In this 24/7 cable news-dominated world, people everywhere are concluding that America’s democratic-republic experiment is simply not working. And the President’s recent erratic behavior is adding to that perception.

The current chaos must indeed be music to the ears of Russian, North Korean, Chinese, and Iranian autocrats who have been using social media to disrupt everyone’s confidence in America’s political system. Right now we are definitely vulnerable to both violent and cyber attacks… inside and outside our country.

Up until recently the simple “idea of America” has functioned as our promise that the country’s political leaders will always champion equal opportunity, justice, and human rights for everyone. Although their methods were not always uniformly effective, overall we have been able to demonstrate that like-minded allies working together will gradually be able to make the world more peaceful. The current White House, however, will be leaving our founder’s “democratic-republic” badly fractured.

To fix the damage, President Biden’s new communication team will need to have strategic and brand identity messages ready on day-one to rebuild national unity and reestablish world leadership. These identity messages must guide all official speeches and statements, and undergird all daily releases. And in order to dominate daily news headlines, this team will need to include a group of top-of-their-game Internet and social media professionals.

Some have criticized Obama’s book as being too long, and this is only Volume I. Another criticism has been that he goes on and on with too much detail about decisions that were made before and after his election. But I must say I am finding that detail fascinating and informative.

I am only half way through, but I am already learning how important it is for a president to know much of the nation’s history; have a deep knowledge of domestic and foreign policy issues; choose only top experts for key positions; be willing to read and study critical briefing books every day; and be ready to put in the 12 to 16 hour days it takes to lead a nation.

In ancient Greece Plato proposed that “philosopher kings” were needed to lead governments. He was concerned that incompetent politicians might be chosen for high office. The same concern existed in early America. Ben Franklin famously said “you have a republic if you can keep it.” He hoped this “republic” would be able to prevent the wrong person from winning the presidency. But in 2016 we got a reality TV show host… and he certainly was no philosopher king.

We painfully learned that in today’s social media climate our American republic would not be able to prevent a poorly prepared, self-serving, wannabe autocrat from winning the presidency. We also found out that this self-promoter would know very little about his country’s history, its domestic and foreign policy issues, and would show no interest in learning about these things on the job.

We also learned that a surprising number of people would join his cause. Some felt their needs had been overlooked by government and would soon become his “base.” Poorly prepared people would eagerly join his staff and offer their loyalty simply to be close to power. As selfish, divisive and hostile behaviors grew, fear of what he might do would keep them in line. Thankfully, the first potential dictatorship in American history recently unraveled.

Therefore, I heartily recommend Obama’s, A Promised Land. It is a complete lesson on just how much public service inspired expertise and experienced teamwork is absolutely necessary to lead a unique democratic republic like America.

When truth dies… trust does too. And when this happens… there is no longer a normally functioning society.

When digital technology and social media enlarged the way television changed social and human behavior, the scene was set for a reality TV performer to be able to dominate public and news media attention.

People in rural areas and small towns were going through job losses and personal crises that were being ignored in Washington… while political parties were obsessed with fighting each other. This new media revolution made it easy for a TV performer to make promises to this lost audience that he would not keep… except for one: He will like them, if they will like and remain loyal to him. So he held rallies designed to entertain, which very soon included outrageous exaggerations, making up lies, assaulting people who disagreed, and engaging in opponent name-calling. Soon much of this also evolved into crazy conspiracy theories which appealed to those seeking a cult-like experience.

This is the kind of situation that spills into populism… which promises to make “all your problems go away.” And populism produces autocrats who purge experts from government and replace them with family members and unqualified but loyal friends. Guardrails to block this were never put in place in the United States. Until Trump, public service was what attracted people to government. Now we are dealing with the consequences.

Only a public service motivated leader, who always tells the truth and finds honest solutions to people’s problems, can regain the public’s trust and end the divisions that are tearing our country apart.

I yearn for an experienced White House. I also yearn for a resurgence of public service professionals leading and serving institutions, inside and outside government. A country is only as strong as its’ institutions.

When I was a student at American University in the 1960’s, public service was a profession offering decently paid career opportunities, including a measure of prestige. The U.S. Foreign Service, the FBI, the CIA, the state department, and many more, were attractive places to make a lifetime career. I met many of these impressive professionals in AU classrooms, and went to visit them on the job.

So here are my thoughts:

  1. The famous words of Ben Franklin ring loud right now, “You have a republic if you can keep it.” In light of this digital technology world, if the electoral college is to function as Franklin imagined, very serious guardrails must be added.
  2. Polarized parties in Washington failed to meet the needs of hurting people. A new White House must find ways to listen, and respond to those needs.
  3. The new White House must recruit experienced talent into a revived public service. Think-tanks, consultancies, and many international organizations in Washington abound with talent.
  4. Working together, these professionals must go to work to plan a final assault on the pandemic, infrastructure projects that create jobs, preserve regulations that protect health and the environment, create climate change initiatives; expand new energy jobs that gradually reduce dependence on fossil fuels, and improve healthcare so that it really works for everyone.
  5. With a more professional public service, a smaller and more efficient government should be possible. That can now become a legitimate bipartisan goal.
  6. The American president can once again build a cabinet of experienced experts, with clearly delegated responsibilities.
  7. The American people should now have a president who will read daily reports, will not spend every weekend playing golf, will not send out cruel and self-serving tweets, and will never use his office to enrich himself and his family.
  8. There must never again be an American president who is more comfortable in the company of dictators, than longtime allies.

Working across the aisle is the only way to truly govern. We now will have a White House that knows how to do that!

Lesson 572 Fake Media

Traditional journalists report both sides of every issue.   

But the challenge for reporters today is to separate lies, cruelty, chaos, and self-serving claims, from truth and facts. It has become virtually impossible to report only truth, and still report both sides.

The fact is, media revolutions have completely changed journalism. 

Early thinkers assumed that new media technology would bring people together and increase understanding. But the opposite is what happened. Differences became magnified, anger was amplified, and a peaceful global village became a distant dream. 

The Internet also produced an illusion of personal invisibility.

It became possible to be cruel and remain distant. And it enabled autocrats to form choirs of supporters and give them only emotional satisfaction. 

Chaos is becoming unbearable for most of us, and many in the political party most responsible for this mess have been ducking responsibility by saying, “We love his policies, but hate his politics.”

Today we have an entire population trying to deal with an out-of-control pandemic, huge numbers out of work, growing food lines, and a culture filled with increasingly-confusing fake media.

The biggest danger of all is that we have a president who is playing only to the emotions of his base, and is totally focused on forming an autocracy with unqualified family members and loyalists ready to carry out his daily whims.

Simply put, we must do whatever it takes to save our incredible democracy.     

Trust in most everything is gone. Whatever you think about Pete Buttigieg from his campaign, you should read his book, simply titled Trust. He writes beautifully and in-depth about the importance of trust at this critical time in American history.

The long-respected Scientific American recently endorsed science, health, and Joe Biden for president. Its editors were not taking a partisan stand. They were desperately taking a stand for truth and transparency.  

What more do we need to inform our vote? Trump’s endless belittling of contracting Covid-19; his endless ignoring of those in quarantine, dying, and losing jobs; his endless cruel attacks; his endless lies about voter fraud; his endless threats on cherished American institutions; his endless racist and conspiracy trolls; and his endless daily tweets to create chaos and deliberate distractions? Extremist groups and individuals are already responding by threatening violence, and even civil war. Trust in most everything is gone.

And to make matters worse, the New York Times now tells us that Trump’s tax return data shows chronic losses, taxes were not paid over a ten year period, hundreds of millions of dollars are owed to foreign entities, and Trump’s wealth is accumulating from foreign and lobby patronage seeking improper benefits. Trust in most everything is gone.

I yearn for the day when we once again have highly educated experts on planning teams advising presidents who know something about American and world history, and are curious enough to read and learn about complicated issues, and are therefore able to clearly articulate rational decisions. 

I also yearn for the day when losing an election does not mean losing democracy. 

Democracies are very difficult to save.

A democratically elected leader can easily morph into an obsessed autocrat. This might be missed at first, but such a person usually has character flaws that can be traced to childhood; has consistently shown only self-centered motivations; has a complete lack of empathy; and has a mean-streak always directed at those who disagree with him. History teaches that when such a person becomes a nation’s leader, any democracy will always be under serious threat.

Once in office, this kind of person will demand loyalty. A tributary system will quickly appear where loyalty will bring benefits, and criticism will bring punishment and humiliation. Brainwashing messages, tangible symbols, endless propaganda statements (or tweets), and staged-for-TV events will become features of the entire administration. Considered unnecessary, basic governmental and other institutions will be reduced in size and importance, and many of the top experts that inhabit them will prepare to leave, or will be fired. What some call the “Stockholm Effect” will eventually take hold, and many of those immersed in this autocracy will actually develop a psychological dependency on it. Authoritarians always show an admiration of dictators early on, and will eventually extend their power by bonding with them.

History teaches that once a democracy is lost, its culture will very likely go too. In this manner, entire civilizations have been lost. So far the United States still has the skeleton of a democracy. The thought that we could lose it all should terrify us.

This much is crystal clear from this president’s behavior… only a vote for Biden can save our treasured democracy!

My conclusion: Trump was Trump. Biden was Biden. The moderator was not in control. The chaos was an embarrassment to our country all around the world.  

Many scholars thought that Kennedy won the first televised debate. And those who listened on the radio thought Nixon won. Nixon sounded more informed on the issues. Kennedy was more charismatic.

I suggest that “selective perception” was probably in full swing during this debate. If you started out liking Biden you probably became more committed. And vice versa if you liked Trump.

But many others probably got totally frustrated, even embarrassed at all the shouting. They might even be thinking they will not vote at all. But not voting is still voting, and that’s not a good solution. You must vote.

And there always are a few undecideds looking for a reason to make a choice. In the past, these people often found one or the other slightly more likable. So a few votes might have been decided this way.

Bottom line: Most political scientists I know have concluded that debates rarely change people’s minds. They become reinforced in what they already thought. Is that what happened to you? 

That said, this country does not need another debate like this.

This election should not be about either political party. Voters should review the basic principles of democracy, and then vote accordingly.

That said, how can it be possible to interpret the constitution of the United States of America to mean that every president and attorney general should have autocratic control over everything?

Or put another way: How many lies or extreme exaggerations can we tolerate? Or how many cruel and personally destructive attacks on opponents will be overlooked? Or how many ways of saying “those who are willing to die for their country are suckers” will be ignored? Or how often will “only I can do it” comments be tolerated? Or how many regulations to protect the public health can be eliminated before thousands get sick or die? Or how many important allies will be threatened in public until their hostility turns on us? Or how many more promises will be made for a better healthcare program with no results? Or how many times of showing no empathy or moral compass can be absorbed without rebellion? Or how many foreign dictators can be admired before the nation realizes that his goal is to become one?

The founding fathers clearly rejected any monarchy. After all, they staged a revolution against bowing to the King of England. They openly worried about foreign influence on presidents and government officials. They built impeachment into the constitution for good reason. And they designed the Electoral College (thus, a Republic) in an effort to keep unqualified people from ever getting elected to high office.

Many of us still dream of an America where checks and balances really work; where government officials and presidents are never allowed to govern above the law; where immigration policy and management is mindful that we have always been a nation of immigrants; and where American society genuinely provides opportunities for people of all economic circumstances, all genders, and all races. 

My worst nightmare is to think that American democracy might one day only be in my dreams. 

There are two physicians on my street that have Trump signs in their yards. I have been thinking a lot lately about how that could have happened?

Is it because they have never actually worked directly with frontline health care professionals?

Is it because they really do not want people to have affordable health insurance? Or Medicare? Or social security?

Is it because they are wealthy enough see the stock market as the primary driver of their personal worth?

Or are they connected financially with healthcare organizations that benefit from Trump’s tax breaks?

Or is it because they really think that recent tax breaks have actually helped working people?

Or is it because their patients are all at their same income level?

These are smart people. Do they simply not see the damage that has been done? In education? In infrastructure? In foreign affairs? In human rights? In climate change? In the loss of jobs?

The sad news about Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s passing came to me as I was writing this. Her career should be a lesson for us now. She was bigger than politics. She was a cultural icon for democracy and individual freedom. This election is not about making a political choice. It’s about solving a very serious national problem. Save the sorting out of political party ideology for next time.

For this election… do you want to reelect an “only I can do it,” authoritarian dictator? Or do you want to save American democracy?