When dialogue doesn’t work

I was approached for conversation last weekend by a politically engaged couple who described themselves as committed to open minded political dialogue. My response has left me wondering.

He sounded well read, informed, angry, and opinionated; she seemed quieter, articulate, sad, and inquiring. Both seemed a bit lonely, like they were living their lives as outsiders in a hostile political society. I thought I sensed strongly held opinions even though neither of them initially expressed them. While they spoke in non-partisan language, I felt braced throughout the conversation for an expected flood of intense conservative critique. I kept my comments and opinions centered on my personal experiences, not wanting to start a debate over facts and sources. This, despite her having begun our conversation by saying she thought the avenue to better political dialogue might be to start with agreement on trustworthy sources.

Continue reading “When dialogue doesn’t work”


The miners knew…
When dark dust clogged their pores,
Clouded their minds, and obscured their vision,
And necessity drove them back each day into the dark,
The sensitive canary would warn them of their danger
By being the first to die.

My heart today is aching. My ideals,
Bludgeoned by cynics, and beliefs, battered by lies,
Are choking on the gas of decomposing politics.
The sweet canary’s song is getting louder: “Get Out Now!”

But there is no way out.
Shafts of light are being plugged, one after another; and
The path we came by only goes one way.
We can shout with the last of our breath,
Claw at the rock with our nails, but
Who is there to dig us out?
We were to be our own protectors.

We go to work each day now, picking for peace and digging for justice,
Entering neath the faded sign: “pledged to be more perfect.”
“One for all” we chant as we march to our labors,
While our beautiful canaries are dying.


As a career mediator, I’m shocked to hear myself say this, but I fear our polarized country is facing an impasse leaving us no choice but to choose sides and fight.

My job for 30 years was to help people locked in high stakes conflicts find opportunities for compromise through which each party could realize enough of their objectives that settlement was preferable to the risks of losing or the costs of litigation. On a very good day, creative resolutions could be found that left all parties in a better position than before the litigation started. Every once in a while, however, a case would come along in which one party’s actual goal was to destroy the other, financially or perhaps emotionally. When that became clear, I would have to advise the parties of the fact and send them home. No compromise or problem solving magic can entice a party to agree to be destroyed; they have no choice but to fight it out and hope for the best.

Those who are leading and following the movement to overturn the November elections are not asking for a solution to a disagreement on policy or principle. Whether from a passionate but misinformed belief the election was stolen or from motives more sinister, the President’s followers are refusing to accept the outcomes of Constitutionally sound elections and court decisions upholding them. Their concerns have been addressed through recounts and litigation; the accusations of fraud have been answered and found to be false. There is nothing left to say or offer to those who only want Donald Trump to remain in office. There is no legal or Constitutional way to do so.

The attack on the Capitol and promised future violent action seek to overthrow democratic institutions. They are direct attacks on the nation’s 250 year old democracy. Whether the president who refuses to cede power is crazy or sly; whether his followers are misled and believe they are saving the country or are anarchists, white supremacists, and hoodlums, the position they are creating for the country is the same: either capitulate to their demand that elections be overturned, or oppose them with all force necessary to protect the country’s democratic government.

It seems like a very foolish position for the election challengers to force on the country. Their motives are relevant but of secondary importance. Their goal of destroying the country’s constitutional order, whether deliberate or simply de facto, must and will be vigorously fought. If they lose, they will be known as traitors and treasonists.

To say this is an historical moment is an understatement. There is no room now for compromise or equivocation. Leaders and citizens alike must decide which side of this historical position they will be on. Either defend with our voices, our laws, and our votes the Constitutional order on which we base our liberty, or yield to an extra-constitutional authoritarian power grab.

Deep State—Part 4

The importance of integrity

Government has a great deal of power in any society, probably no less so in a first world democracy than in a dictatorship. It can restrict our freedom and take our property, even take our lives, and its operations are mostly outside our daily purview. Eventually, a government will reflect and enforce the values of whomever controls it; in a democracy, that should be we the people.

After conferring on it extensive rights and power, we hope and expect the government will exercise its authority in accordance with our collective will, for our collective benefit. We ask it, as our agent, to represent and effectuate our national standards and values. In my experience, the vast majority of government employees do just that. In fact, they are required to.

Defense Department employees, for example, take periodic certification training in the practical application of Executive Order 12674, an Order that applies to all federal employees and explicates detailed ethical obligations such as these:

It has never been written into law that the federal government’s CEO, the President, is subject to the same rules as other government workers. Apparently, no one thought it necessary. Presidents are assumed to be the apex representatives of the country and its citizens. They are entrusted to control the executive branch of government for the protection and benefit of the entire country. A president who would deliberately corrupt the capability of the professional government to perform its duties, or undermine its public mission with demands to advance illegitimate interests, would do far wider damage to the country than with any single illicit act.

There are two definitions and two ways to think about government integrity. First is “the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles,” qualities to which most of us aspire, have asked of our leaders, and expected our government to represent. But a second relates to “the state of being whole and undivided.” To have integrity, government’s behavior and our expectations must honestly reflect our values.

We can only expect our government to tell us the truth, respect our rights, not waste our tax dollars, and perform their duties with competence and expertise if we as a society respect and embody truth, honesty, and expertise ourselves. Institutional integrity cannot be established by hypocrisy or without personal integrity at the top. 

Winds of political corruption have been blowing strong through our democracy of late, bending norms and institutions that are largely maintained by government bureaucracy. Notably, most of reported corruption is being committed and directed by elected and politically appointed officials, not by career employees. If we the (voting) people have decided that corruption is acceptable, we must anticipate and accept that a corrupt professional government will follow. If we have given up on Democracy, we should be ready for authoritarian control of government’s vast power for a single individual’s purposes. But if you find the thought of an enormous, powerful, corrupt and authoritarian government as frightening as I do, I hope you will stay vigilant and help protect the independence, expertise, and integrity of government employees and their ability to stand strong for the public interest first and always.

Democracy, Rupublicans, and The Construction of Courage

It’s doubtful anyone wakes up one morning to find themselves suddenly full of courage, not the kind that comes from character. The courage to face our fears, to tell the truth when it’s awkward or costly, or to turn away from temptation and stick with our principles, is constructed from experiences of doing so. Like death from a thousand cuts, strength of character is an accumulation of a thousand choices to do the right thing, rewarded by the increased strength, insight, and self-respect that comes from it.

It is not hyperbole to say American democracy is being mortally threatened by a sociopathic president pathologically compelled to remain in office after losing his election. He is a dangerously sick individual who cannot be expected to know, let alone do the right thing. Can one such person really bring down the country? The answer is an almost unthinkable “maybe,” if those who can stop him won’t.

Who would that be?

Democrats, playing by the rules, have done what they can to oppose the President’s claims to extra-constitutional power; they impeached him and now have defeated him in the election. Republicans blew off the impeachment trial and now are refusing to recognize the election. Even the Supreme Court, with a new majority whose ideology and political agenda is…let’s say unclear, can only opine on the illegality of the president’s actions; they have no power to enforce their rulings against an executive who simply refuses to leave. That leaves the military, but a military expulsion of a sitting president would be a kind of coup and as much a Constitutional failure as an unelected president refusing to leave office.

That brings us back to the Republican Party and Congressional leadership…and courage. Had they been speaking out on behalf of democratic principles all along, they would be better prepared to manage today’s extreme circumstances. Instead, most have cowered, rationalized, and dissembled in the face of Trump’s steadily increasing assaults on norms and laws. Each time they allowed him to lie or claim extra-Constitutional power or abuse his office without challenge, Trump gained more strength from his base and more control over them. As those who spoke against him were systematically purged from the party or professionally ruined, he grew more dangerous. Today, only those planning to retire and Mitt Romney will say Trump lost the election and should leave.

So what are the chances the Republican Party or the Republican controlled Senate will exercise their authority to force Mr. Trump to do his duty and transition the presidency when they have been so afraid to do so to date? This is where I feel uncharacteristically fearful. As Mr. Trump’s willingness and ability to wreak havoc intensifies, it will take more and more courage for individual Republicans to oppose him. It is widely assumed the ever-vindictive Trump will remain politically active and command his cultish base for years to come so the risk of opposition may never go away. My fear is if Mr. Trump continues to insist he is entitled to stay in office, and continues to use his presidential powers to resist removal, the risks of opposing him will grow, and the alternative–to join him in the attempt to assume unconstitutional power—which several Republicans are doing already by not just questioning but denying the election results, will look easier and safer by comparison.

This is where character and courage might determine our national fate in the very near future. As the president tests the waters, looking for ways to press his fantasy of victory into reality, will Republican leadership finally step up and tell the President “no,” that he must go? If they have not exercised the courage to protect the country from the want-to-be dictator so far, will they suddenly find the strength to face Trump’s wrath by opposing him now? We will soon see.

Deep State—Part 3

(This is the third in a planned series of four short essays on the “deep state.” Coincidentally, President Trump today is undermining the professional government by ordering staff to obstruct President Elect Biden’s transition team, firing insufficiently loyal appointees, and planting personal loyalists in traditionally non-political senior executive positions.)

The importance of competence

Hostility toward our professional government is costing our country dearly. As narrow special interests compete for national policy primacy, often the only voice speaking expressly for the national interest is the government itself—the professionals and experts hired to understand and protect those interests. That voice should be clear and respected.

The Covid pandemic has illustrated how complex problems can arise that call for prepared, centralized expertise to prevent catastrophic consequences. Not all are as sudden or dramatic, but there are countless problems and threats to our national interests and security that are being studied and addressed by government agents of all kinds. Knowing this expertise is in place 24/7 allows us to go comfortably about our own lives and sleep at night. The Left and Right can argue all day about whether the invisible hand of capitalism can solve certain problems more efficiently than government, but it’s government to which we assign the duty of watching out for and protecting the nation against threats—big and small, foreign and domestic, physical and economic.

Ironically, the importance of government competence often is most noticeable in its failures, as when the CDC flubs a Corona virus test or the FAA approves a faulty Boing flight computer program. Citizens are rightfully quick to criticize their employees’ mistakes. We should keep in mind, however, that we need the CDC and the FAA and we need them to function well; the solution to performance errors should be to insist on greater competence not less government.

Until all humans evolve to moral perfection anarchy is not a viable option and hoping for government to fail or go away is self-defeating and naïve.  Government is still the mechanism, the infrastructure, through which a democratic society organizes, regulates, and protects itself. The more skillfully it operates, the more well-functioning a society will be. Sabotaging government agencies by slashing budgets and appointing officials hostile to their mission is administratively and economically dumb! It should also be illegal; it’s wasting taxpayers’ money. Instead we should use our democratic processes to demand three qualities from our government:


Functions of government generally are set by law, making them job duties assigned by the public. Most public service jobs have been deemed necessary, many are essential, and some are existentially critical. People holding these positions should be compensated appropriately and given the support needed to do the job, and their performance should meet the same high standards that would be expected in any large well-functioning private enterprise.

Duties assigned to public employees, whether by the Constitution or statute, should be faithfully performed. Poor performance of any legal function by any public servant should not be acceptable. This must include elected and appointed senior executives. A cabinet secretary should be no more exempt from failures to perform the duties of her office than any other salaried federal employee.


With few exceptions, performance of all government functions should be open to public scrutiny. Overusing security classifications and executive privilege to hide bad decisions, and ignoring or firing inspectors general to avoid investigation or criticism, for examples, contribute to a culture in which government officials can operate beyond question or even above the law.

If this all seems obvious, it should be. It’s first a question of attitude. Do citizens expect a high functioning government bureaucracy, and will they demand it?  We the people are the government’s board of directors. We elect a president and senators who approve the president’s senior executive appointees. Failures of competence are ultimately our responsibility.