Category Archives: Problem Practices

Communication behavior or analysis that is often counter-productive

Shredded Constitutions

Americans have been stunned to discover that there seem to be no enforceable penalties against a Washington regime that violates written and customary rules.

If we wanted a convenient way to understand the fragility of some of the West’s most storied democracies, we could do no better to look at the nation that was the former leader of the Western world and the nation known as having the Mother of Parliaments.  Both the United States and Britain are in the midst of constitutional crises that can only please non-democratic states that have never attempted to invest sovereignty in their citizens.  Boris Johnson has tried to do end-runs around the House of Commons to avoid its judgment that Brexit should be delayed.  For his efforts he received a rare rebuke from the nation’s Supreme Court.  And his battle with factions in the Commons is only part of the problem. They have withheld a vote of no-confidence because it would trigger an election they fear could give him a free hand to impose a no-deal Brexit. They have cause because it would violate their rightful parliamentary sovereignty.

At this point Johnson has no majority and seemingly not much of a clear path forward, unless he can work out a compromise with the EU.  The traditional opposition, the Labour Party, has decimated itself with a leader many its members to not want. Jeremy Corbyn mostly dithered through the last years of Prime Minister May’s government, giving ordinary citizens fears that a Corbyn government could be worse. Even on Brexit he still manages to stand precariously on the fence. The British system assumes leaders will be supported by their own parties, and ready to take over when the current government has made a mess of things.  That’s not how it’s working now.

The situation is as bad if not worse on this side of the Atlantic.  Like Johnson, Donald Trump’s regime routinely trashes traditions by refusing to submit regular appointments to congressional oversight, ignoring subpoenas, ignoring long-standing ethics rules, self-dealing in ways that promote his businesses, courting foreign powers to intervene in American elections, and overreaching to assert executive privilege.  The impeachment process will be an interesting test. Will staffers and agency professionals be intimidated?  Will subpoenas be honored?  Will executive privilege be used as a smokescreen?  The Constitution is of little help on these questions.

Congress stews in dysfunction, GOP atrophy, internal party gamesmanship, and the knowledge that the current president cannot be turned out through impeachment.

Americans have been stunned to discover that there seem to be no enforceable penalties against a Washington regime that violates written and rules and long-standing courtesies.  The framers of the Constitution gave Congress legislative powers, but no police powers or workable ways to punish those they find in contempt.  And so Congress stews in dysfunction, GOP atrophy, internal party gamesmanship, and the knowledge that the Republican Senate will block efforts to turn Donald Trump out.  What’s remains of the old GOP can been reassured that they are mostly safe under constitutional provisions that guarantee a skewed process for electing senators (two per state, regardless of their size).  In a more representative system California would have something like 36 senators to Wyoming’s 2.

There is a presumption in both nations that their constitutions are bright models for emerging democracies. The common view is that their problems don’t rise to a level that would demand change, though many in Britain now wish they’d bothered to write their’s down.  But the the sorry state of politics in both countries  suggests a need for more constructive criticism of these foundational documents.  Our problems are not just because of our leaders. The bad news, I’m afraid, is that the challenges we face are much more structural than we want to admit.

Offensive and Random Discharges

If traditional rhetoric has rules and assumed courtesies, a verbal spew just happens.  Rhetoric is the product of adaptation and thought.  But spew never passes near the centers of intelligence.

I had a classmate who could empty the contents of his stomach on cue.  On a moment’s notice he could produce  a gross  barrage of undigested material that was never meant to pass a person’s lips. It didn’t matter that this childish gesture could be inconvenient to demonstrate on your mother’s new living room carpet. He didn’t have much sense about when to pick his moment. It was part of the unfortunate grade school freak-show that he had perfected.

This chunky kid was one of several characters at my hardscrabble school located a few blocks from runway 17R at Denver’s old Stapleton Airport. Planes would scream over all day. if the noise or cement playground didn’t nick you up, there were classmates who could do the trick. Happily, most later re-joined the human race in high school.

This kid reminds me of the President. I think of Donald Trump as just a larger hulk of gracelessness: a screamer of sorts, to be sure, but mostly a person who disgorges undigested gut reactions with no apparent shame.  Had he known him, Mark Twain would have gladly written about this curious figure, bloated by self importance and clueless about the rules of civil discourse. I suspect Twain would have tired of him, preferring his presence to be confined to the pages of his satire on manners.

All of this is made worse, of course, by others who work for Trump or his party. Like many unsteady grade-schoolers, they pretend not to notice  bully who could turn on them.

Our most damaging cultural rhetoric now appears at both the top and bottom of our national discourse.

My memory of this kid came to mind a few months back after seeing one of many tweeted insults from the President, this one referring to “a third rate reporter named Maggie Haberman, known as a Crooked H flunkie who I don’t speak to and have nothing to do with. . .”  Never mind that Haberman knows how to use language with precision, and that she shares a Pulitzer Prize in Reporting with several of her colleagues at the New York Times. By his standards, this was hardly the worst of nearly 600  insults that have come from the President since taking office.  But the ad hominem attacks continue to pile up. Against Trump, no insult comic could ever stand a chance.

Traditional rhetoric has rules.  Verbal spew just happens.  Effective public rhetoric is the product of careful adaptation and thought, even when coming from people we might otherwise disagree with.  In every case we have a right to expect a speaker has has at least some capacity to measure the effects of their words.

The presence of this continual vitriol has softened us.  We’ve grown accustomed to graceless verbal gestures.  Indeed, Twitter has perfected them.  We are getting used to putting our nation’s presidency alongside the trolls and dystopians who populate the fringes of the internet. It means our most damaging cultural rhetoric now appears at both the top and bottom of our national discourse. And like adolescents trying to fit in, we mostly marvel to the spectacle in silence, knowing that the nation’s chief executive seems incapable of much more than mimicking the kind of coarseness not seen since our days in grade school.