Hello Everyone,

A few days ago, I heard a Fresh Air interview with the liberal commentator E.J. Dionne and his conservative collaborator Norman Ornstein. I’m sure many of you did, too.  They were discussing their new book, One Nation After Trump.

Surviving Trump
The book tries to explain how a president who daily raises profound questions about his basic competence and his psychological capacity could have been elected and how our democracy will survive his presidency.

During the three months since I last wrote in this space, I have thought a good deal about both questions.  While Dionne and Ornstein are much more qualified to opine on such matters than I am, I generally agree with their assessments.  I, too, am optimistic that we will survive Trump, thinking that perhaps he is just the kind of ultimate absurdity that we need to break the dysfunction-fever that has come to afflict our national politics.  From the book:

Rolling back the Trump threat requires seeing that he represents an extreme acceleration of a process long under way…It involves the decline of basic norms in politics, governing, and the media as well as the decay of institutions that are central to republican government.  The radicalization of the Republican Party…began three decades ago…Republican leaders…for decades had taught their supporters to distrust Washington and to hate government.

The authors postulate that there has been a concerted, insidious, and persistent effort for nearly thirty years to disable or destroy our governmental institutions, most especially the Senate and the House.  I believe that by consciously seeking to sew dysfunction, these forces have been attempting to “shrink the size of government” at all levels – and, they’ve been doing a very good job of it.

Dionne and Ornstein lay the origins of this movement at the feet of Newt Gingrich. Elected to the House in 1978, he assiduously tried to blow it up, ultimately leading to his so-called “Contract with America” (what one of my son-in-laws calls the “Contract on America”) in 1994 when he had ascended to the speakership.  Then, they trace it through the “Hastert Rule” and Mitch McConnell’s one-term Obama pledge all the way through the latter’s refusal to follow normal protocols in considering Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court and the subsequent elimination of the filibuster in order to get Gorsuch confirmed.  In my view, you could add the Tea Party phenomenon to this litany.

Moreover, I would point to Sara Palin as the perfect precursor to Donald Trump – another woefully unqualified, larger-than-life, vacuous candidate for high office.

Before proceeding, I should make it clear that I do not believe that Donald Trump has been part of this ideologically-driven decades-long assault on our governmental institutions, regardless of his support of the “birther” movement.  I remain convinced that he is driven by nothing more than feeding his clinically-diagnosable narcissism, as I first wrote in #100 in 2015.  We should continue to view all of his scatter-shot decisions and impulsive tweets through that single lens.

As the book’s title One Nation After Trump suggests, there is ample reason to believe that our democracy will survive both Trump and this decades-long assault on its institutions.  In fact, as Steven Pinker seems to argue in his marvelous book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, the very process of civilization inevitably leads to ever-expanding government.  Perhaps I will write more on Pinker at another time.

Having said all of that, I wonder if we pay undue attention to our federal government.  It is tempting to do so because it is the biggest game and it unceasingly calls attention to itself – even absent a narcissist like Trump to aid and abet it – supplying endless free “content” for the news media in the process.

Rather than assigning undue weight to the decisions of the 545 key people who lead the three branches of our national government, I think it can be argued that one source of America’s real strength – and salvation – lies in our 323 million citizens and our incredibly diverse array of non-governmental institutions and the endless web of informal connections among them.

An Example: The Exoskeleton
I would like to offer a prime example of the strength of our non-governmental institutions by describing a conceptual framework I have recently conceived.  I call it Chicago’s “Education Exoskeleton.”  Of course, it is only one small example of this much larger phenomenon.

Let me try to briefly explain.  A more detailed memorandum I have written on the subject is in the first attachment.

Our school district here is called Chicago Public Schools, or CPS.  It’s the third largest in the country.  Like most urban districts, it faces a myriad of challenges.  It is constantly being asked to do more with less.  But, CPS is making discernable progress nonetheless as evidenced by a 17 percentage point rise in graduation rates over the last ten years.

Within that context, I would claim that over the last thirty-five years or so – nearly concurrent with the Gingrich-initiated assault on our national governmental institutions – Chicago’s non-governmental institutions have organically and unwittingly been constructing an informal Exoskeleton to help our public schools.

First, a little refresher from high school biology.  An exoskeleton is a “rigid external covering providing support and protection for the body.” (I believe that this is a stronger metaphor than the “ecosystem” one currently popular in other realms.)  To my mind, the most useful example of an exoskeleton is the shell of the Galapagos giant tortoise. In this case, the tortoise’s exoskeleton connects with its endoskeleton, making it an especially good metaphor for how Chicago’s Exoskeleton connects with Chicago’s public schools in serving to “support and protect” them.

Much like a Galapagos giant tortoise, our Exoskeleton is composed of a large number of interconnected institutional “plates.”  In my construct, there are primarily two kinds of plates at work here:  foundations/philanthropists and nonprofit/civic organizations.

I can personally trace the Exoskeleton’s nonprofit plates’ origins back to philanthropist Irving Harris’ founding in 1982 of the Ounce of Prevention Fund, a leading early-childhood provider and advocacy organization.

Skipping ahead, in 1990, the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research was founded.  It is a highly influential independent research group which works with Chicago public schools to determine what is working, what is not, and why. (Full disclosure: my wife, Penny Sebring, co-founded it with her colleague Tony Bryk).

Illustrative of my concept of interdependent plates, the UChicago Consortium was launched with the support of the Joyce, MacArthur, and Spencer foundations and is currently partnering on a project with the aforementioned Ounce.

Now, dozens of nonprofits and foundations have organically and largely without forethought come together to produce the Exoskeleton for our schools.  It is an informal, and up to now an unnamed and largely unconscious, network serving the public good.  See the attachment for more.

The Chicago Education Exoskeleton is but one example among many thousands of how local institutions unrelated to government continue to support our democratic way of life and why I think our country will become “one nation after Trump.”  There are variations on Chicago’s Exoskeleton in virtually every city, town, and village across America.

Hope from Fallows
Along those lines, I have taken hope, as many of you no doubt have, from the writings of James Fallows in The Atlantic (see the second attachment.)

The long years I have spent living and working outside the United States have…sharpened my appreciation for the practical ramifications of the American idea. For me this is the belief that through its cycle of struggle and renewal, the United States is in a continual process of becoming a better version of itself [emphasis added]. What I have seen directly over the past decade…has reinforced my sense that our current era has been another one of painful but remarkable reinvention, in which the United States is doing more than most other societies to position itself, despite technological and economic challenges, for a new era of prosperity, opportunity, and hope.

But just as Trump’s appeal seemed grossly out of touch with modern African American life, so does the heartland-rage theory miss the optimism and determination that are intertwined with desolation and decay in the real “out there.” I can say that because I have been out there, reporting with my wife, Deb, in smaller-town America for much of the past four years.

According to a…2016 [study], two in three Americans said that good ideas for dealing with national social and economic challenges were coming from their towns. Fewer than one in three felt that good ideas were coming from national institutions. These results also underscore the sense my wife and I took unmistakably from our visits: that city by city, and at the level of politics where people’s judgments are based on direct observation rather than media-fueled fear, Americans still trust democratic processes and observe long-respected norms [emphasis added].

Nearly a century ago, Walter Lippmann wrote that the challenge for democracies is that citizens necessarily base decisions on the “pictures in our heads,” the images of reality we construct for ourselves. The American public has…made a decision of the gravest consequence [electing Trump], largely based on distorted, frightening, and bigoted caricatures of reality that we all would recognize as caricature if applied to our own communities.

I am optimistic that we will become one nation after Trump because of the comity and collaboration that we see on display every day in our own lives in our own communities.  As Ken Burns and Lynn Novak are currently reminding us, our nation was torn apart by the Vietnam War and all manner of strife – assassinations, presidential resignations, civil rights and women’s rights, hyperinflation, and more during the 1960’s and 70’s – and emerged even stronger.  With the support and protection of our various exoskeletons, we’ll survive the current strife, too.

Please, as always, pass it on.  And, remember that previous Obamagrams are stored on www.obamagrams.com

Chuck

 

adobe pdf fileA Memorandum on Chicago’s Education Exoskeleton

 

adobe pdf fileThe Atlantic — J. Fallows – Jan. Feb. 2017 issue

 

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