The “interagency consensus” that Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman mentioned in his testimony as a witness against Trump in Adam Schiff’s impeachment inquiry has stayed with me ever since the words were uttered.
The full statement from Vindman spoke of an entrenched bureaucratic class that had decided what was best for America outside of what the Executive Officer — in this case, President Trump, who is, apparently to their chagrin, their boss — deemed appropriate as he set foreign policy. Mark Hemingway writing at The Federalist has a great piece on why this is creepy (my word, not his):
“In the Spring of 2019, I became aware of outside influencers promoting a false narrative of Ukraine inconsistent with the consensus views of the interagency,” Vindman said in his opening statement. “This narrative was harmful to U.S. government policy. While my interagency colleagues and I were becoming increasingly optimistic on Ukraine’s prospects, this alternative narrative undermined U.S. government efforts to expand cooperation with Ukraine.”
[I]t’s also clear that Trump was elected in no small part because tens of millions of Americans do not approve of business as usual in Washington, and specifically the lack of democratic accountability that can be brought to bear on the status quo. And Trump is enough of a natural disruptor that he threatens that status quo in both good and questionable ways. In response, lots of people in D.C. are willing to bend the rules to stop him.
Further, long before Trump arrived there was so much institutional pressure and money sloshing around in the federal government, not mention the trips through the revolving door between already well-compensated federal jobs and even better compensated special interests. Any responsible person ought dispense with the idea that civil servants are always, well, civil. And they ought to apply the same level of appropriate scrutiny and suspicion to federal employees in the news as we do politicians. At least with politicians we have ourselves to blame, but nobody elects an “interagency consensus.”
The point, using the vernacular of the day, is that the swamp is not necessarily representative of American voters’ interests, not least because they are unelected bureaucrats and perhaps mostly because they are motivated by a desire to remain entrenched in their positions. To the degree, apparently, that they will defy their own chain of command if it threatens their situation (one they are apparently unwilling to adapt) in any meaningful way.
And it got me to thinking about that bureaucracy, one that the great-grandaddy of today’s progressives, turn of the century president Woodrow Wilson, sought to professionalize and make powerful.
Wilson indeed wanted to turn these bureaucratic paper pushers — which of course are necessary to make the wheels of government turn — into a full-blown “administrative state,” which Stephen F. Hayes writing at The Daily Signal likened to de Tocqueville’s “soft despotism.”
The administrative state is not the same thing as bureaucracy, with its connotations of wastefulness, inefficiency, red-tape, and rule-bound rigidity, nor it is limited to the post-New Deal welfare and entitlement state.
Its character is best described by Alexis de Tocqueville in his famous chapter on “What Sort of Despotism Democratic Nations Have to Fear.” After struggling over what to call it, he could do no better than “soft despotism.”
The administrative state represents a new and pervasive form of rule, and a perversion of constitutional self-government. It has deep theoretical roots that were overlooked for a long time, roots inimical to the Constitution, thereby providing a lesson in the importance of understanding the principles of the Constitution.
A chief feature of the administrative state is its relentless centralization, but with a reciprocal effect: Its mandates, regulations, distorting funding mechanisms, and elitist professionalism have corrupted our political culture all the way back down to local government. It is the chief reason why Americans increasingly have contempt for government.
In an earlier piece from Heritage Foundation, the claim is made that the “roots of the liberalism with which we are familiar lie in the Progressive Era.” The piece explains that progressives from the late 1880s through the 1920s rejected the notion of “natural rights” laid out in America’s founding documents in favor of the idea that man is not born free and must manipulate his circumstances to achieve happiness. And that this idea carried through to the radicalism of the 60s and 70s, and is still with us today.
For the Progressives, freedom is redefined as the fulfillment of human capacities, which becomes the primary task of the state.
Wilson rejected the earlier view that “the ideal of government was for every man to be left alone and not interfered with, except when he interfered with somebody else; and that the best government was the government that did as little governing as possible.” A government of this kind is unjust because it leaves men at the mercy of predatory corporations. Without government management of those corporations, Wilson thought, the poor would be destined to indefinite victimization by the wealthy. Previous limits on government power must be abolished. Accordingly, Progressive political scientist Theodore Woolsey wrote, “The sphere of the state may reach as far as the nature and needs of man and of men reach, including intellectual and aesthetic wants of the individual, and the religious and moral nature of its citizens.”
Most obviously, the roots of the liberalism with which we are familiar lie in the Progressive Era. It is not hard to see the connections between the eight features of Progressivism that I have just sketched and later developments. This is true not only for the New Deal period of Franklin Roosevelt, but above all for the major institutional and policy changes that were initiated between 1965 and 1975. Whether one regards the transformation of American politics over the past century as good or bad, the foundations of that transformation were laid in the Progressive Era. Today’s liberals, or the teachers of today’s liberals, learned to reject the principles of the founding from their teachers, the Progressives.
The impeachment hearing we are all being bored to tears by today is an effort, in many ways, to protect these views of the role of government. The hearing, and whatever may come next, are intended to sell the idea that an elected leader may not make decisions that run counter to the consensus of the administrative state designed by Wilson and passed down through a bloated federal government born of that design.
Unfortunately, thanks to the tilt toward progressive ideology in the education system, Americans — despite being bored and exhausted by the theatrics — have been educated to accept these things as normal. And to accept any break from them as a perversion, even if that “break” is actually the way the our government was designed to work at its founding.
Schiff’s hearing is 19th century progressivism, laundered through 60s radical boomers, in a starring role. Whether or not America pans the performance remains to be seen.