Blogs > Jim Loewen > It's Time for a Shadow Cabinet

Feb 16, 2017

It's Time for a Shadow Cabinet

UK Shadow Cabinet

Sociologist James W. Loewen is the author of Lies My Teacher Told Me. An earlier version of this article appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle. 

            In view of Donald Trump's shocking nominations for cabinet-level positions, it is in our national interest that Democrats appoint a "shadow cabinet." A shadow cabinet can help mobilize public opinion to ward off the worst Republican excesses and help Democats do better in the next election.

            "Shadow ministers" form an important feature of political life in many parliamentary democracies, such as Australia. Although the United States is not a parliamentary system, we need to import this feature. The Green Party announced a shadow cabinet in 2012, but no one noticed. The times have changed, however.

            This idea has nothing in common with Trump's appointment of close personal aides in each department, intended to shadow his own cabinet appointees and report evidence of disloyalty. Quite the contrary, a Democratic shadow cabinet will be publicly assembled; its job will be to report to the nation what Trump's appointees are doing to the agencies they direct.

            Except for Defense, Donald Trump has nominated cabinet secretaries who profoundly disagree with the missions of the departments they are supposed to head. Most obvious is Rick Perry, who promised to close the Department of Energy when running for president in 2011, even though he haplessly couldn't remember its name. Betsy DeVos, Trump's Secretary of Education, famously called our public schools a "dead end" and wants to give parents public money to send their children to private schools.

            Trump's choice for the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, Oklahoma's attorney general, has repeatedly sued the agency. The Sierra Club called his nomination putting "an arsonist in charge of fighting fires." Tom Price, Trump's pick to run Health and Human Services, has conflicts of interest owing to investments in drug and medical device companies. Of course he opposes Obamacare. For the Security and Exchange Commission, Trump chose another fox in a hen house in the form of mergers and acquisitions lawyer Jay Clayton.

            Putting an oil man in charge of our relations with Middle Eastern nations as Secretary of State is also a conflict, since we have fought war after war in the Middle East owing to our oil interests there. Rex Tillerson is further compromised by his close business ties in Russia. For HUD, Trump nominated Ben Carson, who calls integrated housing "social engineering"; he's even called it "Communist."

            Worst of all is Trump's choice for Attorney General, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, who has never distanced himself from his neo-Confederate heritage.

            Trump's nominees represent a tiny slice of America, mostly hyper-rich white males. He has also rejected the tradition of appointing at least one cabinet member from the opposing party.

            Someone needs to bring to the fore the missions and activities of these various departments of government. A shadow Secretary of Energy could review Perry's performance, show what he is not doing, and suggest to the American people the agenda that a sensible Department of Energy would be pursuing. Congressional oversight will not do, especially since Republicans control Congress.

            Since our new administration does not value facts, the shadow cabinet must provide the information that the appointed secretaries cannot. Shadow secretaries can collect data about "their" agencies, convene hearings to take public testimony about problems in the Republican operation of them, and even coordinate litigation to help them survive the agendas of the directors who will be running them. Small staffs can help, funded by foundations and think tanks that do not agree with the implicit Republican view that the agencies are basically illegitimate.

            Equally important, the shadow cabinet can offer ideas and programs to give Democratic Congressional candidates a head start toward the 2018 elections. Opposition cabinet members do this in Australia, New Zealand, and other countries.

            Newt Gingrich's 1994 "Contract with America" showed the advantage coordination can provide. Democrats have long lagged the G.O.P. in sound bites and clarity. A shadow cabinet can tell the public what Democrats stand for and plan to do, as well as what Republicans are not doing.

            Certainly an array of talent is out there awaiting nomination. For Energy, Skip Laitner, president of the Association for Environmental Studies and Sciences. For Secretary of Education, how about Diane Ravitch? For Labor, maybe Lawrence Mishel of the Economic Policy Institute. For the SEC, HUD, or anything she wants, Elizabeth Warren. For Commerce, perhaps Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz. Congressional Democrats or the national Democratic Party leadership might make the choices. Alternatively, a think tank or foundation might take the lead.

            Regardless of the details, taking this step now will induce the public to volunteer time, money, and ideas, rather than doing nothing until the fall of 2018. And surely America needs a shadow cabinet today more than Australia ever has! 

Copyright James W. Loewen 

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