Government seems to distain those it governs
As we approach the Presidential election, it might be useful to step back a bit and ponder the real impact of the election. To be sure, basic philosophy and policy stances matter. However, we should also understand that the President is the head of the Executive Branch and that the real power in government is wielded by the civil servants that populate the bureaucracies of government.
Before proceeding, it is important to note that these public servants are just that. They serve the public. They fulfill many very important functions including protecting us from harm through the military, law enforcement, air traffic safety and a host of other critical functions. They also promote science and research that advances our society. However, like all parts of government at every level, there has been bureaucratic over-reach. Their function is not just to promote the public good, it is also to grow their organization’s power and resources. At this, they are very good.
While these public administrators don’t pass the laws, they truly shape the way those broad pieces of legislation are translated and get implemented. They write rules and enforce regulations, often with a zealous single-mindedness (think of the EPA and its war on coal).
Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that these government employees are not elected. Even with a complete change of Administration, the vast majority of the real workers, the ones that actually write the rules and interface with the public, do not change.
The day after Inauguration looks pretty much the same as the day before for them. Momentum is a powerful force and these operations do not slam on the brakes and change directions easily.
Many Washington bureaucrats believe that the public is ignorant and therefore they must “take care” of us…usurping power and demanding an ever greater share of the public’s wealth. In a recent John Hopkins University survey of Washington bureaucrats, over half of them say that “the public knows little to nothing about government crime programs, child care programs or environmental programs.”
The sentiment among the bureaucrats seems to be that the government should not take what the public says too seriously. They believe that they (public officials) should use their best judgement instead of following public opinion.
This is the epitome of elitism, but it is not just confined to government servants in Washington. Presidential candidate and professional politician, Hilary Clinton, recently remarked disparaging that, “you could put half of Trump’s supporters in what I call the basket of deplorables.” This is exemplary of the disdain that many government officials, elected, appointed and career, seem to view ordinary Americans.
The conundrum is that the vast majority of people really do not understand much of the complexity of governance. A survey for the Annenburg Public Policy Center showed that only 36 percent of Americans can name the three branches of the Federal government. A similar figure did not know which Party controls the House or Senate.
Many, epitomized by Donald Trump-the populous hero, seem to be willful in their desire not to acquire the knowledge necessary to become part of an “educated” electorate so necessary for a functional democracy. Of course bureaucrats create and propagate the arcane rules that further alienate the governed from the government. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
How do we break the cycle? What can be done?
One option is to starve the government of the resources it demands. This may be an unintended consequence if the gridlock we have created in Washington. The danger here is twofold. Politicians will cut the most critical functions first in order to scare us into re-funding the system. The bureaucrats will resort to creating more rules and regulations to protect their interests. The result is ever greater dysfunctionality.
An alternative is to elect an outsider in order to “break” the system that seems incapable of reform. The Tea Party and Donald Trump seem to represent that trend. However this is a very risky proposition. Dysfunctionality is one thing. Collapse of the institutions that run our government is another…potentially catastrophic outcome. Given the divide that has built up between “We the People” and “They the Government,” this may appear the only viable option many people see.
It is hard to perceive a good path forward particularly given the choices we have in November. However, we must come up with another, more viable, option. We simply cannot let our great country slip down the drain without a whimper. Regardless of who wins, that is our task moving forward.