Imagining a shadow cabinet in the U.S.

In the aftermath of the election, we are seeing the usual, healthy debate within both the winning and losing parties over what to make of the results and what comes next. I do fundamentally believe in the importance of vigorous debate inside political parties followed by unified support of the ultimate platform. It is crucial to avoid fractures that may make it impossible to build a majority coalition.

I think it might be worth having a conversation about the idea of a shadow cabinet in the U.S. context. Certainly in a non-parliamentary system this is far from straightforward, but I think it might help to galvanize political opposition, formalize and publicize opposition positions, and sustain internal and external dialogue between the public and the losing side of a general election. Job titles and institutions matter, and this may be one place that those who feel directionless after a loss could channel their energies.

  • Who appoints?

A challenge is that under the presidential system there is no well-defined “leader of the opposition” to become naturally responsible for appointing a shadow cabinet. Even if there were, this may be seen as precluding the primary process for the next presidential candidate. A high degree of openness would be required to head off that risk. On the other hand, the process may also help to function as a kind of primary-style vetting process in its own right.

The natural body would in the current case be the DNC, although they are in the process of getting their own leadership situation in order at the moment. It may give greater weight to the party mechanism itself to have the DNC, or RNC as the case may be, become the focus of a shadow cabinet exercise. This may help to shift the weight of public expectation from presidential candidates to be more dispersed throughout the party system itself. A semi-formal system of representation in the shadow cabinet may help to spread the messy business of within-party coalition building over a longer time frame and a more stable framework than the contentious primary system.

  • Who serves?

Since the cabinet itself often includes politicians who give up other elected posts to serve, there may be a gap between the kind of people willing and able to serve in a shadow cabinet and the kind of people who would be willing and able to serve in the real deal. This risks a mismatch of expectations.

A question, then, is whether there is any chance the posts could be light or nominal enough that a sitting representative could serve both functions, or whether this would be considered impractical or unacceptable to the constituents of the politician. Since there are already nominal “go-to” representatives or party operatives for various topics, it seems like a small step, but the formalization would surely create different expectations. On the other hand, there are probably plenty of talented and interested people to choose from outside the pool of elected representatives. The question is whether this would be too destabilizing to typical hierarchies and power structures inside the parties.

  • Who pays?

A problem related to both of the above is how, if at all, these posts would be funded. Would it be necessary to pay the shadow cabinet, or, particularly if the role was more symbolic than burdensome, could it be unpaid? The onus would probably have to fall on the DNC or RNC if money was required, and therefore they would presumably have to be convinced that it was worth the expenditure. If elected officials were doing the jobs, this would not be an issue since presumably they would not be paid over and above their usual salary. On balance it may be more appropriate to have these roles be unpaid if it was workable.


I’m sure I’m overlooking many, many difficulties since I am certainly not an expert on political systems. But I would welcome a conversation about the pros and cons of this idea. On a more personal note, one reason I am quite disappointed in the election result is that we will not realize Secretary Clinton’s pledge to have a cabinet of at least half women. It would at least be something if we could use a shadow cabinet to elevate the representation and ideas of women in government.

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