• We’re All on Trial

    At some point in my misspent youth, I discovered the magic of films from Hollywood’s golden era. Somewhere between Academy Award winners like “Casablanca” and “The Best Years of our Lives,” I found a wartime musical with a thin story about a young soldier who met starlet Joan Leslie at the famed Hollywood Canteen.

    For people who might not know it, the Hollywood Canteen was an actual nightclub for service members during World War II.  Hollywood royalty of the era like Bette Davis and John Garfield helped organize all the guilds and unions of the film industry to create and support the club, while stars would volunteer as hosts and hostesses, and—legend has it—even dishwashers.

    The Warner Bros. musical “Hollywood Canteen” features a soundtrack stacked with giants from the era: the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra, the Andrews Sisters, the Golden Gate Quartet, Roy Rogers, and more.  Some of the songs tied into the romance on the screen, others (like “You Can Always Tell a Yank“) were simple tributes to the troops, an homage paid by Hollywood to the men fighting the war. 

    Even then, as a young history student, I was fascinated by popular filmmaking during the war.  Film after film featured a scene where one of the main characters would articulate a simple reason for fighting World War II.  In “Hollywood Canteen,” it was explained in terms of a wounded soldier from Brooklyn being able to dance with Hollywood royalty.  In the film’s telling that was the essence of democracy—the great and the good were no different than the rest of us, everyone was equal, and that was something worth fighting for.

    Of course, there was myth-making in the film, a sanitized version of America that ignored women’s contribution to the war effort, systematic racism in the U.S. military and across society, and a host of other sins.  But there are times when those myths serve an important purpose: to remind us of our ideals, even when we fall short of them.

    I watched as much of the impeachment proceedings as work and family obligations would allow this week, and I’m ready for a little escapism.  I’m ready for a reminder about America’s ideals, about a return to national unity, about the celebration of something bigger than ourselves. 

    That’s not to say we don’t need to go through this.  In fact, in trying to hold a president accountable, Congress is living up to the charge handed down to us by our founders.  There is something noble and right in that.

    But I’m left with a belief that it’s not just the president who is on trial, it’s all of us.  Our system of separated powers is on trial: can a co-equal branch of government hold a president accountable?  Our media is on trial: can it faithfully convey hours and hours of detailed testimony in a way that busy Americans will be able to digest?  Our ability to think for ourselves is on trial: will we, as citizens in this great republic, take the time to move beyond sound bites and consider the evidence ourselves, or will we take sanctuary in our familiar intellectual and political bunkers?  Democracy—even reduced to that simple definition offered in “Hollywood Canteen,” that the rich and the powerful are as accountable as you and me—is on trial, too.

    It’s not just the president with a lot at stake in this impeachment trial. We as Americans have a lot at stake, too, including the myths and ideals that have served as guide-stars in the American experience and as an inspiration around the world.

  • It’s Up to Us

    The most important player in a republic like ours isn’t the president, it isn’t the speaker of the House, and it isn’t the chief justice of the United States Supreme Court.  It’s the citizen.  The citizen.  Whether she lives in a rural, farming community, or if he’s riding the subway to work in a skyscraper, each of us possesses a spark of sovereignty that collectively determines the direction of the nation.

    Unfortunately, our ability to choose our own course is under attack.  It has been for several years.  In the fall of 2017, my colleague Mark Jacobson and I delivered a report describing the threat posed by Russia’s attacks against American democracy.  We described a well-funded and sophisticated strategy that sought to capitalize on America’s own internal divisions in order to increase the Russian government’s freedom to act at home and abroad.

    The truth is, as a nation, we have not done nearly enough to respond to this threat.  That reality has meaning for 2020 and it will have meaning as we look ahead to future elections.  Let me explain.

    In 2017, we called for several specific actions—some requiring Congress to act, others focused on the administration, and others requiring contributions from across American society.  In particular, we called for:

    • bipartisan efforts to improve the public’s understanding of the threat;
    • introspection in America’s newsrooms about reporting on stolen private communications;
    • regulation of social media so that political ads and sponsored content are clearly identified;
    • organizational changes in the White House and in the intelligence community to deal with this threat;
    • action by Congress to eliminate so-called “dark money” in American politics, requiring greater transparency by companies operating in the United States, and forcing state-sponsored media, like Russia’s RT and Sputnik, to reveal the sources of their funding; and
    • investment in the American people, including the scholars and journalists who will educate the rest of the public about this threat while simultaneously contributing to improved civic and information literacy.

    In truth, the threat didn’t go away after 2016.  Just this week we learned that Russian military intelligence—in fact, the same unit responsible for the attacks on American political leaders and parties in 2016—has been trying to hack the computer network of Burisma, the Ukrainian energy company at the heart of President Trump’s impeachment.

    We have to ask ourselves, what were the Russians trying to steal?  And if they leaked what they stole, would U.S. news outlets be more discerning and exercise greater discretion than they exhibited in 2016?  I’m doubtful.

    The danger I worry about is that American politics—with unfettered free speech, dark money pouring in from unknown sources, and shell companies masking foreign participation—could become the battleground for great power competition.  We know the Russians are active.  What’s to keep the Chinese out?  Or the Iranians?  Once states internalize that they can benefit from lawlessness in American politics, the United States will cease being a super-power as our electoral politics becomes the battlefield for any state with the means to steal and spread information and disinformation. 

    That’s not hyperbole.  It is happening. 

    The most beautiful thing about American politics is the free exchange of ideas.  We want candidates to say what they think about China’s growing assertiveness without worrying that China might attack their campaign.  We want candidates to call out Russia’s aggression in Ukraine without worrying that Russian political warfare might be used against them.  We want American voices in our elections, not foreign money and not foreign influence.

    Typically, we look to government to provide the defense of the republic, to protect us as citizens, and to organize the forces of freedom to defend our political system and way of life.  Unfortunately, although the House has passed a bevy of bills to address many of these issues, the Senate has failed to act on any of them.  The administration, despite some important actions in the intelligence community, is no better.  What’s left to defend the republic exists outside of government.

    In other words, it’s up to us, the American people—citizens—to defend our republic.  But, then again, it always has been.

  • 2020: Civic New Year Resolutions

    The start of the new year always means crowded gyms and a run on exercise gear.  I do it, too.  I have my list of resolutions, things I want to do better in the year ahead.  But as I thought about my resolutions for 2020, I went beyond the gym to focus on some broader civic resolutions I want to make real in my life this year.

    Make sure I participate in our democracy and help others to do the same.

    In case you haven’t heard, it’s an election year.  There are going to be presidential-nominating contests—either primaries or caucuses—in every state and territory of the union this year. Every contested local election will likely have primaries too.  We’ll vote for every member of the House of Representatives, and one-third of the members of the Senate. We can’t sit this out. 

    The most important player in a republic such as ours is the citizen, and among the citizen’s chief responsibilities is to participate in our democracy.  But we also know that voter suppression is a real thing.  It happens in the way states choose to purge inactive voters from their voter rolls and it happens through coordinated disinformation campaigns.  So in addition to voting, we can all lend our time and our energies to local efforts to get people registered to vote; to verify or correct our voter registration statuses and help our neighbors do the same; and we can help get people to the polls on election days.  I guarantee that you’ll love it and the country will be better for it.

    Read more long-form journalism and books.

    As a society, we don’t read enough.  As fascinating as social media can be, there’s nothing quite as efficient for communicating broad ideas and specific details as long-form writing, whether in newspapers, magazines, or in books.  One of my great pet-peeves as a professor is the growing tendency of students to cite whatever sources they find in the first page of their Google search.  I tell them to go to the library and find these bound piles of paper—a remarkable invention called ‘a book’—and read it.  When we tweet and retweet, we are stripping the nutrients from the public’s intellectual soil like a farmer who plants his field without giving it a chance to lie fallow.  Books require more patience and more time than social media, but they offer us an opportunity to go deeper, to not just read and react but to read and reflect.  I want to read more this year.

    Be a responsible purveyor of information.

    There are two parts to this.  First, I’m determined to pop my own social media bubble in 2020.  That doesn’t mean that all news sources are created equal and have the same amount of credibility.  But I want to make sure that I’m challenging myself and not simply falling prey to the appeal of confirmation bias—that’s the tendency we all have to seek out news and information that confirms what we already think and discount contrary evidence.

    Second, we need to engage in some critical thinking before we share things on social media.  In the modern media environment, we are not simply consumers of information, but also purveyors of information.  As a result, we all share a responsibility to only spread information we have real confidence in—not just stories that confirm our preferred narratives.  (This is also how we, as citizens, can contribute to defeating foreign disinformation in our politics, too.)

    Don’t assume people who think differently from me are motivated by selfishness or that my side is motivated solely by virtue.

    We tend to operate these days with a winner-take-all mindset.  We engage on social media to beat down other voices.  No one ever goes on Twitter to change their mind.  With that comes a tendency to see our political opposites as flawed or less intelligent or otherwise corrupted in some way.  We also fall prey to the temptation to see our “own side” as motivated only by virtue.  The American republic needs all of us to think for ourselves, to value truth and real debate, and to keep an open mind in our approach to public policy questions. 

    Be kind.

    One of my favorite fictional characters is George Bailey from “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  Every year I tell myself I want to be more like George Bailey.  I want to prioritize the people in my life over my own selfish interests.  As we look ahead to the political debates of the coming election year, I hope that we will remember that if we are going to preserve this republic, we will need to see our fellow citizens not as votes to win or defeat, but as human beings with real needs and real interests beyond any specific election.  So in our engagements, in our tweets, in our conversations, we should try, above all else, to be kind, seek common ground, and remember that no matter what happens on election day 2020, we’re all in this together.

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  • The Enlightenment is at Stake, Too

    Earlier this week, a friend of mine sent me an article from Inc. magazine predicting that in 2020 liberal arts degrees would be popular among hiring managers.  The basic argument is that technology-heavy industries will need fewer and fewer coders as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning take those jobs first.  The expectation is that AI may be able to write computer programs, but it will have a hard time replacing human creativity and human insight.

    If you’ve spent any time thinking about higher education in the last 20 years, you’ve had to grapple with the tension between the humanities and STEM fields.  Since the Great Recession (2008), there has been a substantial decline in the number of students studying in liberal arts majors.  Even in primary schools, where high-stakes testing tells you which skills elected officials value most, traditional liberal arts fields like history are simply not tested.

    To be honest, however, I find articles about hiring managers finding renewed value in liberal arts degrees troublesome.  On the one hand, I’m grateful for the support, but, on the other hand, the value of a liberal arts education can’t be assessed simply by examining the hiring rates of its graduates. 

    A liberal arts education is an education for life. It’s an education for citizens in a free society predicated on the belief that the world can be understood, as John Locke argued, through human reason and experience.

    My concern in watching the third impeachment proceedings of my lifetime is that the defense of the president is predicated on a repudiation of the Enlightenment faith in knowable facts and the potential of human reason.  Ambassador Taylor, Colonel Vindman, and Ambassador Sondland all served at the pleasure of the president and all knew the president was withholding military aid to Ukraine in order to extract a political favor from the country’s leadership.  Yet the president and his defenders dismiss those voices as mere opinions.  They tell people to read a memo of a call between President Trump and President Zelensky in which the American president responds to a request for military assistance by asking for “a favor, though,” and then tells us to believe there was no quid pro quo, no bribery, no extortion. 

    In essence, the president and his defenders are demanding that we ignore what evidence and reason tell us in order blindly accept a denial not supported by the facts available to us.  In short, are we going to believe our own damn, lying eyes or the president?

    We’re nearing the end of the semester at Salve Regina University and my students are completing our survey of the history of globalization.  We trace the development of human history and the experience of trade and exchange from the dawn of man until today.  Until just about 500 years ago, economic wealth and technological achievement was centered in Asia.  Two events changed that.  The first was the European discovery of the Americas and the extraction of its mineral wealth to Europe.  (Literally, Europe took more gold and silver from the America’s in the 50 years after 1492 than had existed in Europe previously.)  With that new wealth emerged the second event: the scientific revolution that paved the way for the Enlightenment in Europe and our essential understanding that through observation and reason we can know the world around us.

    I don’t want to overstate it, but watching the GOP’s defense of the President feels like more is at stake than even just our Constitutional order. At stake is the legacy of the Enlightenment: a belief that humanity’s greatest asset is its ability to use reason to govern itself.

  • 30 Years After the Fall of the Berlin Wall

    Last weekend, I found myself in my kitchen cooking dinner and humming a song from decades ago.  The German rock band “Scorpions” had a global hit in the song “Wind of Change” that may be my favorite “end of the Cold War” song.  I searched for the music video on my phone, and as I watched it, I was reminded that November 9th marks the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

    I was a Freshman at Providence College in 1989, basking in the autumn sun and devouring The New York Times each day as events spun out.  Long before social media, we relied on newspapers of record and broadcast news for understanding events.  And these were historic events. November 9, 1989, belongs in the same breath as July 4, 1776, and July 14, 1789: it signals an epochal shift, one moment in a long history that serves as our reference point for “before” and “after.”

    I texted a couple of friends the link to “Wind of Change” while I cooked, and we began slinging song titles back and forth—morphing from “end of the Cold War” to simply “Cold War” songs.

    In the Cold War classic “99 Red Balloons,” Nena, a West German artist, spun a haunting fantasy of the outbreak of war and its aftermath. It’s lyric, “This is what we’ve waited for/This is it, boys, this is war. . . .” stands in sharp contrast to the triumph and sense of relief of Jesus Jones just a few years later in “Right Here, Right Now,” when he boasted “I was alive and I waited, waited//I was alive and I waited for this. . . .” Jones was singing about the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of communism, and the hope we all felt that the world was going to be better, safer after the Soviet Union ceased to exist.

    Other artists bookend that period in popular music, too.  In 1985, Sting sang “Russians,” capturing the existential fears of many in Europe who felt trapped between the two superpowers.  He asked how to protect his children from nuclear war before noting the shared humanity of people on both sides of the struggle, singing “We share the same biology//Regardless of ideology//What might save us me and you//Is if the Russians love their children too.”  By 1989, Billy Joel was singing about the people on either side of the Cold War, too, not based on hope and fear, but based on first-hand knowledge.  In 1987, when he became the first major, Western rock star to tour the Soviet Union, Joel met a circus performer who, as Joel put it in “Leningrad” found “his greatest happiness. . . . in making Russian children glad.” More than Sting had hoped for just four years earlier, the song ends with Joel proclaiming that the Russians don’t just love their own children: “He made my daughter laugh, then we embraced//We never knew what friends we had//Until we came to Leningrad.”

    I remember the Cold War fears of the mid-1980s.  I remember President Reagan warning of the “Evil Empire.”  I remember watching “The Day After” in 1983 and having nightmares about nuclear weapons falling in my backyard.  No one dared believe that the Cold War would end peacefully or quickly.  It was still a “long, twilight struggle.”

    There was a nostalgia for the Cold War among my cohort of young, national security analysts in the 1990s in Washington.  As the world grew increasingly complex, the relative simplicity and familiarity of the Cold War looked comfortable in retrospect.  After 9/11, that sentiment reached its zenith.

    But the Cold War was a dark period in human history.  Nations developed the capacity to wipe humanity from existence and, in the face of that threat, artists gave voice to fears and anxieties, and—on rare occasions—hope. 

    Against incredibly long odds, those hopes were fulfilled 30 years ago this weekend.  We would do well to remember the fear that preceded it and the things that actually contributed to the West’s success: the universal desire for freedom; the appeal of democracy; the strength of free nations acting in alliance; and the belief that walls between people should be torn down.

  • Heroes

    Growing up, I watched more than my fair share of television.  One of my favorite diversions was a show I caught in syndicated re-runs long after it was out of production. “Baa Baa Black Sheep” was a fictional account of Gregory “Pappy” Boyington, the Marine Corps’ ace of aces in the Second World War, and his squadron, VMF-214—The Black Sheep.  The show got virtually everything wrong in the history of the squadron, but it sparked my imagination.  Long before the internet, I spent hours in my local library looking for books and articles about the real Pappy Boyington.  When I found his autobiography, I was stunned to learn that Boyington recalled wistfully his time in a Japanese POW camp because it was one of the few periods in his life that he wasn’t able to drink.  The self-loathing that fueled much of his risk taking was summed up, famously, when he wrote, “Show me a hero, and I’ll show you a bum.”

    I had other heroes, too.  One that I still carry today is Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain—the commanding officer of the 20th Maine at the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863.  Sent to defend the extreme left-flank of the Union line on Little Round Top, the 20th Maine held off repeated Confederate assaults until their ammunition ran low.  Then, Chamberlain, improvising a maneuver similar to the pivot of a gate on a hinge, ordered his men to fix bayonets and sweep down the hill, chasing Confederate forces in front of them as they ran. With profound physical courage and the ability to keep his wits in the face of incredible danger, Chamberlain saved the Union line at Gettysburg.  Less than a year later, at Petersburg, he would be severely wounded, but recovered and was chosen by Ulysses S. Grant as the Union Officer to receive the Confederate surrender at Appomattox Courthouse.  In that moment of triumph, Chamberlain called Union troops to attention as one last martial salute to their foes—a move heralded by some and criticized by others as the most gracious conceivable act of battlefield respect.

    Later, I learned more about Chamberlain: he wasn’t always a war hero, he wasn’t even a military man. He was a professor of rhetoric at Bowdoin College who volunteered to serve the Union cause because he thought it was just and that for the Union to prevail, men in the North would have to leave positions of comfort. He was an idealist willing to put his life on the line for those ideals.

    Taken at face value, there’s not a lot of reason to see anything similar in Boyington and Chamberlain.  After the Civil War, Chamberlain would become President of Bowdoin College and Governor of Maine.  After World War II, Boyington struggled to hold down odd jobs, including a stint as a professional wrestling referee.  With some age and perspective, I came to appreciate that if we can get past hero worship—and its opposite, vilification—then we can see that the people in the news are not really any different than the rest of us.  They have jobs to do, but they are people: flawed, wonderful, cynical, idealistic, talented, mediocre, sober or drunk, who find themselves in the eye of history.

    That was certainly the case for Boyington and Chamberlain.  But it’s true, now, of others, too, including the steady stream of witnesses appearing before the Congressional impeachment inquiry: people like Lt. Colonel Alexander Vindman, NSC staffers Tim Morrison and Fiona Hill, and Ambassador Robert Taylor.

    Ultimately, the history of this era will be written by the quiet Americans who prize public service as a good they can perform for the benefit of all, not the benefit of one; who take their oath to the Constitution seriously; and who speak truth to power—even at great professional risk.  But that’s true of every era.  Heroes are normal people in extraordinary circumstances—whether they are an NSC staffer who hears something inappropriate in a presidential phone call or if they are an Army commando raiding a compound in Northern Syria.  None of those Americans were born heroes, but like Chamberlain and even Boyington, they all prize something greater than themselves: the Constitution, the rule of law, and the idea that there are some things worth fighting for.

  • Individuals of Honor and Good Intent

    When I was in high school, I kept a light-blue three ring binder full of quotes that inspired me.  It went to college with me, and grad school.  It’s moved every time I’ve moved since 1980-something.  At some point, I stopped adding quotes to it—the most recent entry being President George W. Bush’s address to the national prayer breakfast in 2001, not long after 9/11.  I don’t look at the notebook often, but I keep it, now, as a reminder of my once-youthful idealism. 

    I pulled the notebook out the other day as I was beginning to think about this essay.  There was a passage I vaguely remembered about Roosevelt’s moral courage in World War II that I thought might provide a stunning contrast with events in Syria.  But as I turned the pages, smiling occasionally at the memories it brought back, I stumbled across another quote:

    “What is often forgotten is that the worst abuses of power within our democratic societies are exposed by our own people. The spirit of resistance is opposed to all forms of tyranny. We purge ourselves while we resist our enemies. This is the response of a concerned citizenry, knowing freedom is in danger, putting the responsibility for defending it squarely on individuals of honor and good intent.  This is a sense of brotherhood that won’t fit into rules and regulations. And so long as this holds true, there will always be struggle, but there will be no final defeat.” [Emphasis added.]

    The author was William Stephenson, a British spy stationed in the United States during World War II and known popularly by his reported codename: “Intrepid.”

    Relying on “individuals of honor and good intent” is where we are right now.  It’s what motivated the intelligence community whistle-blower to document the President’s July 25 phone call with President Zelensky of Ukraine.  It’s what compelled the intelligence community’s inspector general to alert Congress of the whistle-blower complaint.  It’s what motivated John Bolton, President Trump’s former national security advisor, to tell his staff to share concerns about impropriety with the White House counsel.  It’s what motivated Fiona Hill, the former national security council staffer responsible for Russia and Ukraine to testify in the House impeachment inquiry.  It’s what motivated George Kent to resign from the State Department.  It’s what motivated Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch to speak truth to power.  It’s what compelled Ambassador Kurt Volker to turn over private text messages to Congress.  And it’s what motivated current U.S. Ambassador Bill Taylor—whose opening statement to the committee this week is, in a word, stunning—to challenge others involved in the diplomacy that withholding military aid from Ukraine in exchange for a political favor was, as he put it, “crazy.”

    Every single one of the persons I just mentioned was appointed by President Trump, except for Ambassador Yovanovitch and the original whistle-blower who are career-public servants. 

    In that same passage from William Stephenson that I quoted earlier, he went on to talk about the “brotherhood” of honor that unites those who serve ideals and principles.  Similarly, Ambassador Taylor described in his testimony the contrast and essential tension between America’s principled, official foreign policy conducted, as he put it, through “formal” channels that supported Ukraine’s effort to fight Russian aggression and join the West, and the “irregular, informal” diplomacy conducted by Rudy Giuliani that sought political advantage for Donald Trump.

    Sometimes, in the day-to-day flood of headlines and events, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and pessimistic about the current health of our republic.  But I find reassurance in the testimony of Ambassador Taylor, in the idealism that still exists in government, and in the loyalty of so many officials to the U.S. Constitution over the personal political interests of the president.  Stephenson, the man called “Intrepid,” finished his thought by noting that as long as the spirit of resistance to tyranny motivates those who serve, “there will always be struggle, but there will be no final defeat.”  In those words and in the events of recent weeks, I find hope.

  • On Partisans and Truth

    On two separate occasions recently, I’ve heard variations of a critique: “Don’t be partisan,” someone said to me recently when I told him about a talk I’ve been asked to give in Washington next month.  “I’d like to share it, but it’s too partisan,” came from another friend who read a piece I wrote a couple weeks ago about the oath I swore to defend and uphold the Constitution.  In both cases, I was taken aback.  I know I’m a Democrat, but both of my friends know that, too.  They’ve seen my resume, they know where I’ve worked.  But why the criticism?  In my analytical work, I pride myself on reporting what the data says, not what I might want it to say.  I sincerely don’t think of myself as a partisan analyst, but I found myself preoccupied over the next couple of days reflecting on their remarks.

    On the one hand, I’ll own some of it.  In my opinion writing, I have a definite point of view.  I don’t apologize for it.  I believe I’m right and I believe the facts support my analyses.  But do I have a political bias?  In general, I do, and I know I’m as susceptible to confirmation bias (the tendency to find evidence that confirms our previously held beliefs) as anyone else.

    “But in my defense, I think I’ve also exhibited great restraint.  As a national security analyst, I’ve been researching, writing, and speaking about the Russian attack on American democracy in 2016 since the summer of 2016—and more generally about the use of political warfare for nearly 20 years.  Yet in all my engagements, I never accused the president of “collusion” with Russia because I simply didn’t know whether he had or had not.  I’ve also been a critic of Democrats when events warranted.  President Obama’s “red line” in Syria was a serious mistake that, like many of President Trump’s recent gaffes, was improvised.

    For some, however, the mere criticism of a president of the other party is a partisan act, and in some cases, it absolutely is.  But sometimes, criticism is simply the product of good analysis.  Let me give you an example.  Fifteen years ago, progressive politicians and activists dismissed the Iraq war with personal attacks intended to demean President George W. Bush.  Those attacks were explicitly partisan.  But a sober analysis could have questioned the judgment of a decision to go to war to change the regime in a place with no modern history of political stability.  After World War I, Iraq was administered by the British Empire under the authority of the League of Nations.  Between the end of the British “mandate,” as it was known, and the Ba’ath party’s seizure of power in 1968, there were 25 instances of extra-constitutional violence: coup attempts, assassinations, popular disturbances, and the like. That was one every 17 months.  After Saddam Hussein came to power, the frequency of those disturbances stretched to one every 18 months.  In the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq, we gave our military the unenviable task of stabilizing a country whose history is the very definition of the word “fractious.”

    When I first discussed that history in public in 2007, I can remember my heart-rate rising as I expected a heated response from the audience.  From the perspective of 2019, it feels more like reasonable analysis.

    The danger we face today is that in a hyper-partisan environment, criticism of a president—or the converse, the defense of a president—is seen implicitly as a partisan act.  That shouldn’t be the case.  As thinking citizens, we should all be able to speak our convictions, but know that they will be subjected to scrutiny.  If the facts and our analysis lead us to criticism, we can’t fear that.  Nor should we silence ourselves if that same process leads us to defend someone, no matter their political party.

    More importantly, as citizens who hold sovereignty in this republic, we need to be comfortable with critics of our political party, of our preferred candidates, of sitting presidents—as long as their criticism (or defense) is grounded in fact and good-faith analysis.  Especially in this age of social media, we have to puncture the bubbles of orthodoxy that surround each of us.  We have to look hard at our assumptions and biases.  We need to invite dialogue with people who see the world differently than we do.  We have to look for ways to find common ground and common solutions in response to common challenges. 

    The leaders of the early American republic understood that their task was not to ensure the political survival of a party or a politician, but to ensure the endurance of the republic itself.  That should be our guide today, too.

  • The Real Meaning of “Deep State”

    One of the proudest moments in my life had no witnesses—at least none that I know personally.  On my very first day working on Capitol Hill, I reported to the Senate personnel office.  I think I was told to go down to complete some paperwork.  I signed a couple of documents, and then a clerk—I remember he wasn’t wearing his suit-coat—told me to raise my right hand.  I did, and he administered the oath. 

    I remember wishing that I had known that was going to happen.  In the Aaron Sorkin version of my life, the music would have begun to swell when I raised my hand and the camera would have panned back to show me, this 30-something, newbie staffer, beginning his career the way every Congressional staffer does, as the swirl of the Capitol goes on around them.

    But there was no music.  Instead, the clerk told me “Congratulations,” like he had said it a million times before.  I looked around at the empty office and said, “I wish my parents had been here.”  I don’t think he responded.

    It would be a forgettable moment if it weren’t for what it meant.  Because that oath, like the oath taken by members of Congress, and by the president, and by every federal employee isn’t some kind of magical incantation, it isn’t a prayer, it’s a personal pledge of honor intended to center the focus and the energy of the person swearing it on what public service in our republic ultimately comes back to: the preservation of our Constitution.

    Let me be clear.  I loved working for Senator John Kerry.  But I didn’t swear an oath to defend him.  I loved working in Congress, but I didn’t swear an oath to defend its chambers or its dome.  I’m proud to be a Democrat, but I didn’t swear to up-hold their agenda.  The oath I swore was to defend and up-hold the Constitution of the United States of America.

    I’ve been thinking about that this week as I’ve listened to the president and his allies launch ad hominem attacks against the intelligence community whistleblower; as the president has warned of a coup; and as the president’s allies have alleged treason by individuals whose great civic sin, in these twisted minds, was adhering to the oath they took as federal employees.

    On Sunday, White House senior advisor Stephen Miller attacked the intelligence community whistleblower as a “deep state operative” who was out to get President Trump.  It’s a dangerous story the President and his aides are telling, for a couple of reasons.  First, it sets the president against the mass of the federal bureaucracy.  Second, at its core it equates the person of the president with the embodiment of the state.  We literally fought a revolutionary war about that.

    But if I’m honest, I know who the members of the “deep state” conspiracy are: they are everyone who took seriously their oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States.  It’s everyone who believes that governments are created to defend rights, not advance the interests of individuals.  It’s everyone who believes that the ideals of liberal government are worth defending.

    I’m not talking liberal in the sense of “Democrats are liberal” and “Republicans are conservative.”  I’m talking about liberal as in Western liberalism.  In the course of the Enlightenment and our revolution, we developed a healthy skepticism in the reliability of individual leaders to protect the rights and liberties of citizens.  Instead, under western liberalism, we rely on free institutions to defend our rights, because institutions are more difficult to corrupt than any individual. 

    So when you hear someone cursing the “deep state” understand that they are attacking the oath of office every federal employee and office holder took—not to serve some potentate or would-be monarch, but to serve and defend the Constitution of the United States of America.  In fact, it’s not a stretch to say that those critics of the “deep state” are questioning the very constitutional order we have relied upon as a nation since 1789.