President Donald Trump during an executive order signing event. (Photo: Ron Sachs/Bloomberg)
Not long ago, there was a widely televised meeting of all of President Trump’s cabinet ministers and the highest-ranking staff of the White House. One by one they each heaped lavish praise and adulations on him as if he were some sort of “Supreme Leader.” Some went so far as to express profound gratitude for the “blessings” associated with serving him. While an attitude of sheepish subservience might be expected in dictatorial regimes such as North Korea, it was disturbing at best to watch it on display within the upper echelons of the leadership in this country. Perhaps most troublesome is the total lack of regard for the importance of dissent.
Legal professionals, lawyers, judges and others within our legal system understand and appreciate the importance and value of dissent. Within our Appellate Courts, we do not stifle anyone’s ability to disagree with a majority or plurality opinion. Although a dissenting opinion does not establish binding precedent, such an opinion often serves to clarify the contours of the majority’s holding. Sometimes a dissenting opinion may even form the basis in a subsequent case for a court to revisit and modify or even reverse a prior opinion. Other examples of the value of dissent within our legal system include statutory protection of “dissenter’s rights” whereby dissenting shareholders may refuse to remain part of a company’s merger or acquisition.
Outside of the legal system, it is widely recognized that successful business executives appreciate and understand the benefits associated with the input and opinions of business department managers and others who are responsible to report within the chain of management. Thus, such managers are often expected to “think outside the box” and provide both creative and critical opinions regarding a product or project. But within the current executive administration of our government, none of this type of tolerance for dissent is at all evident.
The firing of the head of the FBI, James Comey, and the periodic threats to the independence of the ongoing investigation by Robert Mueller demonstrate even more extreme examples of this administration’s lack of tolerance for independent investigation and plurality of opinion within our government. Likewise, this president’s disparaging comments toward a Hispanic federal judge reveal a gross and unacceptable lack of tolerance and disrespect for the independence of individuals holding offices in separate branches of our government.
On a larger societal level throughout history, dissent has been at the very core of our representative democracy. Dissent has lead to the development of: civil rights, women’s voting rights, and any number of other societal changes. Thus, it is completely foreign to our democratic society and culture to witness such a demonstration of gushing praise by members of the executive branch coupled with the outright lack of respect for the value and importance of others such as judges who hold offices in separate branches of government.
Our society should continue to promote and encourage independent judgment and dissent. While we have never witnessed anything quite like this before and perhaps we are all a bit surprised by these revelations, this is not a time to allow any single individual in power to stifle the voice of dissent. On the contrary, this is a time to celebrate and pursue the freedom to speak out and to reinforce the importance of dissent.