Will The Next President Of MD Anderson Govern With Populism Or Democracy?: It’s A Necessary Choice

Will The Next President Of MD Anderson Govern With Populism Or Democracy?: It’s A Necessary Choice


Leonard Zwelling

The article referenced above delineates the difference between populism and democracy. One can tend to end in autocracy. The other will preserve “the consent of the governed.”

In Venezuela today, what began as a populist movement led by Hugo Chavez, has morphed into an autocratic state nudging toward a dictatorship when the economy went south with the price of oil. The current president, Nicolas Maduro, has so weakened the legislature and packed the courts with his puppets that he is virtually a dictator and the country is paying an awful price for the populism it once so desired. That’s what the story is about. The point is that populism which starts with the best of intentions, getting the government responsive to the people, can undermine the organs of government that check and balance one another and preserve democracy.

We have seen in the past few months, that a populist in Washington, DC is, fortunately, unable to overwhelm the long established branches of a democratic federal government to force his will on the country—even in the name of “the people.”

Donald Trump is neither Republican nor Democrat (with a capital D). He ran as a populist and was elected by the minority of Americans to lead a populist revolt. He was to get the Congress functioning and the government as a whole responsive to the needs of average Americans. So far he has tried to execute this mandate (he’d call it that) through undermining the independent press, colluding with our foreign enemies, insulting our allies, and trying to marginalize the Congress. None of this has worked so far. The average American seems unlikely to be any better off than he or she was under President Obama and would have been worse off had TrumpCare become the law of the land. When combined with the truly lackluster group of Trump Cabinet appointees and White House insiders plus the presence of so many vacancies in under cabinet positions, I think it is fair to say that Trump’s populism is neither effective at governing nor at centralizing power in the executive branch, something he swore he would be able to do. That he pits one faction against another in his own White House and appoints his children to key positions of power is more evidence of incompetence and questionable judgment that will surely undermine his claim to populism.

Ron DePinho appears to have been a disciple of Donald Trump. He believed in centralized power, the appointment of lesser lights in positions of great importance in order to control them (including his wife), and he even created a parallel MD Anderson research endeavor, the Moonshots plus IACS, outside the traditional academic org chart. It didn’t work. I truly believe that DePinho believed he had the answer. Autocrats usually do.

So as the search for the next president of MD Anderson begins, it is worth considering whether or not the new guy or gal will sell his or her vision as populist, “I know what you need and what’s good for you,” or a democrat, “I will preserve the shared governance structure and promote the checks and balances to my power.”

Awareness of this distinction is incredibly important to build into the process of selecting the next leader of MD Anderson. Populism is enticing and appears to be a quick fix to the problem of an unresponsive government. Hitler was a populist and look how that worked out.

Populism has great appeal, especially when times are tough. Even FDR tried to pack the Supreme Court. But, the preservation of shared governance and checks and balances on presidential power that is the essence of true democracy is far more critical than a populist feel-good moment in the sun.

Populism is failing in Venezuela. It is not effective in the United States federal government. It didn’t and won’t work at MD Anderson. Dr. DePinho tried to rule by doing what he thought was best for the faculty. The faculty does not need to be told what is best for the institution or for them. They know. Just tell the new guy or gal to preserve the faculty’s right to participate in the political, scientific, and clinical life of MD Anderson and it will work out fine. Whenever the president drifts from that, that’s when the trouble begins.

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