The tumult produced by the Trump administration’s unprecedented policy positions and its disregard for norms of rhetoric, process, and behavior has produced a new quandary for people interested in public service. “A very fundamental choice that a lot of people have been wrestling with is, do you serve the president or do you serve the office?” says Michael Warren, managing director at the Albright Stonebridge Group. “And that’s a very tough decision to make.”
Warren added that a similar dynamic comes into play for leaders in the business community. “You can see CEOs being outspoken on certain issues but more of them than not see the presidency itself as an important function for their global operations. They can quietly disagree but publicly they’re still going to stand behind the president of the United States.”
Warren spoke as part of an online discussion on navigating moral and ethical challenges in a shifting political landscape. David Bach, deputy dean and professor in the practice of management at the Yale School of Management, moderated the conversation.
Also participating was Cristina Rodríguez, the Leighton Homer Surbeck Professor of Law at Yale Law School. She noted that while any change from one administration to the next involves shifts in policies and priorities, especially if it’s also a change of the party in power, “there are issue areas where we are seeing hyper-polarization having an impact.” Rodríguez added, “Among the things that most concern me is what’s happening to the Department of Justice, where it’s not a shift in criminal justice policy, it’s the very independence of law enforcement and legal investigations being questioned at the highest levels.”
Rodríguez takes some solace in the agency asserting its independence. “The fact that the leadership is holding the line is a positive signal that it is possible to go into an administration where you think things might not be operating normally and maintain certain bedrock values. For now.”
Warren, who is also a board member of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, a self-sustaining U.S. government agency, said that many parts of the federal government are continuing to pursue their traditional goals without political interference. “The further you are away from the West Wing, the more you can operate business as usual,” he said.
Bach asked about CEOs that take public stands, such as the CEO of Dick’s Sporting Goods deciding the company won’t sell firearms to anyone under 21 years old. “Is that courageous values-based leadership? Or is it opportunism in a hyper-polarized political environment?”
Warren and Rodríguez agreed that in the absence of leadership on pressing societal issues from Congress, the private sector can and should act. “CEOs are more and more looking like heads of state,” Warren said.
For law students considering taking a role in the government, Rodríguez said, “I think whether to get involved depends on where you get involved. If you’re deciding whether to enter a career civil service position, which many young lawyers think about because government is a phenomenal training ground, you have to ask yourself what’s the state of the agency and the particular issue area you would be working on?”
Some roles hardly change from one administration to the next. But “for someone who wants to be a civil right litigator who is not conservative, this is not the time to join the civil rights division of the Department of Justice.” And, she added, “If you are headed for a high-level political position, you have to be prepared to own what the administration does.”
The federal level is not the only option. “State and local government can be interesting places to work on policy,” Rodríguez said. “You can really get things done.”
Warren also encouraged students to act. “This is a time when your voice will matter more than ever. You do not have to wait your turn. We need you to make the world a better place.”
Bach asked if the nation’s institutions were proving resilient. Rodriguez answered: “I’m cautiously optimistic on the system as a whole. I think its complexity is part of what will save it.” She identified the main risk as a breakdown of checks and balances. “I’m concerned the president will cross a truly egregious line and there will be no reaction,” Rodríguez said.
Warren added, “Our country was founded for times like this. The checks and balances. The different levels of government all have a voice. The American people have a voice. When times are calm, the government can seem cumbersome. Our system was built for resilience.”
But even if the system proves resilient, the pressures on individuals are very real. “It’s easy to have values when times are easy; it’s much harder to hold to your values when times are hard,” said Warren. “And this is a really fundamental time to push on your own values.”