January 31st, 2017 // 10:36 am @ Oliver DeMille
Servant or Partner
There is a funny undertone right now in many media circles. For decades the national mainstream media has largely portrayed Congress as the little brother of the White House—existing mainly to support the president’s agenda. Since at least 1996 the level of independent action by Congress—directly tackling presidential action and shutting it down when necessary—has decreased. On a longer trajectory, this same pattern has been gaining momentum since 1861. Many have referred to it as the era of the Imperial Presidency.
Moreover, real use of power by Congress has become increasingly unacceptable in the eyes of the national media. Just consider the results when Congress tried to use the purse strings to check the president: the media called it “shutting down the government” and portrayed any who supported it as pariahs.
Now that Donald Trump controls the future of the Oval Office, however, the media is seeing things from a different perspective. Maybe the silver lining in Trump’s election, a number of journalists are suggesting, is that Congress can finally get back on track. It should be more of a partner with the president, less of the president’s support base.
Well…yes. On the one hand, this is patently true. Of course Congress should be a partner, independent, sometimes supporting and other times checking the White House and pruning the powers and budgets of the sprawling executive bureaucracy. On the other hand, it is ironic that the media is just now figuring this out. Thanks to Donald Trump, the media is suddenly concerned that we need a stronger, more independent Congress. But when Barack Obama was in charge, not so much.
This is a fundamental problem with liberalism/progressivism. It promotes what it wants, and changes its views on our system of government whenever such promotion would benefit its agenda. In the process, however, it creates confusion and chaos. “Follow the Constitution when it blocks something we don’t like, but just ignore or circumvent the Constitution when it makes what we want more difficult.”
The official name for this is “rule by men,” as opposed to “rule by law.” As one article suggested, “The arrival of President Donald Trump could revive Congress’ political will…” (Foreign Affairs, January/February 2017, 133) Many in the media seem to think this is a new idea. Indeed, Congress might actually start doing what the Constitution says it should do.
A wave of progressives sigh in relief. “Congress shouldn’t have blocked Obama, clearly. But it should block Trump. A lot.” The hypocrisy is poignant.
Or consider another suggestion: “…foreign policy leaders in Congress should take advantage of their positions to fight back against deception on the part of the executive branch.” (Ibid., 143) This is exactly right. What isn’t mentioned is that Congress should have been doing precisely the same thing a lot more effectively for the past eight years.
“Legislators often sense that the administration is not telling them the whole truth but do nothing to call it out.” (Ibid.) A serious problem. But why didn’t the national media call for a change while Obama was in office? Why did they in fact excoriate any Congressional committees that tried to do exactly this? Why the newfound popularity of the Constitution among media elites now?
Don’t get me wrong. I’m elated that more voices are now calling for Congress to step up and do its job. All I can say is: “Finally. It’s about time.” I support this trend, even if it is coming many years late. I can’t help but smile at the irony, however. Now that their candidates are out of office, many in the liberal media are suddenly noticing the importance and value of the Constitution.
The Lesser of Two…
As one writer put it, quoting Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.: “History has shown that neither the Presidency nor the Congress was infallible, and that each needed the other—which may well be what the Founding Fathers were trying to tell us.” (Ibid., 145) Right on. Just as those of us who believe in the Constitution have been saying for the last three decades.
But this trend is bigger than first meets the eye. The sad reality is that the Constitution is more often lauded and promoted by those out of power than those in office. The real need is for it to be cherished and followed by those in authority.
Which brings us to the subject of President Trump. Many who voted for him didn’t do so because they believed he was the great champion of the Constitution, or even America. Indeed, many Trump voters weren’t at all sure what their vote would bring about in our nation and world. They cast their ballot for Trump largely because they were sure a vote for Hillary would bring more the same—more rule by career politicians and bloated bureaucracies, more economic stagnancy and empty promises from Washington, more business as usual politics, more blah, blah, blah from the mouth of politicians, more problems and few actual fixes.
They voted for change, hoping that it would actually come. Many—perhaps most—feared that the election wouldn’t actually change things very much at all. Politicians frequently promise change, and then don’t deliver. Why would Trump be any different? Many Americans are still skeptical that things will truly improve. They expect more bureaucratic double speak, more economic bad news.
They’re waiting, watching. Wondering what will happen. As one Trump voter told me: “Maybe Trump will make things better, maybe he’ll make things worse. But with Hillary we know what we’ll get: more of the same. No solutions. Just an endless stream of problems. If Trump can bring even a little bit of positive change, it’s worth it.”
Note the cynicism wrapped in a tiny husk of wistful hope. “If” he can bring “even a little bit of positive change…” The subtext is sobering: “It’s not likely anyone will bring any solutions. But if only we could get even a tiny bit of good news…”
Dusk or Dawn
We are now an America deeply in doubt. “No good news will come. Probably not even a little. But still, if only it would…”
The desperation is palpable, if we allow ourselves to notice. In short, America 2.0 is suffering from PTSD. We’re just waiting for “the other shoe to drop.” Too many Americans expect bad news. We expect tragedy. We are biding our time, assuming bad things will come. “This is the new normal,” the Obama Administration told us. We anticipate more that is negative.
Consider the following headlines:
“Officials hold firm, despite Trump’s skepticism” (USA Today, January 6-8, 2017).
“Department stores become endangered” (Ibid.) [More lost jobs, the end of the Mall Era that began in the Eighties and became synonymous with the postmodern American Dream.]
“Year Ahead: A partly sunny outlook for sales” (Ibid.) [We bide our time, trying to stay positive, largely sure that clouds are coming.]
“Sears watches its relevance fade in changing world” (Ibid.) [For many people, this sentence would be even more true with the word “America” inserted for “Sears”.]
“Macy’s and Sears, which owns K-Mart stores, announced more than 200 store closings on Wednesday and Thursday” (Ibid.)
All of these come from one page of the same national newspaper. They paint an emotional picture of a nation not in full-blown crisis but clearly expecting it. Or, maybe, it is in crisis already. Sadly, each day’s front page is similar. Another front page from a different national newspaper tells the same story:
“The retail property market is showing signs of a slowdown…” (The Wall Street Journal, January 6, 2017)
“Trump Creditors Are Many, Varied” [The article tells us the new president is deeply in debt, as is the norm for real estate developers, and this may weaken his ability to lead.]
“The Yuan surged, posting its largest-ever two-day gain against the dollar…” [China is still gaining ground on us, slowly but surely.]
“Trump blasted Toyota…” [Big government and big media are constantly in conflict.]
“Belgium’s Botched Hunt for ISIS Cell” [Danger everywhere…]
Look past page one, and the same newspaper adds the following:
- Young people are now renting more, buying fewer homes.
- “More older people carry student loans”
- Research shows that smartphones hurt children’s eyes.
- Sales at Barnes and Noble and other bookstores are way down, while liquor sales are up.
- Saudis cut oil production, so fuel prices are expected to rise.
- Macy’s, Kohl’s, and many other retailers’ sales are way down.
The news is endless. It’s more than “bad news sells,” there’s a distinct tone of worry, concern, even fear of what’s ahead. “What is coming next?,” Americans seem to be asking. The answers are generally cynical and a bit gloomy.
Again, in this environment, the Constitution is gaining “support” in many media outlets. No doubt President Trump will face many big battles with Congress, not just from Democrats but from those in his own party. (See The Wall Street Journal, January 7-8, A13) In fact, Trump probably won’t just face an attempt to set the national agenda from Chuck Schumer, but also from Paul Ryan. (Ibid.) Congress seems poised to reassert itself.
That’s a good thing. The Founders would have applauded. It’s way past time for Congress to do its Constitutional duty and stand up to the President as needed. Sadly, it didn’t do this very well during the Obama era—or the Bush era, or the Clinton era. It’s great that there is more support for such a resurgence today, even it makes us chuckle at the irony.
The fact is, the Constitution is still the best hope for good government. We should follow it. Congress should follow it. They should follow it with Trump in office, and with anyone and everyone else in the Oval—not just when it’s convenient, or popular in the media, but always.
January 26th, 2017 // 7:59 am @ Oliver DeMille
(How Bias in Media is Getting Even Worse, and What To Do About It)
The U.S. media hasn’t been so blatantly biased since the days of the muckrakers. For decades many Americans have known that the mainstream media has a liberal lean. It treated Bush I, Bush II, McCain and Romney differently (worse) than progressives like Clinton, Gore, Kerry, Hillary, and Obama. But in the Trump era the media has gone all in: it has largely lost its sense of objectivism or balance.
This isn’t limited to a few channels or outlets. Nearly every news organization that once claimed journalistic objectivism is clearly one-sided. Journalism is dead, for all practical purposes, as some political watchers have suggested.
Consider TIME magazine’s handling of its famous Person of the Year. In 2015 it refused to put Trump on the cover, even though by the end of that year he had clearly turned American politics on its head (for good or ill, depending on your viewpoint). When the magazine did choose Trump as the 2016 person of the year—even TIME couldn’t deny the surprising revolution he presided over—it did so in backhanded fashion. The cover announced: 2016 Person of the Year, Donald Trump, President of the Divided States of America.
Note the word “divided” in the last sentence.
This kind of bias is now the norm. Not that our nation isn’t divided. It clearly is, and no doubt Trump would gladly own responsibility for that in 2017. But it was deeply divided in the Obama era as well. Why would objective media attribute such divisions to Trump but not Obama? Indeed, this level of divisiveness is perhaps the major lasting feature of President Obama’s legacy. Much of the media simply ignored how many people were deeply alienated by Obama’s politics. Top media outlets literally fawned over Obama, and his heir-apparent, Hillary Clinton, during the past several years. It lauded them, praised them, discounted and downplayed failures—as if such things didn’t matter in the presence of such glowing leaders.
A commentary in The Atlantic noted that Trump voters tended to take his words seriously but not literally, while Hillary supporters took Trump’s words literally but not seriously. But progressives applied the same standard to Obama: they took him seriously but not literally, quickly dismissing broken promises about Syria, Guantanamo, keeping one’s healthcare provider, the cost of insurance going down, etc. They excoriate Trump on the details of his promises, while giving Obama a pass on a long string of failed promises.
Extremism in media is now the fashion. Extreme flattery of Obama and Clinton coupled with extreme vilification of Trump and anyone who voted for him. Even if you dislike Trump’s approach or politics, this development in our national media is alarming.
Moreover, we seem to be entering a new era of media behavior. During the Bush years the mainstream media was clearly liberal, but conservatives, centrists and even progressives could find some balance in media coverage by reading and watching both sides of the media: The New York Times and also The Wall Street Journal, MSNBC and also Fox, The Atlantic and also The Weekly Standard, The Huffington Post and also National Review.
For every mainstream liberal media outlet there were comparable conservative publications and networks. This is no longer the case. Conservative news is still available, but much of Fox is anti-Trump, and many traditionally conservative media outlets publish articles that read like The NY Times or Huffington Post in their attacks on Trump and his embryonic administration.
The reason for this is obvious. Many on the Right distrust Trump, considering him an authoritarian at best (which may or may not turn out to be true), and the old balance of Right versus Left is almost entirely gone in the media landscape. Where are the publications or channels that support the administration’s platform, viewpoint and interests? They are practically nonexistent.
Regardless of how you feel about Trump as president, this is a dangerous development. Americans have long decried Soviet-style media in nations where the government controlled journalistic outlets and the people only got one side of the story—the official line as approved by the dominating state. In the United States we are witnessing the rise of the opposite extreme: a one-sided media that only tells the American people one story: zealous anti-Trump rhetoric. The media that blasts Trump for his bombast also frequently surpasses him in pomposity (toward Obama and Clinton) and arrogant anger (toward Trump and Trump voters). They spin and inflate (and quite simply misreport) policies, utterances and choices he makes, without clarification or retraction.
Again, this is alarming, even if you dislike Trump. A one-sided media simply cannot be objective, and to aggressively set out shape public opinion in such a fashion is a reprehensible tact for a sector of society that has traditionally been a watchdog of democracy. If this continues, we won’t be getting the full story, or the real story, in the years ahead. And we won’t be able to balance mainstream views with strong media reporting from the other side—because pretty much no media anywhere cares about truthfully communicating both sides. Nearly the entire industry is committed to either passionately attacking the new administration, or misrepresenting its loyal opposition.
On a deeper societal level, part of this growing media problem is couched in the national antipathy toward the so-called experts. Our economy has become so specialized in many sectors that people are increasingly expected to rely on experts for major decisions in their lives (educational, financial, parental, healthcare, etc.), often without even seriously questioning the “accepted expert wisdom” or making their own choices. For the Establishment, Trump voters represent the opposite of this trend.
For example, a political cartoon from The New Yorker showed a middle-aged man, balding and portly, standing up in the aisle of an airplane and announcing to the passengers: “These smug pilots have lost touch with regular passengers like us. Who thinks I should fly the plane?”
At first blush, few of us want some regular guy from our next flight to use democracy to take over the cockpit. But the cartoon hits an even deeper chord. While it is apparently meant to criticize many American voters, it actually does a lot to point out flaws in the expert-dependent Establishment.
First, nearly all passengers shown in the cartoon are raising their hands. Democracy is strongly against the expert-dependent Establishment right now. Most people are skeptical of experts, seeking a second or even third opinion even in arenas where expertise is most sacred.
Second, the word “smug” in the cartoon is poignant. Only smug experts would believe such a political cartoon would make their point; the truth is that most voters, unlike most airline passengers, aren’t seeking a political expert in the White House. They specifically prefer a non-expert, a non-politician. The Establishment can’t quite grasp why anyone would hold this view. They really are out of touch.
These people want a wise and effective leader, not a bureaucratic manager. They want a visionary and strong commander-in-chief, not another smug political specialist. (There is an excellent commentary on the same cartoon in USA Today, January 6, 2017.) Voters want an outsider. They want someone who doesn’t actually like the bureaucracy and the lobbyists. Most of the media realizes this on a logical level, but just can’t bring themselves to believe it in their gut. Mainstream media wants government by experts. A lot of voters don’t.
Of course there is an important place for expertise in society. But clearly elections should be up to the people, all the people across the U.S. – not just the population-dense regions on the right and left coasts. Our era of over-reliance on professional political experts and bureaucratic dominance has caused a lot of problems. Concerning journalism, we want experts in telling us the truth and letting us make our own decisions, not experts of spin who sway the populace to a certain political view—whatever it is. Unfortunately, for decades many in the media have been telling us that their opinion is the truth—to trust them—to follow them—because they know what is best for us. The people are calling their bluff.
At the highest level, the Establishment acts on the assumption that experts determine elections. For example, most elites are convinced that expert choices, not voters, really swayed the latest election, and other elections as well. This is broadcast in various ways, including the following Establishment beliefs:
- Obama’s social media gurus and ground game won 2008 and 2012, while Jared Krushner’s Silicon Valley-style analytics and online campaign won 2016 for Trump.
- Russian hackers were responsible for election outcomes, since clearly the American people wouldn’t have voted this way without some kind of sinister expert intervention.
- Media sway makes the biggest difference in presidential elections, and the mainstream media was clearly anti-Trump; therefore, Fox and talk radio are responsible for the “skewed” results on election night.
In reality, voters gather information in many ways, consider their options, and then select whom they want to lead (or vote against the candidate they least want to be in charge). It is ironic that the Establishment lauds democracy at every turn, but doesn’t actually believe in it. The Establishment believes, rather, that experts ultimately determine votes, one way or the other. And that they should.
Again, this arrogance is only expanding in the current media environment. I expect it to widen and deepen in the months and years ahead.
In all this, what are freedom-loving citizens to do? What about those who sincerely want to get both sides of the news and really compare what the White House is doing and thinking to what the mainstream media is reporting? Answer: such citizens are largely out of luck. They aren’t getting much help from institutional media.
They can try reading The Economist, which is certainly not a pro-Trump or even remotely conservative publication but is at least European and not quite so caught up in the anti-Trump venom of the American national media. This is a good option for some readers. Or they can read the business news, like Fortune and Forbes, for example, which focuses on commerce and addresses the news only tangentially—and with less extremism. Again, some readers can use this kind of sidebar-journalism to get a more objective read on the new.
But it’s hardly a solution. The real answer is for the media to self-regulate and deliver objective, quality journalism. Until this happens—if it ever does—citizens who want to know what is really happening are going to need to find quality sources of knowledge. Most sources of this kind will come not from big media outlets, but rather from deep thinkers who share important views online.
Find writers and thinkers—instead of relying on publications or channels—that spark your thinking and help you see things differently than the major media retailers and showrooms. Since the big media isn’t doing its job anymore, it’s up to us as individuals to more actively seek out ideas and knowledge.
The silver lining in this new era of media is real. In the current news environment, it is up to each of us to dig deeper and think more independently if we want to see through media spin and really keep an eye on the news. The mainstream media is taking much of the nation on a pied-piper-style spin, and only the vigilant will actually know what’s really going on in current events.
(Consider taking our Current Events Course, which helps participants learn to more effectively see through the media, whatever its agenda, and know what’s really happening. Once you’ve completed this course, try getting your news by reading a major publication from both sides of the aisle, such as The Atlantic and also The Wall Street Journal, and then adding one or more of the sources listed above to get a more objective view of things. We all need to read more closely in this new era of media, and keep our thinking caps on no matter what we’re reading.)
January 23rd, 2017 // 1:55 pm @ Oliver DeMille
(What it Means for the Future of America)
First of all, the very idea that each president must aim to leave a lasting legacy of some sort is wrong-minded. Some of the best presidents in history did little except what they were elected to do: keep the nation safe, follow the Constitution, and stop other branches of government from intervening in the economy.
This is precisely what they should do. For example, presidents Madison, Harding and Coolidge are seldom given props for their legacies—but they were better presidents (using the Constitution as a measuring stick) than many others who used their time in office to “do more”, and in the process went beyond the Constitution and reduced American freedoms.
At its root the concept of legacy as a vital part of the presidency comes from the Establishmentarian desire to have a king. Establishment media, political parties, and many professional politicos want the pomp and circumstance of looking up to “royalty,” and the perks that come with close connections to those who hold executive power.
Jefferson once chided John Adams for this same tendency. In the Jeffersonian spirit, the president should…well, we already said it: keep the nation safe, follow the Constitution, and stop other branches of government from messing up the economy with too much regulation and/or bureaucratic intervention. This bears repeating over and over in our generation—until we get it.
In fact, this is the opposite of Obama’s legacy, which could be summed up as: “The more government intervention in the economy and people’s lives, the better.”
But let’s put aside the battle over ideals for a moment and focus on the practical side of governing.
Obama established at least four major precedents that could be a serious problem for Americans—depending on how Trump and future presidents apply them. These include the following presidential disasters:
1. Do what you want unilaterally, using executive orders, instead of doing the hard work to lead and persuade Congress to work with you—as required in the Constitution. Just dictate things from the Oval Office.
2. Use the “nuclear option” to get things through Congress (the Barack Obama and Harry Reid approach of forcing things with a majority vote instead of sixty Senators). One more check and balance gone.
3. Doggedly ignore the views of people and groups who didn’t vote for you. Act like your supporters are the only Americans who matter, and like those who didn’t support you are sub-par citizens whose concerns aren’t important. Treat opponents as enemies (and idiots), not the loyal opposition whose voices carry some important truths. President Obama was a master at this approach.
4. After you’ve been voted out of office, before the next president is inaugurated, reject two centuries of precedence and don’t try to make things smooth for the incoming president—instead, do everything you can in your last two months of office to establish policies and take actions that make it more difficult for the next president to implement the agenda voters selected during the campaign. Simply assume you know better than the people.
This is the Obama legacy. If Trump adopts it (any of it, for that matter) he’ll do much harm to our nation. We can only hope that the Trump Administration will take a better approach to leadership. Note that he can use executive orders and push the “nuclear option” in the Senate to undo Obama overreaches without using these tactics to engage any additional policies that unwisely expand executive power.
Rise or Fall
I have friends who believe he’ll do exactly that, and others who think he’ll use these negative Obama precedents early and often. If he does the latter, such behaviors will become forever part of the executive branch and the Obama-Trump legacy will further damage our society.
Historically, few presidents choose to exert less power than their predecessors. Jefferson and Madison did, and Jackson. As mentioned, both Harding and Coolidge did the same. Washington is a special case, because he had no predecessor. He belongs on the list of those who did it right, because he chose to exert less power than he was offered.
Other U.S. presidents built on the power they inherited and tried to expand it. That’s a dangerous pattern, one we need to reverse. It remains to be seen what president Trump will do.
Ironically, in all of this, the Obama legacy is a devil on Trump’s shoulder. We can only hope that better angels prevail in the next four years.
December 27th, 2016 // 7:03 am @ Oliver DeMille
Problems in History
I recently recommended an article from The Wall Street Journal because it addresses the fact that during the Obama Administration the executive branch greatly expanded its power. Unfortunately, the newsfeed on my iPhone gave me clear access to the article, while those following the link I provided were expected to subscribe to view the content.
My apologies for the inconvenience! I’ll address the issues directly here.
The concern is that the Trump Administration could use this expanded power in ways that continue to hurt the nation—giving more and more power to the executive branch and agencies and further reducing the powers of Congress and the States.
Since the Court has largely supported this increase of presidential and executive-branch power, the problem is growing. The article noted that presidents from both political parties have generally increased executive branch power, and that very few presidents have done anything to curtail it.
Though the article emphasized historical presidents in the early part of the twentieth century, the truth is that nearly all presidents have pushed for increased power to the White House. Clearly FDR emphasized this approach, but so did Eisenhower, Johnson, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, both Bushes, and Obama. It is unclear whether Trump will do differently.
The American electorate should keep a very close eye on this.
Another challenge is that these same presidents tended to simultaneously decrease the power of the States while increasing the power of executive branch agencies, officials, and bureaucracies. The Trump Administration may or may not follow this damaging pattern.
The American citizenry needs to keep a close eye on these two very important issues in the new Administration:
- Keeping the executive branch firmly within its Constitutional limits in its dealings with Congress
- Keeping the executive branch from further degrading the powers of the States
These are vital issues, and they are currently quite perilous. The Trump Administration will hopefully take the right approach on this, but it is ultimately the responsibility of the people to ensure that freedom is maintained. Whoever you supported during the elections, these two issues are very important for the next four years–and beyond.
December 19th, 2016 // 4:19 pm @ Oliver DeMille