Some say you should change for change’s sake. Others respond with the often heard phrase that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” These opposing approaches to the need for — and the value — of change are each misguided.
Change is merely a process that in itself is neither good nor bad. More precisely, it can be either good or bad depending upon whether the change causes things to become better or worse than they were before. In considering events in our daily lives or the nature of government policy, the focus should always be on the anticipated effects of the change and not on the concept of change itself.
There is a danger to riding the status quo when it appears to be failing just because we don’t wish to risk the uncertainties of change. Similarly, there is a danger to rushing into any sort of change because we don’t like the way things are.
What brings this to my mind is the apparent trend toward populism in the U.S. and in places around the world in the last few years. In its simplest form, populism is an embodiment of the wishes of “ordinary” people. In a political sense, Wikipedia defines populism as an “approach that seeks to disrupt the existing social order by solidifying and mobilizing the animosity of the ‘commoner’ or ‘the people’ against ‘privileged elites’ and the ‘establishment.’” The disruptive impact of this particular change is embodied in the U.S. by Trumpism and in other parts of the world by similar movements that seek to challenge policies that are said to benefit the elite.
As with all change, populism can be positive or negative depending on the changes it advocates and brings. The pre-Civil War anti-slavery movement known as abolition and the movements in the 20th century to improve working conditions in mines and factories were examples of positive populist movements. The aggressively anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic Know Nothing Party of the 1850s, and the movement by millions who supported Father Charles Coughlin and listened to his radio show in the 1930s, serve as examples of populism’s descent into less positive impact. Father Coughlin seemed to sincerely argue for the rights of the common man in supporting early efforts of President Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. Gradually though Coughlin revealed himself to be a virulent anti-Semite and apologist for Adolph Hitler.
So in 2016, Donald Trump comes along and rails against political correctness, privileged elites, the “deep state” (whatever that is) and the attack on Christmas (Who can forget the days when Christmas was banned under Presidents Bush and Obama?) as he claims to represent the ignored and underprivileged. It is ironic that Mr. Trump is an unmistakable product of privilege who has devoted his life to never being ignored (think Trump Plaza, the many Trump Towers, Trump Steaks, Trump Vodka, Trump golf courses and so on).
But, obviously, he hit a nerve with many people regarding their distrust of government and those who run it. Undoubtedly it was the feeling that there are too many entrenched government leaders who ignore the people that led, at least in part, to Mr. Trump’s often selecting replacements for such leaders from those with no government experience. Rex Tillerson had no diplomatic experience before he became secretary of state, and, since experienced diplomats were unable to solve the Middle East crisis, why not, as Mr. Trump did, appoint son-in-law Jared Kushner to the task? Simple problem, simple solution. I expect to see a Kushner-brokered agreement between Israel and the Palestinians any day now, as evidenced by the fact that we recently lost a vote in the U.N. on recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital by only 128-9. Thank you Nauru and Palau for your support.
Why would a nominee for a federal judgeship have to know what a motion in limine is just because my second year law students all know this? A recent Trump nominee did not, as well as the answers to many other basic questions asked during his confirmation hearing in the Senate. At the lower levels of government agencies, we have seen large numbers of important positions left vacant or staffed by those with little or no experience. Experienced people have failed, so bring in those with no experience. My doctors have not cured my diabetes, time to find a businessman to do so.
Now some of you undoubtedly like the changes Mr. Trump has instituted. Many of us have never liked them. Still, according to polls, many more wanted change but now reject the result of the ones that Mr. Trump has brought. It is upon these results and the anticipation of other results the political and ideological battle should be fought, not on whether change is a good or bad thing in and of itself.
Steven P. Grossman (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Dean Julius Isaacson Professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law.