The Deep State–Part 2

(This is the second of four short essays on the Deep State being published at bobrack.com or ontheotherhand xyz. Part 2 is being published as the President is rejecting the legitimacy of the 2020 elections)

The importance of an independence

Last week President Trump signed an executive order expanding by hundreds of thousands the number of federal employees whose positions would be exempt from civil service protections. If enacted, career government experts—scientists, lawyers, and administrative professionals in policy influencing position–would be subject to political hiring and firing at the whim of whatever political party is in control of the White House. Thus, presumably, they would come and go with each administration and serve only that administration’s interests and priorities. This would be a huge mistake. Few of the nation’s biggest challenges arise and end within one president’s term, and few such political appointees could have the scope of time and relevant knowledge of a career expert.

From forty years of experience in and around both state and federal government, I have some understanding of the unique challenges involved in managing government functions in a civil service environment. I believe when Donald Trump complains about a “deep state” being out to get him, he is mostly wrong; but when he or any politically ambitious leader complains about government bureaucracy being largely outside their personal control, they are largely correct. And that’s a good thing.

Non-patronage government employees are directed and supervised by their bosses, but they ultimately work for the people their functions are funded to serve. Most take pride in that. Their loyalty and sense of responsibility are to their fellow citizens and the mission they are serving on the citizens’ behalf. While elected executives and their administrations come and go, government staff devote their working lives to learning the context and substance of their jobs. They get good at them. The more dedicated ones get very good at them.

Politicians bent on a personal or partisan agenda can be frustrated by career bureaucrats’ insistence on doing the job they understand needs to be done for the public good. Sometimes that insistence can create resistance to change, sometimes even an inertia that slows or prevents progress. But more often, in my experience, it stabilizes the institution and prevents mistakes with potentially dire consequences the ambitious political leader either doesn’t see or disregards.

Wise political appointees understand the difference between managing within a hierarchical corporate power structure with the singular goal of increasing profits–the private sector–and management of government services for an almost incalculable array of interests. The differences are important in both substance and required management styles. Civil servants have chosen a career rewarded more with stability than opportunity for wealth. Salaries and benefits for entry- and mid-level government positions have traditionally been slightly higher and more secure than comparable private sector jobs. (That may not be as true today.) With little direct control over individual public employees’ remuneration, financial inducements and threats are less availing as motivators than they are in the private sector. The most effective way to lead and motivate that I have seen in government is by example, competence, and a clear commitment to the public good.

American government was designed, as John Adams said, as “a system of laws, not of men.” It’s a resilient, self-correcting system that has functioned remarkably well from almost any perspective. Countries that rely on networks of political and personal relationships, rather than on transparent and widely accepted rules, have lacked our country’s productivity and ability to provide for the care and wellbeing of citizens.

Government workers serve America by tending its accepted systems and rules. We hire them to serve specific legislated mandates rather than personal partisan interests. They are the glue that makes the system a system, and the ballast that keeps the ship upright through political storms.

Past efforts to undermine the political independence of the federal workforce have been stopped by the courts. Efforts to undermine the civil service rules and the Hatch Act, for example, have been mostly stymied. Whether those protections will continue to be honored by a new Supreme Court increasingly influenced by libertarian interests is an important and open question. What I am sure of is that further politicizing the federal bureaucracy will reduce its professionalism and undermine both its commitment and capacity to serve the public interest.

Deep State—Part 1

Introduction

Surveying the dramatic impact of Mr. Trump’s presidency on the nation, I find myself particularly offended by his insistence that the professional federal government exists to serve his personal political needs, and even more by his manipulation of the entire bureaucracy to make it do so. He did the same with the Republican Party, of course, but politicians are independent actors who can choose to participate or not. Not so with government employees. Uniformed or civilian, civil servants have hierarchical chains of command they are professionally obligated to obey until a higher obligation to the country or the Constitution demands otherwise. As I hope to explain in three coming essays, a long career in multiple levels and branches of government tells me much of what Mr. Trump complains of as “deep state” resistance is arising from conflicts between his destructive agenda and government employees’ perceived obligations to their country. And appropriately so.

To help evaluate this perspective, a bit of personal historical context might be helpful.

The earliest exposure to politics and government I can remember was hearing JFK call on Americans to “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” Patriotism meant service to country. Public service was honorable. Government’s role as economic problem solver and protector of democracy had been set by post-Depression New Deal programs and winning World War II.

Public derision of “government,” began in my lifetime with Ronald Reagan’s cheeky comment about government being the problem, not the solution. It deepened as government’s cultural counterpoint, the “private sector,” regained dominance.  As the pace of economic competition quickened and international commerce grew, government’s bureaucratic processes looked stodgy by comparison. Ayn Rand and libertarians were complaining bitterly that government was standing in the way of capitalism’s readiness to raise all boats and solve all problems. Business attacked labor unions, conflating them with a “bloated” civil service bureaucracy, all of which they said obstructed opportunity and growth.

As businesses and the American economy grew heroically in the latter half of the 20th century,  business leaders began equating capitalism with democracy itself, arguing that any interference with free enterprise was akin to evil socialism or worse, godless communism. The distinction in the public mind between Capitalism as an economic system and Democracy as a system of governance was largely lost. The idea that a government for the people should make rules affecting business practices and distribution of resources was swamped by a nearly religious belief that the invisible hand of capitalism could and would manage society’s needs better without government interference. “What’s good for business is good for America” was a mantra that became a doctrine. As wealth grew increasingly concentrated, the ability of moneyed interests to dictate American policy also grew until today they view the role of government as little more than a tool to advance their private ambitions. This narrow, exploitative view of government is now crudely and clearly expressed in the presidency of self-declared billionaire Donald Trump.

From 1972, when I graduated from law school, to 2011 when I retired from the Federal Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, I worked as an executive in two city-county councils of governments, and spent 28 years as a senior executive in the federal judiciary. Those experiences with government workers and systems helped to shape a view of government offered in three essays to follow this one in weekly installments. I believe the idea of a “deep state” is both accurate and apt–not as a secret cabal of self-appointed resisters to a particular political agenda, but as a proudly held belief in service to the country and its people. I hope by the end to convince you to respect and protect public employees as the backbone of democracy

Three Presidents

Three presidents spoke at a funeral
Of love, and courage, and character,
Of better angels,
Lifting a nation’s spirits.

Three presidents,
Different in so many ways,
Admiring another man’s character
For raising a nation’s spirit and
Calling to its better angels.

Three presidents spoke like beacons
To the light within our souls,
Seeking one light
To guide one nation
Out of the dark.

Feeling Useless

I’ve been feeling useless lately, and looking for an explanation. First, I wondered if retirement from a challenging career had caught up with me, but I left my work with the Court ten years ago and this feeling is new, so that was probably not it. Covid isolation was another likely suspect, with its disruption of comfortable patterns and interruption of intimate social intercourse, but wouldn’t that more likely cause feelings of loneliness than of uselessness? It’s not like I’m not still productive in that retiree sort of way—reading and writing, helping friends and neighbors, building and fixing things, etc.–but for some reason that no longer feels like enough. The problem, I’ve decided, is the enormous gap between the problems I see and my ability to help. After a lifetime of problem solving and public service, I no longer feel like part of the solution. I suspect I’m not alone. Continue reading “Feeling Useless”

What I’d Hope Joe Biden Would Say

In Erik Larson’s new book, The Splendid and The Vile, Winston Churchill leads England through twelve months of incessant German bombing that killed 45,000 Britons and wounded countless more. His responsibilities for mobilizing the material and human resources needed to meet that challenge were extraordinary. By his own example, with oratory that lifted spirits even as it reported hard facts, and with heart wrenching empathy for his nation’s suffering, Churchill inspired his fellow citizens to hold together in resistance to Hitler’s attacks. And all while he was diplomatically nurturing an alliance with the United States he believed would be needed to win the war. The contrast to America’s leadership today is breathtaking. Continue reading “What I’d Hope Joe Biden Would Say”

Looking Forward from Corona

As Naomi Klein explained in her 2007 book, Shock Doctrine, extreme circumstances and fear can make choices a society once considered unacceptable suddenly seem necessary and appropriate. For better or worse, these choices can re-set people’s expectations and become a new normal. From such disruption dictators can arise. But valuable lessons and changes for the better can also take hold and possibly endure. We would be wise to notice and cultivate re-sets that lift us, personally and socially. Here are three on my list. Continue reading “Looking Forward from Corona”

Change In a Crisis

As Naomi Klein explained in “Shock Doctrine,” sudden social and economic disruptions provide opportunities to advance deep cultural change. Ideas on the periphery of mainstream thinking can be re-introduced in the midst of distracting turmoil, when standard notions are in flux and maybe not seen as working. The Corona virus is presenting the world, and Americans, with opportunities and choices that will reveal our core values, individually and collectively. It’s a good time to ask what we want. Continue reading “Change In a Crisis”