Four Institutions that May Keep Us Free

Phoenix Magazine – July 2017

Mike O’Neil

Apoplectic about the prospect of four or eight years of Donald Trump? Several of our major institutions will constrain what he can do.  And if you are a Trump fan, consider that these same institutions will constrain any future President less to your liking.

Institutions Matter. Think of Russia or Turkey or many other places where an elected leader has near total control over most of the institutions of society. Or most of Africa, with their “One Man, One Vote, One Time” versions of Democracy.   These countries use the claim of “democracy” only to provide a thin veneer of electoral legitimacy as cover for authoritarian rule.

True democracy rests not just on voting but on the independence of several key societal institutions.

  1. A Free Press is the only thing that keeps politicians honest. Reporters who work for “mainstream” media are held to far higher standards than the politicians who attack them. Editors and fact-checkers who work for media have no parallels in the political domain.  These real people, not some large impersonal force, are “The Media.” Of course, because they are human, they can make mistakes. But those who “get it wrong” more than rarely find their careers over quickly if they work for a respected news organization.  Glib attacks on “Fake News” usually are directed at reports that the speaker would rather not see reported. If a report gets a specific report wrong, contest it.  But the broad-swipe characterization of “Fake News” just serves to undermine a free press.
  2. An INDEPENDENT judiciary. The whole idea of a judiciary committed to the application of Law is that sometimes the law requires that judges sometimes issue opinions contrary to public opinion and against the wishes of elected leaders. When you hear attacks on “unelected” judges, understand that these are attacks on the very idea of Rule of Law. Judges should be concerned about whether a decision is consistent with the law, not whether it is popular.  Likewise, references to who appointed a judge, his partisanship or ethnicity are all attacks on the idea of rule of law and should be recognized as such.
  3. Our Senior Military. Our senior military, particularly general officers, are drilled in norms of not only Civilian Control but also of legality and a duty to resist illegal orders.  In the waning hours of the Nixon Presidency when there was concern about the Chief Executive’s mental state, senior military officers were reminded that any lawful order could only come through the established chain of command, not directly from even the Commander in Chief.  This is an important check on the illegal use of military power. Like other institutions, our senior military are human, so occasionally a questionable case slips through (General Flynn comes to mind). But for every one of him there are 100 General McMasters, and institutional norms tend to constrain the occasional mistake. Over 200 years without a military coup?  That is a tribute to the prevalent institutional norms in our military.
  4. Our Senior Civil Service.  The upper levels of our government are staffed with highly trained scientists, engineers, and national security specialists who will dutifully perform their work no matter who is President. No major terrorist attack on our soil since 9/11?  Not an accident.  Airplane crashes extremely rare?  Thank an army of safety inspectors and air traffic controllers. Drink tap water without giving safety a thought?  That is only true in a small fraction of the earth’s countries.  Polio?  It used to terrorize parents, but we haven’t seen a case in almost 60 years. All these things and a thousand others that we all take for granted every day are delivered courtesy of these civil servants. (And if we ever committed to the silly notion of “running government like a business” some of the senior civil service who run multibillion dollar organizations would see their salaries adjusted 100x.)  People who have not given a thought to what these people actually do malign them as “bureaucrats,” but our Congress and our President could take an extended multi-year vacation, and our lives would not change all that much. But if these highly trained professionals, scientists, and specialists stopped working, we would have chaos and mayhem within hours.

We have been well-served by these institutions for the last 200+ years. But let’s not get too smug about their future.  Nowhere is it foreordained that any of these will continue to operate freely. While they exist because our Constitution enshrines them, they persist only if only if we continue to support their independence.  Think of that the next time you hear one of these being attacked.

Mike O’Neil is a sociologist and pollster who has analyzed public attitudes in Arizona and the nation for over 35 years. He is host of the public affairs program, The Think Tank, on KTAR-FM 92.3. Most of his recent articles are available at