Renew Independence: Displace Cynicism by Al Sikes

In a recent column, I wrote (hoped) that the time is ripe for a new political movement. I cited the success of En Marche! in France. En Marche! did not exist before 2016, yet led by Emmanuel Macron, swept recent elections for President and the Parliament.

The response to the column was quick and animated. Most encouragingly, people said they had sent the column to friends, and one said it would be sent on to Michael Bloomberg (more on that later.)

It is, of course, easy to call for change. It is more difficult to clothe the idea.

Today America’s principal parties have scripts and bases and the latter anchor them to the former. It is as if the search for knowledge has died. America’s political class and especially the leaders of its two protected parties have failed. They have occupied positions of responsibility and power, but have forgotten the first. They have failed to rise above their differences.

America needs an open-minded — indeed curious party with leaders who are willing to embrace civic research and development — beginnings, successes, failures, and new beginnings.

Scientists, engineers, and leading-edge business leaders awaken each day to the promises and risks of new and often disruptive technology. Many of the companies that top a list of the world’s largest (capital value) didn’t exist or were quite small a generation ago. And the scientific breakthroughs in medicine, data analysis and communications products and services are staggering.

In the decades that followed American astronauts landing on the moon, it was often said, “If we can land a man on the moon we can cure” (fill in the blank). Rocketing to the moon, impressive as that was, did not prepare the nation to more insightfully deal with human needs. Conversely, this generation’s technologies provide deep insights into human behavior and how real needs can best be met.

Yet, politicians awaken in a tactical world. Each day they spend most of their energies protecting their jobs.

A curious party, one led by the principle that generational improvements are possible, will necessarily be a federalist one. Constitutionally, America is a nation of state and local governments. It is often said that the States are our laboratories. They should be given more power and when necessary economic incentives to improve services that the private sector cannot provide. Washington should be attentive, not predominate in most domestic matters.

Today the central government’s template for dealing with domestic needs is to try to “boil the ocean.” This, of course, doesn’t work, but the programs become entrenched, and outcomes matter less and less as the beneficiaries ear-mark their political giving and advocacy.

Americans are generous — they answer needs. Tens of billions are spent annually on an extraordinary range of not-for-profits. But, and this is the pivotal difference, if a worthwhile mission is unable to show mission-related success, it will fail for lack of support. Programs in Washington persist, regardless of results.

New political leadership should respect America’s diversity. When Washington, through the Congress or Supreme Court becomes Culture-Maker-In-Chief, positions harden and polarization becomes more intense. While there are basic freedoms America’s central government must enforce, a significant measure of cultural expression should be left to the States.

And this brings me around to New York’s former Mayor, Michael Bloomberg. I lived in Manhattan during the first part of his administration and watched with admiration as he encouraged innovation in public schools as teacher’s unions fought his every move.

Mayor Bloomberg would be an excellent third party leader. He has certainly considered beginning a new movement and his pattern of business and government leadership point to curiosity and innovation. And, importantly, he is experienced. While he has recently declined any interest in running for office again, he should play at least an enabling role.

Also, a new political movement must be led by a tenacious person who is not easily intimidated. An innovation movement will quickly breach the walls of entrenched interests.

Finally and most importantly, this must be a citizen movement — a countervailing force to displace cynicism with some measure of hope. America’s health requires an engaged citizenry, and one will only exist when candidates for office are not programmed by entrenched interests. And believe me, a viable third Party would shake the protected parties very foundation.

In my lifetime, there has never been a better opportunity to start a third party with real staying power. But, if such a movement is to succeed, it will require real, not feigned leadership.

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books. 

 

Shouting Across the Atlantic: Is There a Leader Out There? By Al Sikes

Politicians on the winning side of elections inevitably quip: “elections matter.” And so they do, but let me be more pointed.

The most important elections in the last twelve months, with apologies to the British, occurred in America and France.

Americans, intensely frustrated, elected an entirely unconventional candidate. The opposition Party has chosen a path of nullification—Democrats want to void the election any way they can. Poor strategy for their Country and Party.

In our Revolutionary War, America’s most important ally was France. Today the French, who recently elected a new president, are shouting at us across the Atlantic. In France, the most significant conventional Parties (Socialists, Republicans) and the populist one, The National Front, lost. The winner, En Marche!.

Jean-Michel Frederic Macron’s Party, En Marche!, didn’t exist until April of 2016, yet, he was elected President. Macron’s newly emerged Party has just won an overwhelming majority in parliamentary elections. Macron left the Socialist party, and it barely retains a presence in the French parliament.

Macron defeated the right and left and the populist, Marine Le Pen. He called for a “democratic revolution” and has advocated “a collective solidarity.” Macron led a citizen movement.

Is a citizen movement possible in United States politics? Can enough talent and energy be organized to overcome the structural obstacles that protect the Republican and Democrat parties? They certainly no longer merit protection.

If a true citizen movement is possible, the central political question must be re-framed. If the core inquiry is which ideological script should prevail, the energy is with the ideologues. But, as poll after poll confirms, a majority of voters are eager for leaders who are willing to lead from the center.

Leading from the center requires thinking. It requires leaders who look for government intervention or restraint informed by realities. If you listen to left and right politicians today, you quickly realize they are mostly unmoored from thinking as they recite their talking points.

I am not talking about a centrism that splits the difference. What we need are centrist leaders who are acutely aware of what has worked or failed in our federal system. We need leaders who can utilize the extraordinary power of 21st Century technology to achieve efficiencies and successes. We need leaders who can capitalize on America’s diversity rather than using it to divide and conquer.

The latest Gallup political survey summary shows that 42% of voters identify as Independents. In 2014 and 2015 polling, Gallup noted that the most frequent cited reason for being an independent was “frustration with party gridlock in the federal government.”

The election of President Trump was telling. He was certainly not the choice of the right. And it is increasingly clear that the Republican Party is struggling to become a governing party as the hard right pursues its view of “perfection” at the expense of leadership.

On the left, the offer is a new list of free services all to be paid for by a “tax on the wealthy” and debt. At present, the United States is only able to finance existing private and public credit appetites because of our international monetary strength. This strength is not ordained in the natural order of things, and if we do not pivot, the central government balance sheet will look like Illinois.

Vladimir Putin, whose nationalistic appeal protects him from a poor Russian economy, doesn’t need to intervene in our elections. We are in the midst of self-destruction.

There is literally a wall of laws that protect the major parties and incumbents will not, as President Reagan once demanded in Berlin, “tear down that wall.” If a centrist coalition is to succeed, work needs to begin immediately, and the movement should organize for the 2020 presidential election. The critical mass of support needed will come from Independents and success in the 2020 election should quickly be followed by organizing at the State and Local levels.

What is needed now is a farsighted leader who will devote himself or herself to a historic cause. It will be hard work, but saving the Republic will never be easy.

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books. 

Real Men and Father’s Day by Al Sikes

“You feel like superman”, the young addict says. The Economist
“Does God exist?” “Not yet,” Question and answer in panel discussion on transhumanism.
“For the prostitute reduces you to a loaf of bread.” Proverbs 6:26

Let me briefly serve as a bridge, an intergenerational one.

My Dad, in acute recognition of my needs, was unhesitating. He insisted that nothing good in the life of a teenager happened after midnight—thus a curfew. It made no difference that other parents did not impose one—he seemed unbothered by peer pressure. Much to my discomfort.

Dad insisted that I needed to understand the options of life—my summers were spent working in a grain elevator. When just out of college, I announced an intent to get married; he was apoplectic, and said: “you can’t afford a wife.” Fortunately for me, my wife, Marty, worked while I went to law school.

There was nobody around to write down Dad’s insistent insights. Had he been a direct descendent of King Solomon, the world would have received a 20th Century update of Proverbs.

My Dad would have told the young addict that Superman is a fantasy, that if you are searching for transcendence go to church.

And to the transhumanist searching for perpetual life, he would have suggested spiritual counsel, not chemicals.

To finish the bridge, let me retreat to King Solomon’s version of Proverbs, the one that is blessed by the Bible. The King didn’t lack a keen insight or a sense of humor.

Culturally, our time is devoted to ascendance. Or, as the dictionaries report: “a position of dominance.” My Dad, not inclined to deal in the abstract, would have paired the word with fool. He knew, and probably most humans know, that dominance is fleeting. When we feel dominant, something else is likely to be dominating us.

My faith is inspired by a horrific death on a crucifixion cross—its form–simple and wooden. The narrative surrounding this piece of wood promises transcendence through love and humility.

Regardless of which faith story we find compelling, none of them suggest material wealth or dominance as the pathways to transcendence.

Reflecting on America, it needs a culture that pushes us beyond self. The vulnerable need more than jails and yet another educational initiative that explains for the millionth time what every sentient human knows: drugs are harmful. Millions of people seem to have yielded to nihilism, believing that existence is pointless or alternatively, too heavy a burden to carry. Pharmacological escape and its risks do not weigh heavily on their minds.

America needs insistence voices informed by an overarching morality. My Dad’s rules carried the bite of right or wrong. Simply stated, we (all of us) need to look beyond ourselves. Not to the pop psychology of victimhood. Nor to the ceaseless marketing messages that compare our lives with some glorious alternative.

Today volumes are written about sources of moral principles and their legitimacy. Likewise, volumes are written about how our weaknesses often eclipse our internal powers of discipline. At some point in this narrative stream, right or wrong became a depreciating asset.

Parents, schools, churches, and Synagogues need to start young. They need to recapture the insistence I experienced as a teenager. And while the message needs to be motivated by love, the words need authority, a 21st Century Solomon who understands the earlier one.

Retreating to the last century, I recall a movie with an intergenerational story.

A 1963 movie, Hud, starring Paul Newman, Patricia O’Neal, and Melvyn Douglas, was set on a cattle ranch in Texas that was just hanging on when it was hit by an outbreak of hoof and mouth disease.

The movie pitted a hard drinking, unprincipled son, Hud, (played by Paul Newman) against his father, Homer (played by Melvyn Douglas), who was the patriarch owner of the ranch. The two men often argued in front of an impressionable and idealistic young man, Lon (played by Brandon de Wilde), who was grandson to Homer and nephew to Hud.

In one memorable scene, Homer said to Lon after a furious argument with Hud: “Little by little the look of the country changes because of the men we admire….You’re just going to have to make up your own mind one day about what’s right and wrong.”

Today the word “men” tends to be loaded; but as Fathers Day is only days away, I recall my father as a real man.

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books. 

Hell No! Resistance Movements and Trump by Al Sikes

The Polish Resistance (post-WWII), Solidarity, took on the Soviet-dominated government of Poland and won. During WWII the French resistance, led by Charles de Gaulle, battled the Vichy government which collaborated with the Nazis. After the war, De Gaulle formed and led France’s Fifth Republic. History is filled with heroic resistance efforts, often movements of life or death.

So now we come to the American resistance movement circa 2017, against all things Trump. I have several thoughts.

President Trump was elected. All who oppose him, left, right and center needs to understand the underlying human dynamics of the 2016 election and demonstrate what they have learned in the 2018 elections. Also, resistance movements feed on suppression; a singular focus and intense loyalty develop as its members seek to avoid being crushed by the secret police. In our hemisphere heroism is now in the streets in Venezuela.

In America, we enjoy a form of institutional resistance to overreach. America has very rocky soil when it comes to sowing the seeds of authoritarianism. The Courts have pushed back against Trump orders. The Congress is tied in knots as Trump is quick to thunder expectations but incapable of making a public case for legislative change—Tweets won’t do it.

As the resistance movement was outlined in a Rolling Stone article, it is entirely too institutional; its agenda is an amalgamation of support group policies, many whose causes helped lead to Trump’s victory. It also includes Evan McMullin who, as a conservative, ran an independent campaign for President. Recently it became even more mainstream as Hillary Clinton announced her intention to help fund it.

In the President’s chosen Party, it is now becoming evident that he, rather than suppressing wayward elements, has freed them. There is now an outspoken moderate movement. The primaries of 2016 made it clear that hard-edged conservative orthodoxy was not what the Republican voters wanted.

On the left, it is hard to believe that somebody to the left of Hillary Clinton could have defeated Trump. Unfortunately, Ms. Clinton’s flaws as a candidate serve a narrative that her loss was not determined by policy. And the Russian intervention serves those who avert their eyes when it comes to unpopular government prescriptions.

One of the great ironies of the 21st Century is that great businesses are being built on an increasingly precise understanding of human behavior, while political parties increasingly wallow in opinions. Amazon, Google, and Facebook, to name the headliners, know how we behave and now sit atop capital markets worldwide. Frighteningly, they have turned knowledge about us into money machines.

Perversely, America has elected its first businessman, and he too wallows in opinions, often ones based on false assumptions. At the Oscars they ask for the “envelope please;” Trump needs to ask for the data.

It is, of course, plausible to conclude that a resistance built on Never-Trump across the ideological spectrum will not harm the country. An oft repeated refrain is that the country is safer when Congress is in recess.

But, we all better hope that the resistance does not so weaken the President that foreign provocations become more likely and that Trump, failing domestically, asserts himself abroad. My advice: take on the President’s policies if you can identify them. All this focus on Trump the personality is a restatement of the obvious.

I would suggest that the Never-Trump movement be unlike the President—discerning.

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books. 

Leaders and the Physics of Destruction by Al Sikes

In business there are many versions of the virtuous circle. Amazon, for example, gains customer insights on a real-time basis and then puts it to use in acquiring, pricing, selling and distributing inventory. Each element of its business opens a window on improving the other elements.

Virtuous circles in public affairs turn on success or at least its appearance. When a public figure initiates both an effective and popular move, he/she stands a better chance of being given the benefit of the doubt on future ones. Of course, performance in politics is enhanced when there are attractive personal attributes. Presidents Kennedy, Reagan and Obama in my lifetime enjoyed halo effects because of intangible assets.

But, when some combination of tangibles and intangibles cause a loss of popularity, a negative circle of consequences develops and is very difficult to reverse. Presidents Johnson, Nixon and Carter, in particular, were defeated by the physics of destruction, an irreversible momentum. President Trump has joined them and at a very unfortunate time for the nation—issues press, division intensifies, and Trump is only in his fourth month.

I was raised to respect Presidents. They were elected; democracy in action. And, they were the most meaningful expression of our nation’s day to day strength or weakness. We didn’t have to agree with everything our President did, but we had to always keep in mind that if he was weak our collective strength was hurt—weak President, weakened nation.

I didn’t vote for the President but have tried to keep my essays dispassionate–time weighed on me, Trump had just begun.

Trump deserves much of his unpopularity. He began his Presidency as if he had spent a lifetime preparing for the burdens. The reality is that he is an amateur—plenty of bluster but little else. Most unfortunately, he has let down his supporters who looked at all of the Republican and Democrat regulars and judged them unacceptable.

Rarely does a news cycle end without Trump attacking the media. The media, an imperfect bunch to be sure, is nonetheless the connectivity between the governed and its leaders. President Reagan’s sparring with Sam Donaldson should be studied. Donaldson’s critical coverage was masterfully disarmed by Reagan. Attempting to destroy the media is destructive on both a personal and collective level.

In my view Trump has made some good choices in assembling his national security and foreign policy team, but then he gets out ahead of them. Surely he learned in running a hotel company that he needed to avoid undermining his managers. It makes no sense.

The problem is he seems incapable of understanding his problems. He seeks out enablers. When you are President this is the single most egregious mistake. Being a successful president is a really difficult job and enablers, and let me add apologists, are inevitably ill-informed and often obsequious.

So where does the nation go from here? It now seems clear that Trump will not become a controlled and stable leader in a position for which he received no preparation. I hope to be surprised.

We have been here before. President Richard Nixon resigned to forestall impeachment. President Bill Clinton was impeached but not convicted. Both sagas were long, drawn-out and debilitating.

When a President is failing, America’s most important institutions and their leaders must recalibrate their roles. They will need to fill vacuums. They will need to cushion chaos. They will need to provide a measure of strength and stability.

The loyal opposition should be measured and careful with their prerogatives. The Republican leadership should lower the decibels of partisanship and be prepared to speak truth to power.

The Fourth Estate has a particularly vital role to play. The knives are out and separating fact from fiction requires capable journalists who go well beyond a crossfire version of the news.
Finally, President Trump has appointed some capable people to head the Departments of State, Defense and Treasury. Their exercise of power and advice to the President will be important.

Let me close with repetition. I hope I am wrong. America needs encouragement—proponents and opponents alike. The appointment of Judge Merrick Garland or a similarly well-regarded FBI head would be a big step in the right direction.

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books. 

What a Mess; At Least Two Rebuilds Are Necessary by Al Sikes

What a mess! What a sad testimony on American government in the 21st Century.

The Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare, is broken, both structurally and financially. Now the Republicans, who complained bitterly about being shut out by the ruling Democrats in the first round, are reciprocating. Lined up along the Potomac, the Democrats are using artillery, while the Republicans are relying on superior numbers. This is not difficult to understand at the Pentagon level, but at a time when most people have a historically low opinion of the Congress, it is an especially damaging and high-risk strategy.

The stakes in this war are quite high—we are talking about twenty percent of the economy, and I suspect over half of the dramas that play out in most families. Affordable, accessible and quality health care is not an inconsequential matter.

The Republicans won control of the House of Representatives in 2010—many believe on the voter’s distaste for Obamacare. They then staged dozens of repeal votes even though there was zero chance that President Obama would sign such a law. Plus, in the course of this charade, an alternative plan was not proposed. Unfortunately, voters often go along with politics of destruction regardless of which side is lobbing grenades.

Obamacare became law in March of 2010. The roll-out was marred by two overarching problems. The initial sign-up was a disaster, and the President promised voters that if they liked their health insurance, they could keep it and likewise their doctor. For many, this turned out not to be true.

If the plan had been a business product, it would have been quickly pulled from the market and re-tooled. Seven years later the re-tooling is taking place and, if new law results, it will be called Trumpcare.

President Trump, who made a big deal of his business acumen, must now deliver or be forever branded with a failure. A shard of light glinted briefly when Trump admitted that re-tooling the health care law was more complicated than he thought. He needs to revisit this fact and constantly remind himself that health care for many is a matter of life or death.

Obamacare underscored the difficulty in shifting risk. If everybody with a pre-existing illness is to be guaranteed affordable insurance an enormous payment will need to be made by either healthier insureds or taxpayers or both. But if risk shifting is the biggest issue, keep in mind that Obamacare was a two thousand page bill which now confronts lawmakers with a mish-mash of vested interests otherwise called alligators in the Washington swamp.

Restraint will not allow me to go much further into detail but let me make two radical suggestions.

First, and most importantly, Trump or members of the Republican majority who can actually lead should insist on a bi-partisan result. Trump, who tends to run toward controversy, should lead the effort as the legislative leaders will need cover. Since the end result will necessarily be right of center, the more moderate Democrats should be given prominent roles in the drafting of a new law. The Congress needs to own the law; Americans should not be whipsawed every voting cycle. Constant political wars have damaged representative government and undermine our health care industry.

Second, Washington needs to learn from Google and Apple. Both companies provide compelling products with intuitive consumer interfaces. The ease of use masks enormous underlying complication. A re-tooled health care program needs to do the same.

A final word to Trump. The likelihood of your namesake law being workable and relatively popular if crafted by hyper-partisans, under the constraints of budget reconciliation rules, is less than zero. A bi-partisan and fully public legislative process will at least give the public a sense that their representatives take their jobs seriously.

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books. 

Why Wait for Hundred Days When Ninety Will Do? By Al Sikes

Arbitrary, for sure, but a measure nonetheless—the first one hundred days. How has Trump done? I am getting out ahead of the story as his hundredth day will be April 29th.

Bear with me briefly, as I just attached a wider angle lens.

Turkey just had an election, narrowly and controversially approving constitutional changes that give its President much more power. The changes were pushed by Recep Erdogan, the current President, who was almost ousted in a coup several months ago. The changes were supported by only 51% of voters and the Erdogan government censored much of the opposition campaign.

America doesn’t do coups nor censor opposition parties. And it is almost impossible to change the constitution, which is one reason our fights over who sits on the Supreme Court are so hard fought. So as we assess the President, we should also grade ourselves and our political institutions. Presidents do not win an election or govern in a vacuum.

First, Trump. He would want to be first; nothing seems to move without a Trump context. Too bad.

At the fifty day mark, I would have given Trump an F, today a C minus. He is beginning to have a better feel for the job and whose advice is sound. Contrary to hard core opponents, he seems capable of learning. Plus, he has pivoted more of his attention to international initiatives where the President has more discretion, and his staff and cabinet support is better. Plus, he needed at least the appearance of short-term successes before going back to the Congress on domestic issues. And believe me, in international affairs, final judgments on short-term actions are long in coming.

The Congress, facing deadlines on financial affairs, gets an incomplete. The Congress is always difficult to lead and a hundred day assessment would be unduly arbitrary. I should point out, however, that the Senate Minority Leader, Democrat Chuck Schumer, gave the Republicans a gift in forcing them to rescind minority rights to achieve confirmation of Justice Neil Gorsuch. The Republican majority in order to pass any test must now be more purposeful and cohesive.

If I were grading the majority in the House of Representatives, they would get an F. Theresa May, Britain’s Prime Minister just called a snap election for members of Parliament. Too bad that political tool cannot be used here.

The news media would get the same grade as Trump, a C-minus. In the last week, it has been more likely to cover policy; a good thing. It is still, however, too consumed with Trump as a personality, outlier, and entertainer. Hopefully, certain media will quit spilling ink by the barrel on him and indirectly his supporters. It does them no credit and fertilizes his “fake news” assaults. Hopefully, Trump will someday acknowledge, indeed appreciate, that the media does not exist to make his life easier and shouldn’t. Fat chance.

The free speech guarantee in our Constitution is sacred. The news media should work every day to live up to its corresponding obligations. When the coverage of any person or event is predictable, the publication is not serving the public interest. There is too much predictability in the coverage of Trump.

The political parties. Owls can pivot their head 270 degrees. They are said to be wise. At this moment America suffers from stiff necks that can barely pivot from their intenseness as they double down on the orthodoxies of their bases that led to their rejection last year. Lacking internal knowledge on what turnaround strategies might be in the works, I’ll be charitable and give each a D.

Let me close by commenting briefly on us—those who support candidates and vote in elections. It is said that we get the government we deserve. In the 21st Century, this is not necessarily true.

United States politics are now gerrymandered, underwritten by concentrations of wealth, distorted by entertainment posing as news and given scant attention by a distracted culture. But, signs of life are encouraging. Members of Congress and especially Republicans are being tested at town hall meetings; in a republic that is a good thing. So, to the public that is fighting stiff head winds, I would give a B minus.

America needs renewal. Are there any reformers who can also lead? If so, it is not too early to prepare for 2020 when the hard left and right need to be defeated by hard realities.

******************

Writing, for me, is mostly enjoyable and particularly when inspiration happens. Certainly, the Trump phenomenon has provided plenty. But, having a weekly deadline (mostly self-imposed) has sometimes turned pleasure into work. So, with thanks to the Editors with whom I work, my column will, in the future, be stirred by particular interests, not the calendar.

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books. 

Whoops, Bill O’Reilly Is Now In The Spin Room by Al Sikes

Spinning, spinning, spinning—you have entered the “no spin zone” and not Bill O’Reillys.

Bill O’Reilly, Fox News’ prime-time celebrity, has made tens of millions characterizing much of the political and media establishment as operating in spin zones where up is down and down is up. O’Reilly’s show, parts journalism, audacity, and bombast, has proved a potent audience magnet. Now O’Reilly finds himself spinning away aided by a legal team and crisis manager.

O’Reilly is accused of unwelcome sexual advances. It is a fact that claims against O’Reilly and Fox have been settled for millions of dollars.

What interests me about this episode is the emerging power I wrote about in my book, Culture Leads Leaders Follow. There is a new type of leader that pushes back and has the tools to do so.

While Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the early 90s, I took on Howard Stern who had a morning radio show that reached millions and was popular with boys in their early teens. The FCC prevailed, and Stern’s vulgar routines were eventually taken to pay radio.

The FCC actions and successes against Stern indirectly invited thousands of complaints against a variety of TV and radio shows. Most of the complaints were not actionable, as the Constitution’s free speech protection is quite expansive and should be.

Most objectionable speech is underwritten by commerce. If companies don’t advertise, shows fail. If video games are not bought, the producers fail. If music is not widely purchased, then it is soon forgotten. In the case of O’Reilly’s show, tens of millions are spent each year by advertisers reaching his audience. They are now dropping his show by the dozens.

When I chaired the FCC, communications were largely hierarchical—a handful of companies controlled distribution. No more. Today some of the most successful media helps us link-up around interests, points-of-view and a range of other considerations. In short, pushing back is, if not simple, at least realistic.

The new power is in the networks, and I am not talking about broadcast and cable networks. The new power is in personal and then collective networks enabled by the Internet and a range of communication’s devices and social media aggregators like Facebook and Twitter.
In the case of Bill O’Reilly, Rolling Stone reports, “The activists who organized the hugely successful Women’s March on Washington have been advocating a boycott online, encouraging their nearly 500,000 Twitter followers to share their stories of workplace harassment using #DropOReilly. (The hashtag had garnered some 39 million impressions in just two days; according to the analytics company Keyhole.).”

Some worry that personal network bullies will emerge and that valuable content will be quashed. I do not. Boycotts are not easy. The leader has to start with an idea and a few adherents and then multiply the pressure through quantum leaps. If activist networks become the new power, then competitive ones will also emerge. O’Reilly has 1.7 million Twitter followers; plus, major advertisers are not easily bullied unless the facts stare them in the face.

The free speech guarantee is an integral force in protecting America. In part, it is now stronger because pushing back against powerful forces is possible. The evolution of the power to push back will be fascinating to watch.

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books. 

 

 

Trump: Is He Teachable? By Al Sikes

Theories abound. Patients react. Markets signal. And so it goes as the debilitated Congress captured by a swirl of self-regarding interests attempts to re-engineer 20% of the economy, yet again. I am thankful for spring renewal and the promises of baseballs’ spring training.

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) has been around for seven years. Its strengths and weaknesses have been exposed. Fix it.

President Trump has been around for sixty days or so and contrary to belief had a rather good week. Public embarrassment can teach a seventy-year-old who is said to be unteachable. If his experience in trying to co-lead, with Speaker Paul Ryan, the repeal, and replacement of the ACA didn’t teach him anything, he will not last four years.

The simplest message—build a majority, don’t count on one. The far right of the Republican Party and Trump share a Party but little else. And if Trump is going to shape bi-partisan coalitions, he will need a leader outside his current entourage.

Democrats seem gleeful; they should not be. Most importantly, having a weak President is debilitating internationally and they need to keep in mind that he is in his eighth week of two hundred and eight. Plus, their Senate Minority Leader, Chuck Schumer, seems intent on undermining the minority’s rights by trying to block the confirmation of Judge Neil Gorsuch, by using the filibuster. If his colleagues follow his lead, then the Senate majority will repeal the rule that gives the minority what limited power they have.

The President I worked with, George H W Bush, allocated most of his time to national security and foreign policy. The President’s authority to deal overseas is much greater than his domestic reach. Senator John McCain, no Trump fan, nevertheless gives him high marks on assembling a strong team for work abroad. Trump needs to order his White House bureaucrats to speed the nomination of the next tier of leadership at the State and Defense Departments in particular.

If Trump’s leadership as Commander-in-Chief is successful, he will be in a stronger position with the Congress. If Trump continues to live up to his opponent’s characterizations, he will be weak both at home and abroad.

Recently a friend explained that his vote for Trump was a vote for Mike Pence. If Pence ends up taking over before Trump’s term expires, our Nation is in for an especially destructive swath of history. I hope the lessons of the last week prove beneficial.

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books. 

Miserable Realities and Consequences by Al Sikes

At the beginning, I am biased. I live on the Chesapeake Bay. The extent of my bias does not stop there; I am on the board of the Midshore Riverkeepers Conservancy.

Our nation’s finances remind me of where I live. The Bay, like our nation’s finances, has been used and abused. Hundreds of thousands of acres of forest land were converted to cities, suburbs, and a wide range of commercial, agricultural and residential uses. Generations of persons fortunate enough to live along a watershed that extends from Cooperstown, NY to Norfolk, VA paid too little attention to what washed into the Bay. We are now making progress on the recovery of its water quality and dependent flora and fauna.

Not content with earlier budget priorities, the Trump Administration recommends that the cleanup fund for the Bay be reduced from $73 million a year in 2016, to zero. President Trump, at the same time, put off reform in what are called entitlement programs. It is these entitlement programs, up and down the various layers of local, state and federal budgets that pillory our nation’s economic strength just as aggressive development attacked the Bay’s watershed.

Benefits to be paid in the future have with few exceptions been underestimated and underfunded. Social Security and Medicare are just the most evident national examples. This underfunded liability distorts budgets and often pinches needed programs and reforms. And as the cost of servicing the debt increases, the pain of profligacy will get worse.

Tomorrow is not unconnected from today. If we mess things up, we have to pay. When we fail to fully fund our promises, the liability becomes a dead weight on the backs of our progeny and trust in the full faith and credit of the United States.

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Speaking of trust, in an especially deft phrase, Tom Friedman, columnist for the New York Times, noted that “government moves at the speed of trust.”

The trust that is being squandered by the President’s erratic use of insults, slights, fights and worse will be a dead weight in the years to come. International allies will first be wrong-footed and then will attempt to avoid meaningful collaboration.

His political competitor’s will, to their eventual damage, simply be anti-Trump as if that is all the public needs to know.

Most media will specialize in criticism while the few that are more comfortable with the President will risk their reputations. Both versions will further discredit an important institution–the media that needs repaired.

It is hard to know how this ends or whether there is any possibility that Trump will cease to manufacture and distribute weapons to those who relish the chance to use them.
Since I believe both Parties are disintegrating, I am looking for new political leadership that will offer a way out of this mess. Hopefully leadership will emerge that is honest about the nation’s finances. Most importantly we need to speak truth to power about our fiscal mess and not just the part that interests us.

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books.