between rich and poor stokes a resentment poised to morph into despair, then anger, and eventually (and in some situations already) violence. Education inequality is slamming the door shut on upward mobility and cementing permanent elite and lower classes. Political cowardice and self-interest, and related government gridlock, obstruct compromise and innovative public policies. They stanch efforts to unite all our people and give them the opportunity and motivation to be all that God gave them the talent to be.
It’s not enough to be mad as hell about the situation. Now is the time to do something about it, and we the people—and only we—can. We need to take a cold and true look at the way that these problems, which damage our democracy, feed on each other, and how and why they do. Then we must mount an all-fronts and urgent campaign to confront them. All fronts, because the many problems that threaten us are so intertwined. Urgent, because the longer we wait, the more dangerous the situation will become and the harder it will be to maintain a government of, by, and for the people. The survival and enrichment of our damaged democracy are the stakes.
To do these things, we need to talk and listen to each other in candid conversation—you and I face-to-face; cities and states and the federal government; black, white, and all other skin pigments and ethnicities; religious and nonreligious; old and young; liberals and conservatives; urban and rural; haves, have-nots, and one-percenters.
We do not need to agree, but we do need to trust each other and to be worthy of each other’s trust. There are few angels in politics—or in government, business, labor, education, or any other field for that matter. Yet there was a day when a handshake was as much a commitment as a written contract. There was a time when wrenching public policy disputes eventually brought out the thoughtful best, not the raging beast in each side. Those were the days when we judged a political candidate or a party on more than just a single issue.
Such conversations and trust are essential preconditions for accepting finality in most decisions reached to resolve differences, whether those decisions are reached by passing a law, compromise, judicial decision, or election. Exchange of ideas among friends and foes helps develop mutual trust. With such trust, both sides can accept agreements and decisions as an end, rather than as a time-out in a perpetual dispute. Politics is not Ping-Pong, but crude, narcissistic, and street-fighting Democrats, Republicans, and independents would do better to spend their time looking in the mirror instead of spitting and throwing rocks at each other.
Why are self-examination, conversations, trust, and a sense of finality so important? Because without them, we will never be able to resolve the complex crises we face. We may not even bring ourselves to confront them. We will continue to have difficulty recognizing and recruiting individuals of high character, talent, leadership, and dedication to the public’s interest for service in politics and government.
Change is always difficult and often disruptive for our nation. Fundamental changes can be infernally tortuous to negotiate. Nevertheless, if we are to confront the challenges our nation faces, our leaders, institutions, politics, and public policies must change. We must change the way we conduct ourselves as citizens and the way political parties conduct themselves. Even Lyndon Johnson, despite fierce pride in his monumental domestic legislative achievements, recognized that his life’s work was not chiseled in stone:
But most of all, the Great Society is not a safe harbor, a resting place, a final objective, a finished work. It is a challenge constantly renewed, beckoning us toward a destiny where the meaning of our lives matches the marvelous products of our labor.1
This book is informed by more than eighty-five years of life experience, beginning in Depression-era Brooklyn with loving, middle-class parents. My education came on the streets of Brooklyn and from Jesuits at Brooklyn Prep and Holy Cross, and professors at Harvard Law School. It reflects lessons learned from working for thirty years in the nation’s capital. Those years began in the Kennedy administration, working at the Pentagon for Robert McNamara. Then I moved to the White House staff as President Lyndon Johnson’s chief assistant for domestic affairs, and served as secretary of health, education, and welfare in President Jimmy Carter’s cabinet. My professional years included acting as an attorney for the Washington Post and the Democratic Party during Watergate, decades as a Wall Street and Washington lawyer representing clients as varied as the Black Panther Party, the überconservative Peter Grace, the überliberal Daniel Schorr, and Coca-Cola in courts and in the secret tunnels of Capitol
Hill. I have served on the boards of more than fifteen public companies.
I have never been so concerned about the destiny of our democracy. I’ve never seen the nation’s capital so self-centered, fractured by angry partisanship, and weakened by the soft corruption of billions of dollars of political money. Many friends and colleagues of every political and ideological stripe are profoundly troubled about the condition of the capital and the country that we are passing on to our children and grandchildren.
We’re the people. You and I. The ball is in our court, yours and mine. If you’re ready to play, read on to find out what’s broken, why it’s broken, and a few ideas on what we must do to repair it. I hope what’s written on these pages will spark even more and better ideas from you. Together, we can once again make government work for all our people.