When I was a new lawyer, practicing in what was at that time a big law firm (52 lawyers), the partner I worked for insisted that there was only one legal question: what should we do?
In other words, while we might analyze the legal issues in the matter before us, while we might determine what mistakes our client or others had made, that analysis was only important to the extent it helped answer the question, which was “what should be done?”
I think about that focus a lot, because it’s the same question we need to be asking about America’s political situation.
It’s easy to be cynical these days. It’s easy to fall into a position of a “pox on both/all their houses.” There are people who take–and loudly voice– that approach every time Trump or McConnell or others in the GOP do something destructive or venal–which is pretty much every day. Yes, they say, the GOP is terrible, but the Democrats aren’t much better. People in both parties are bought and paid for. The entire political class is corrupt and self-serving, everyone in Washington has sold out to the plutocrats, and the same plutocrats own the news media so we aren’t getting the whole story. Etc.
I don’t happen to agree with that broad-brush indictment, but let’s say–for the sake of argument–that it’s true. If our entire political class is corrupt, what should be done? That is a question that the cynics never answer–and seldom even ask.
One remedy, of course, would be revolution. History suggests that violent revolutions rarely achieve their stated goals–that after blood is shed and lives disrupted, the “soldiers” of the revolution who assume power end up being as self-serving and corrupt as the people they displaced. In any event, in today’s U.S., revolution is highly unlikely.( It would also be highly unlikely to succeed, despite all those gun hoarders who insist that they need weapons to repel government tanks and artillery.)
I suppose we could all just “get over it,” to use Mick Mulvaney’s inelegant phrase. Just mutter and growl, and learn to live with a degraded and unprincipled system. Like the Russians.
Or we could begin the arduous but necessary process of reform with the recognition that there are a lot of people who go into government for the right reasons, whose behaviors may sometimes be constrained by “the system,” but who are honorable, who want to serve the public good and who act accordingly.
We could also distinguish between a political party that has gone completely off the rails (a recognition that is particularly painful for someone–like me–who worked for that party for 35 years) and a party that includes a wide range of people, some of whom are exemplary and some of whom are considerably less admirable. We could then support the party that is, today, clearly the lesser of two evils.
Then, if we wanted to do more than bitch indiscriminately, if we wanted to clean up those areas of our governance that have rotted out over time, we could get off our butts and get to work.
We could return civics to public school curriculums, help marginalized folks participate in the political process, lobby for an election law overhaul that would deter gerrymandering and vote suppression and make it easier to cast a ballot. We could support–or reestablish–local news organizations that would recognize their responsibility to act as local government watchdogs. Those of us who have the time and flexibility could research policy proposals, attend public meetings, and call or message our elected officials.
An informed electorate could engage in the admittedly hard work of incremental reform–which, despite the lack of glamor and the need to partner with imperfect people, is the way virtually all sustainable reforms get done.
We could act like citizens rather than subjects.