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OPINION: A New American Syllabus

At this juncture, the implicit urgently needs to be made explicit in how the presidency and our political system are conducted.

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At the start of 2018, I was taken aback when a British journalist – someone I have long admired – reluctantly concluded that United States governance was foundering because of the fracturing of unwritten political norms. Not just by a shameless chief executive but also by an entire political party’s cynical bad faith. My reaction was a letter in The Guardian signaling a belief that the American political system’s intricate machinery would prevail despite presidential shenanigans or a party’s self-serving fecklessness.

It is dispiriting nearly three years on, with an election looming, to concede a tattered confidence in the resilience of America’s constitutional separation and balance of power in weathering these challenges. How can the growing fissures in the system be closed? Decades of teaching university students tell me that it is time to revise the syllabus.

A classroom is less a democracy than a benevolent dictatorship. Nonetheless, the course syllabus resembles a constitution, a delineation of the rules by which all will live. It endeavors to ensure a level playing field as well as instilling values and habits transferable to post-college life: promptness, completion of projects well and on time, and comfortable engagement in an open forum. Across a student’s college career, following the syllabuses ideally buttresses the student’s personal integrity and makes graduation a celebration of unblemished achievement. Like a constitution, a syllabus does not spell out everything. My early syllabuses assumed unspoken behavioral norms, among them civility, exercise of common sense and honesty.

Alas, the sweet narcissism of undergraduates, along with their clever circumvention of course policy, the odd bad apple and the emergence of the cyber realm, necessitated over time that tacit assumptions be placed on paper. This made for a gradually lengthening syllabus, one that many students and even some colleagues called scary. Yet no one, as far as I know, found it unfair. And it worked.

The revisions necessary in the American syllabus, whether legislative, administrative or constitutional, are apparent and manifold. At this juncture, the implicit most urgently needs to be made explicit in how the presidency is conducted. After Richard Nixon claimed illegitimate tax deductions in the early 1970s, chief executives have exposed their financial records to public scrutiny; moreover, presidents since Jimmy Carter have dumped assets into blind trusts to obviate even the perception of conflict of interest. The current occupant, as the late Molly Ivins surely would have labeled him, has refused on the flimsiest of pretexts to do either. A recent New York Times investigation found that President Donald Trump paid only $750 in income tax in 2016 and 2017, paying nothing in 10 of the preceding 15 years, and that he’s hundreds of millions of dollars in debt, information to which the public was entitled upon his election if not before it.

The political parties can address this by mandating that presidential primary candidates divulge tax returns, submit financial disclosure forms and pledge to cede control of personal assets upon election. Voters should know, earlier than later, whether a candidate is potentially compromised by conflicting priorities and incentives. Failing action by the parties, legislation must be sought to compel a new president to observe these minimum standards.

Running the gantlet of the presidential primaries and election does not assure a chief executive’s ethical rectitude. The exemption of the president and vice president from ethics regulations governing the executive branch must be quashed. Moreover, the guardrails regarding nepotism and granting of security clearances have been gravely tested and are ripe for buttressing. Sad to say, scrutiny of the president’s power to pardon is likewise overdue. Finally, the wall between the presidency and the Justice Department in making prosecutorial decisions must be formalized.

Blame for the skirting of norms does not rest wholly at the feet of the presidency, however. The legislative branch too has neglected to preserve political norms in both positive and negative senses. Congress can no longer supinely tolerate the flaunting of requests and subpoenas to the executive branch for documents and testimony. Maybe it is time for the Congress to sweep the floors and make the cots in its hoosegow and exercise its inherent power of contempt against executive branch scofflaws. Just because this congressional prerogative has been in abeyance since the 1930s does not make it any less real and the urgency of the moment warrants its revival. Congress’ conduct of oversight on the people’s behalf must henceforth be unhindered. Continued congressional spinelessness will ensure the grinding of constitutional separation and balance of power into a fine powder.

Conversely, the Senate majority leader’s slowing the confirmation of federal judicial nominees to a bare trickle, then opening the floodgates, all baldly in service of partisan gain, has been on display routinely since the 114th Congress and must end. The Senate’s constitutional power to advise and consent is not the power to slow walk one president’s nominees while fast tracking another’s. This abuse is especially abhorrent when lifetime appointments to the bench are at stake. Brazen realpolitik never was intended to be the Constitution’s guiding principle.

The sine qua non for amending the American syllabus is a free and fair election in November with a decisive result. It is a lamentable reality that constructive change will not come if today’s configuration of political power continues. The breaching of norms has disproportionately benefited one party over the other. While a renewed syllabus will not be a panacea for political acrimony and legislative gridlock, it can jump-start the restoration of constitutional balance and plant seeds of good faith.

It is disappointing that what once operated by commonly shared assumptions must now be made more mundane by virtue of its written transcription, but the alternative is grim to contemplate: gradual attenuation of the principles undergirding the American syllabus until it becomes a dead letter, a relic, a historical curiosity.

A native Kentuckian, David Routt has made Richmond his home. He taught ancient, medieval and early modern European history at several universities, most recently at Virginia Commonwealth University (2001-2003) and the University of Richmond (2003-2016).

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