The public outcry over New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's recent travails is a lesson in how to fast become a nation without purpose, driven by drama and innuendo. It also illustrates how little we know about the origins of American democracy and the subsequent responsibility we have as citizens to be engaged, informed participants. The much publicized bridge scandal is just another page in the lasting saga of America's decline, a decline owed not only to our lagging education system but also to our collective failure to recognize the obligation that comes with our unique liberty in this historic nation.
Don't get me wrong -- I'm not an uncritical observer of the Garden State governor. He has had tremendous power in his tenure to push legislation that might have created more opportunity scholarships for kids, added parental choice for families, created a more dramatic version of performance pay for teachers, or made improvements to the state's charter school law. That he embraces these issues is only half the battle. One must fight for those things. One's staff must fight for those things. I do believe that Christie thought his staff was fighting for those things, just as I believe that he probably expected his staff to act with high moral fiber in their daily goings on. He's not a micro-manager -- lawyers usually are not. And his particular brand of politics is about loyalty -- the very same quality that now has the public's perception of him doubting his ability to govern his state, or even his nation.
And yet, it's the media who have convinced the other media and fueled the public's doubt about his fitness to serve his state or the nation. The uncertainty isn't based on the bridge fiasco per se, but on the basis that if anyone does something really conniving in politics or insists on a quid pro quo it's the antithesis of democracy!
Thus, the public seems to be buying the conventional wisdom that foul play is somehow undemocratic and beneath us. There's also a sense that any dissension over policies means politics is dysfunctional. According to whom? At our founding, the leaders of the Continental Congress created a system of checks and balances precisely to create the tension that is necessary to keep all sides in check. As Thomas Jefferson once noted, "The powers of government should be so divided and balanced among several bodies of magistracy, as that no one could transcend their legal limits, without being effectually checked and restrained by the others." It's alarming to hear one's friends and colleagues bemoaning the state of Congress as if no other Congress was ever obstructionist and no legislator is supposed to fight to represent her people's highest interest. The conclusion is that something must be wrong with today's politicians! The conclusion is that there must be something wrong with Chris Christie given such things would happen on his watch, guilty or not.
Famous biographer and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin told NBC's Meet the Press that she was concerned about a culture in which such behavior is permitted. I thought the same thing initially -- that a culture of arrogance could breed a group of staffers that actually think playing with people's livelihoods is funny and acceptable payback. Then I remembered all my experiences on the Hill, in the federal government and in state politics. No matter what the culture, the leader, or the political affiliation, there are people who think they are hot stuff, better than everyone else, and often justified in unethical, harmful behaviors. And that's not necessarily about their leaders; often it's about that person. If not, we are saying that bad things only happen to people when the people around them are bad, right?
Are we ready as a society to say that a wife's behavior justifies her husband being unfaithful (or vice versa)? What's the culture that permits students to talk back to their teachers and parents? Are the teachers and parents always to blame? Do parents cause their kids to do bad things any more (or any less) than a politician causes his staff to do bad things?
I think most would agree that there are factors at play for which we are individually responsible to some degree. For everything that happens around us, an individual's behavior is completely his own.
Let me be clear -- I'm not justifying the actions of Christie's staff or anyone in such a position, but let's understand that this situation bears many similarities to the literally hundreds of thousands devil's bargains and consequences that result in the laws of the land. Political plays are at the core of compromise and political discourse. How do you think unions got mandatory collective bargaining written into law in most states, sanctioned by federal labor law?
Do you think most of our elected representatives actually believe these were good ideas, or is there a chance such polices then and maintaining them now is a result of political favor, political funds and political campaigning for -- or against those people? (The latter would be right and is well documented). How different is the so-called "Bridgegate" from the character assassination that goes on every time there's an election and teachers unions and their allies want to ensure that their opponents don't win? When pictures of then Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels were distributed with Nazi signs and a Hitler mustache, I don't remember the cries of public or the media who felt that this organization betrayed our democratic values. And what about the campaign against then-Indiana Schools Superintendent Tony Bennett, who was run out of office by lies and distortions that some teachers took the day off to contribute to? How many lives did their actions impact? Try tens of thousands of children who would have had more opportunities for a great education had Tony been reelected State Superintendent.
My colleagues in the leadership of the union would say that they didn't condone those unethical and illegal actions, that they cannot control the behavior of a few, and that they don't run a monolithic organization. They'd say that people will be people, and that there are always a few bad apples.
Outsiders like myself might suggest that their culture is one of thuggery, that they push and cajole people to pursue the nastiest of politics. I would probably be wrong. So are those that are confident that Christie had such a culture.
It is sad that our society has so easily devolved into making judgments without knowledge about people and situations. Bolstered by recognized experts, visible authors and elites, they say our elected officials are too combative, too political, too selfish, too arrogant, too WHATEVER. It is that attitude that is going to be the downfall of our democracy, not the people we elect. Democracy is only as good as its citizenry. It requires informed citizens who at every level make it their business to read and decipher what occurs and to use facts in their judgment, not judgment in their facts.
People will be people and the origin of politics is people. Politics comes from the Greek word "polis" -- the city, the central place for people to conduct themselves and advance the interests of their community. We are obligated to make our community the best we can. To do so requires us to be informed, responsible for what we say and do, and to hold everyone else to that same expectation in our community, in the media, and in politics.
There is a difference between playing honest, transparent hardball and making stuff up. Lies and distortions that deliberately hurt people's careers or cause harm to others should be cause for dismissal, impeachment and more. We need to wake up. By making "Bridgegate" and other accusations from various New Jersey policymakers big news, the media also make true the very thing they argue is a problem -- that not enough good men and women are going into politics. Well if we can condemn someone for unproven actions, why would they? And yet, as they are wringing their hands over the current state of affairs, they are not without stain -- and exercise many a power play and threaten others' futures when it comes to how they climb the social and professional ladder!
If we really find politics distasteful and want politicians to play by other rules, we have dramatic changes to make. But know that those changes -- no quid pro quo, political trades, pressuring and cajoling and yes even publicly calling one's opponent to the carpet -- might mean you never get that important law passed -- like civil rights legislation. You might never get an important policy, like college scholarships, adopted. These things -- and scores more -- sometimes require hardball tactics.
As you consider the privilege of participating in the upcoming presidential race and the other elections our founders fought hard for us to have, consider what you are doing to buy the conventional arguments that politics has deteriorated. Think instead of whether those arguments and power plays might actually be responsible for the very benefits and freedoms you have. And if you're one of the forty percent of Americans who are eligible to vote but do not (or know someone like that), either start getting informed so you can vote or lose your opportunity to stop wringing your hands and get people who you think would do better. And for God's sake, learn your American history!