If one set out to choose a cabinet and executive staff intent on deconstructing the federal government as we know it, one could do no better than the incoming administration. And that’s the point. It’s about deconstructing. Some are ideologically motivated to deconstruct the federal government into the barest skeleton required by the Constitution so that state and local agencies will be free to address needs and issues as they are able and see fit. Moreover, they are certain that many social needs can be better met through private enterprise and charities, encouraging higher standards of personal responsibility, and restoring what they call traditional family values. Others are motivated by more practical considerations. They want to remove the federal government as an obstacle to doing business in what ever way they think is best for their bottom lines.
Trump is no ideologue. He doesn’t have enough knowledge or curiosity about things ideological to be one. Even if he did, he wouldn’t care. If it’s not about him, it isn’t important. As for the current system, he’s done best when he’s been able to manipulate its complexities in his favor. He’s tended to fail when he’s had to compete head-to-head in the open market with others who know how to run a business. He has no pressing need to dismantle the briar patch that has made him rich. But he is a person who appears to take perverted delight demolishing, in humiliating ways, anyone or thing that stands between him and his ego. So why not set his minions loose on the federal government the way the Caesars set gladiators and animals against one another? He doesn’t need a coliseum as long as he has the news media and his Twitter account. What fun entertainment for him and his ardent supporters. The bloodier the better. Whee! When the battle has gone on long enough, he will fire the minions, and try something else.
Americans who are concerned with how best to meet needs and issues they believe demand a public response, and who view the federal government as an important tool for addressing those that are national in scope, or require resources beyond the abilities of state and local agencies, are missing the point. They are focussed on needs and issues government can help address, but pay scant attention to its structure and efficiency. The minions are focussed on the structure of the government, with needs and issues as peripheral concerns. They exist, but on the periphery. All the hollering about them coming from the center and left is but the distant muffled noise of unimportant people who can be safely ignored.
What to do about it? Centrists and progressives might consider engaging in the hard work of educating the public on the purposes of government, and the basics of how our federal system works at the national, state, and local levels. It would be important not to overlook the relationship between government and the role of non governmental organizations that also address needs and issues. They include the usual list of voluntary community organizations, larger associations and foundations, and also institutions sometimes taken for granted: schools, churches, social clubs, even local pubs. There are some models to learn from. The authors of the Federalist Papers did it in a time when literacy was limited and communication was slow. A few decades ago the Southern Poverty Law Center began a program called Teaching Tolerance that has put curriculum material into classrooms all over the country. Using the best of modern communication techniques, the same could be done for civics. Did any of you read the December 17 New York Times article by Mike McIntire about how a guy in Britain created a fake internet news site called the “Patriot News Agency,” and made it into one of the hottest ultra right wing publicity machines invading every nook and cranny of the American election season? He just laughed at the incompetence of centrists and progressives to do anything like it or about it. Is there any reason why information well anchored in facts and reason can’t do the same and do it better?
It would be a good start but not enough. There is a real problem with the complexity and inefficiency of the federal government. Part is due to structural issues that could be corrected with a little discipline. Part is due to legislation that incompetently micro manages implementation. Part is due to liberal tendencies, yes I’m speaking to us, to define problems and solutions on grand scales, throw some money at them, and go on to other things. Progressive leadership at the national and state levels would do well to be as hard headed pragmatic as possible in demanding that legislators, legislation, executives and bureaucracies be results oriented and accountable.
Pay attention! Failure to do something like this is to fail!