The case for a shadow government now! Pros and Cons

Daniel Blumstein, Paul R. Ehrlich | April 7, 2020 | Leave a Comment

Recently in reaction to the tepid response of the Democrats to Trump’s extraordinary incompetence and brazen lying about the Covid-19 pandemic, we sent the following op-ed to a series of leading newspapers including the New York Times:

“Thomas Friedman’s February 26 New York Times’ essay[1] proposed that the Democratic candidate for President forge and announce a national unity ticket – detailing who would staff his or her cabinet—an excellent idea. He suggested that cabinet include many former presidential candidates and by doing so illustrate how he or she was going to lead a winning team. More than half a year’s worth of over-crowded debates showed us the creative excellence of the Democratic presidential contenders. Yet Friedman stopped short of an audacious thought. What if the presumptive nominee, Joe Biden, created a shadow government now?  In parliamentary systems the opposition often forms a parallel structure, especially a shadow cabinet, which may amount to a government-in-waiting.

We have never, in our Republic, needed a shadow government as much as we need one now. The Trump administration’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic is worse than shameful. When bold actions are required to save lives, President Trump has ignored the advice of the scientific community, lied consistently to the public about quick cures, dismissed extended social distancing as unnecessary, falsely reassured people and stock market investors, and even scolded reporters who ask him reasonable questions about how to address frightened citizens. In a parliamentary system a corrupt and dangerously ignorant leadership can, at least in theory, be rapidly replaced. As the current situation exemplifies, the relative inability to do that can be a serious defect of a presidential system, as we have in the United States.

A shadow government would propose bold policies to address the biomedical and financial implications of Covid-19. It would be based on a shadow cabinet filled with experts who would debate (virtually) and would generate policy suggestions. These cabinet members would likely include several former presidential candidates. While a shadow government would be deprived of inside knowledge from the National Security Council, it could solicit expert opinion (including former members of the NSC) to inform it’s policy recommendations.

A shadow government would hold regular press conferences. These should not be viewed as political theatre—rather they should be viewed as generating a diversity of opinions, which are reportedly so lacking in the current administration. Should the current administration adopt some of these ideas, the shadow government should celebrate this as a success. And some success is likely.

For example, who would have imagined that Andrew Yang’s promotion of a government-funded universal basic income would be adopted by the Trump administration? Yang pushed a good idea whose time is clearly here. Had he not argued for it, the idea might not have been on the table to address the economic suffering caused by our current pandemic. Yang should be proud of creating this dialog.

Similarly, and much as Bernie Sanders has changed the discussion about Medicare for all in our country, a shadow government could propose bold reforms both in health care specifically and in the broader public health environment—which includes addressing our climate crisis. Reforms are certainly needed now to help our medically and financially challenged population make it through this pandemic.

Senators and Representatives make recommendations and debate topics in Congress. But this legislative debate is fundamentally different from the powers of the presidency. A shadow government would provide a well-articulated option to Trump administration policies. We would hope that a shadow government would not create a distraction or create other negative consequences. But the welfare of our citizens could benefit from scientifically- and evidence-based policy suggestions now. And, if the shadow government is effective, it would solidify the case for the United States electing a Democrat as President this fall.”

That op-ed was rejected everywhere. In the course of our search for an outlet we showed the text to a bunch of colleagues and garnered some useful comments. Most thought it a reasonable idea, but some thought it could create serious difficulties.  Our toughest critic said, in part “I think the idea’s liabilities are much bigger than any potential benefits.  It would just add another layer of noise to a national discussion in which the voices of Biden, Fauci, Zeke Emanuel, etc. are all that the sentient fraction of the population really needs to understand the essential realities….More importantly, the transaction costs of organizing and executing it would be huge and hugely distracting without, providing Biden or Democrats in Congress or governors or the public with much they’re not getting already.” (name withheld to protect the innocent).

Another valued colleague is worth quoting:  “It would certainly be good for the Dems to find a vehicle to comment and critique authoritatively on ongoing efforts and policies going forward. Designating specific well know figures–not just former primary candidates but also former cabinet members and other public figures–charged with addressing specific issues would be a way to accomplish that insofar as CNN, CNBC and perhaps other networks would find  it convenient to have them on air rather than hunting down random commentators. The designations could also direct attention to issue that are not currently being addressed. But I don’t think the idea, much less the formal designation of a “shadow government” is a good one. It would provide Trump with too convenient a target to attack  and use as a sources of distraction, too easy a way to claim that the Dems are trying to stage a coup, or at best to be dividing the country and sowing doubts at a time when we need unity, etc. etc. Spokespersons providing commentary should present their claims and proposals as “the consensus of scientists” or experts with highly relevant experiences, thereby sharpening the contrast with what Trump is doing.” Many of our colleagues, whatever their views of the “shadow government” idea, are convinced that, at least now, Trump is on a path for an electoral victory.  But there is no unanimous opinion on what to do about it.

In our view the basic reason for the newspaper’s rejections of our op-ed boils down to it being too radical an idea for the elite press or the American public to consider at a difficult time. We think precisely the opposite should be true – it is necessarily the time for the world’s elite to recognize radical change is required. We are not suggesting a coup, but rather that humanity must recognize, discuss, and take action to address the existential threats about which the world’s scientific community has been warning for decades.

The Covid-19 pandemic is such a dramatic example of warnings ignored it seems unlikely the time could ever be riper. For instance, while the world is struggling with the long-expected epidemic, Trump is ignoring the warnings of the scientific community by relaxing the automobile efficiency standards. We anticipate the New York Times will point out that’s not a good idea. But the New York Times will never point out that the deliberate suburbanization of America by the corporate state and getting an ever-growing population moving around wrapped in a couple of tons of metal and plastic was a catastrophic error.  Suppose any newspaper explained the obvious, that the public health threat of climate disruption dwarfs that of Covid-19, and that economic costs skyrocket the longer we put off addressing it. If the paper then advocated redesigning the nation and its infrastructure to massively reduce the number of personal vehicles – the paper’s drop in advertising revenue would likely threaten its existence.

Yet creating a new way will create tremendous employment. And it would likely re-set ownership since the transition would not necessarily increase the profits of today’s corporate owners. What runs the world has been made ever more obvious today by the Dow or Death coverage of Covid-19 in today’s elite media.

The goal of the MAHB is to get civil society discussing and then organizing and acting on the really big problems. We suggest that how the corporate government can’t deal with existential threats is such a problem. It’s exemplified by both Trump and the insipid Democratic response to his dangerous mis-management of this crisis. So let’s start by figuring out how best to protect humanity from the status quo ‘establishment’. Let’s figure out how to create the transition we need, before we need it. Let’s figure out how to save ourselves and the biodiversity that we so value and is so important for humanity.

We look forward to the discussion.

Daniel T. Blumstein is a Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and in The Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at the University of California Los Angeles. Paul R. Ehrlich is President of the Center for Conservation Biology, Stanford University.


The views and opinions expressed through the MAHB Website are those of the contributing authors and do not necessarily reflect an official position of the MAHB. The MAHB aims to share a range of perspectives and welcomes the discussions that they prompt.