Minding the Store

Generally, the idea that government should be run like a business is a canard.  The measuring sticks for success or failure in government are substantially different, the products less readily defined, the market fragmented and more difficult to understand. There is though, one basic element shared in the work of government and business.  There is a major part of what happens in both areas, which for lack of a better phrase, I think of as keeping the store open.

As our local, state and national politics has devolved into personal attacks, ideological certainty, and intellectual dishonesty, almost every element of the work of governing has become politicized.  It is extraordinarily difficult and in some instances impossible to run a business or a government in a shooting gallery environment.  When the most basic of tasks of government can generate personal vilification or attempts at public shaming then the basic day to day responsibilities of governing in a democracy are put at risk.

The most obvious outcome in this environment is that people at all levels of government become afraid to act.  The fear of making an error and the resultant possibility of being dragged into a spotlight by some ideological purist or posing politician makes doing as little as possible become the operational default.

This problem is even worse when called upon to make decisions. Decisions require the actor to make a choice among competing possibilities.  Choosing one possible action over another is certain to generate disagreement.  This has always been true, but now that choice can be hung out there to be twitted on, faced, or grammed before hundreds of thousands of people who have no interest in getting the job done, making the government function or the business run.  Their interest is in running their own agenda without having to worry about whether or not the lights get turned on or the food delivered. They can spout their drivel with little fear of retribution and no concern about how an action needed to be taken, a choice made, just to keep the store running.

Not that long ago, about eighty percent of government was about keeping the store running reasonably effectively.  The remaining twenty percent, the political part, was what the politicians, political ideologues, and simple wingnuts could fight about.  The politicians could look for leverage and money for the next election.  The political ideologues could pontificate about how they were not being listened to. And the wingnuts could go flutter off on whatever nonsense struck their flimsy fancy.  Today, it often seems like that ratio has reversed.  This is not a good thing.

The most corrosive outcome of all this is to erode the fundamental level of trust that must exist between the governed and the governing and among the whole of the body politic for a democracy to function.  The trust that must be the bedrock of a functioning democracy intuitively understands that we are all in this together and that no group can be pushed out of the mix of our country for political gain or personal satisfaction. We can fight, we can holler and yell, but we must not exclude.

Today we have descended into trying to govern and run for political office by yelling about who we will exclude.  We conduct what passes for political discussion about where we will build a fence to keep people out, how we can make criminals out of thousands of Americans whose only fault is to participate in the wrong religion, and various defining insights generated by the old children’s play ground game of mine is (or are) bigger than yours.

This race to exclude is not just pathetic, it is dangerous to the fabric of American democracy.  We need to stand up and say enough. We need to say this to the politicians who spout such nonsense, to the various communications media that print and cover such trash, and to that small minority of Americans who clamor for more of such slime. You are pouring acid on the foundations of our democracy.  You have a right to spout such stuff, but we are going to exercise our right to point out that you are wrong and that you shame the American democracy that you say you cherish.

Robert Lenna

About Robert Lenna

My professional career has been involved in bringing to Maine the financial capital to build our infrastructure of housing, schools, roads, hospitals, colleges, water and sewer districts. As Executive Director of four independent state authorities charged with putting together public financing for hundreds of infrastructure projects I was responsible for bringing billions of dollar into the Maine economy.