Political Hacks v. Bureaucrats: Can’t Public Servants Get Some Respect?

E.J. Dionne, Jr.
EJ Dionne
E.J. Dionne, Jr. W. Averell Harriman Chair and Senior Fellow - Governance Studies

March 1, 2001

The most moving moment at either party’s national convention in 2000 was a resolutely nonpartisan speech that evoked a moment when taking a job in government was seen as far more than, well, just taking a job. “When my brother John and I were growing up,” said Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, “hardly a day went by when someone didn’t come up to us and say: “Your father changed my life. I went into public service because he asked me.”

Note that lovely phrase “public service.” Ms. Schlossberg was not exaggerating or being unduly romantic about the spirit of John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier, which both shaped its time and reflected it. Serving in a new administration, whether on the White House staff, in the cabinet, or in a less grand post, was not simply an obligation or, in the current ugly phrase, “a ticket to punch.” It was also a source of excitement. And so, as Godfrey Hodgson put it in his biography of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “a varied population of political and intellectual adventurers” descended on Washington in the winter of 1960 and 1961.”

“They came,” Hodgson writes, “from New York and San Francisco law firms, from state and city politics across the nation, from the growing world of foundations and pressure groups, and of course from the great graduate schools, swollen by the postwar demand for academic manpower.” Hodgson understood that this crowd of adventurers weren’t saints, but neither were they mere opportunists: “The mood,” he says, “was strangely blended from ambition and idealism, aggressive social climbing and a sense of youthful adventure.”

The Diminished Promise of Citizen Service

No doubt many have entered the new Bush administration with that same sense of vigor and adventure. Long lists of Republican office seekers, out of executive power for eight years, testified to the continuing lure of executive positions, from the highest posts to the lowest. Still, it’s difficult to hear Schlossberg and to read Hodgson’s account and not sense a shift in the spirit of the times. Forty years on from that winter of the New Frontier, public service in the executive retains its allure, but not quite the same sense of glamour or promise.

As columnist Mark Shields pointed out at an event at Brookings in late December, most politicians who have won the presidency over the past quarter-century did so by running against “the government in Washington.” Bush was no exception. As a result, expressing an open desire to serve in that very government and an open belief that it might accomplish large things flies in the face of what is now deeply ingrained conventional wisdom.

Yet no country is as dependent as ours on “citizen service” in its national administration. None relies so heavily on people who might be called amateurs, as against career civil servants, to govern. From the beginning of the republic we’ve operated on the assumption that a professional ruling class is problematic and to be avoided. Government, according to this view, should be refreshed periodically by tides of new leaders with new ideas and untapped energy—the very spirit captured so well by Hodgson and Schlossberg. The assumption continues to prevail that citizen service is essential to the health of civil society—in this case, citizen service at the very highest levels—because citizen service links the government to the rest of the society in a way a purely professional bureacracy could not.

Professionalism vs. Politics

That’s the theory, anyway. In truth, our attitude toward those citizen servants reflects an odd balance of ideas. Our history is one of ambivalence as between professionalism on the one side and politics on the other. We admire the independence and expertise of professionals, yet we regularly denounce them when they work for the government. It is no accident that the famous Republican campaign commercial of 2000 in which the word “rats” appeared ever so briefly on our television screens—conveying or not conveying a “subliminal” message, depending on whom you believed—was in fact depicting the word “bureaucrats” at that critical and controversial moment. However honored they might occasionally be, the day-to-day civil servants who make the American government run do not enjoy the honor or prestige of their counterparts in France or Germany, Britain or Japan.

Yet if we denounce bureaucrats, we also denounce political appointees. This is obvious from the normal parlance of politics and journalism. We condemn certain agencies of government as “patronage dumping grounds.” We say we dislike the “political spoils system.” We insist on praising “independent, nonpartisan government.” Indeed, this was the impetus behind the civil service reform that, from the 1880s forward, took the awarding of tens of thousands of jobs “out of politics.” The premise, as James Q. Wilson put it in his classic work The Amateur Democrat, was that “the merit system and open competition should be extended to insure, insofar as is feasible, that general principles rather than private advantage govern the awarding” of government benefits.

These two traditions—a preference for political appointees over bureaucrats, a preference for civil servants over the beneficiaries of political patronage—are deeply rooted in our history. To understand the contradictions in our history is to understand our ambivalence today.

Jacksonian “Rotation in Office”

It’s worth remembering that the idea of wholesale changes in the government following the defeat of an incumbent party in an election was originally seen as a “reform” by the advocates of Jacksonian Democracy in the 1820s and 1830s. The followers of Jackson referred not to a “spoils system” but to a principle they held up as admirable and called “rotation in office.” The Jacksonians believed their political foes had come to regard holding the appointive offices of government as a right that could not be disturbed even by the electorate.

That’s what Andrew Jackson was against. “Office is considered as a species of property,” Jackson declared, “and government rather as a means of promoting individual interests than as an instrument created solely for the service of the people.” As Harry L. Watson summarized Jackson’s views in Liberty and Power, his admirable book on Jacksonian Democracy: “No one in a republic had an inherent right to public office—so no one could complain if he lost a public job in favor of someone more honest, more competent, or more in agreement with elected officials who carried a popular mandate.”

Jackson, as Watson notes, emphatically rejected the views of his soon-to-be Whig and former Federalist foes that “no one except a tiny elite had the training or experience to qualify for public office.” As Jackson himself put it: “The duties of all public officers are, or admit to being made, so plain and simple that men of intelligence may readily qualify themselves for their performance.” Jackson, as Watson notes, wasn’t arguing for the hiring of incompetents, but he did demand “that public duties be shared among the large body of qualified citizens to avoid the creation of an entrenched and corrupt bureaucracy.”

The notion that rotation in office was a mighty weapon in the larger battle against privilege is nicely captured by historian Robert V. Remini in his study Martin Van Buren and the Making of the Democratic Party. Remini notes that the Democrats’ 1828 campaign placed heavy stress on the words “people” and “reform.” He writes: “The precise direction all this ‘reform’ was to take was not explained. There was no need to. The people were simply banding together to take the national government out of the hands of the favored few. They were claiming what belonged to them. They were dispossessing ‘the wise, the good and the well born.”

In other words, America’s tradition of political appointees is rooted in a philosophical view of how democratic government can work best—and become more democratic in the process. If European democracies have a much shallower tradition of political nominations and a larger reverence for a career civil service, it is in part because none of the Western European democracies—many of which were not terribly democratic at the time—went through anything that quite resembled the Jacksonian Revolution. Hard as it was for reformers to accept the idea later, the creation of a system of political patronage was originally seen as a way to foil both corruption and elitism. Despite abuses, Watson is correct in seeing rotation in office as “a solidly democratic principle that brought greater openness to government.”

Civil Service Reform: Depoliticizing Public Service

But there were, indeed, abuses, and they grew over time. The Jacksonian system was “susceptible to political manipulation,” as Watson acknowledges. Those abuses and manipulations helped unleash the other great American public service tradition—civil service reform and a preference for expertise. It reached high tide between the 1880s and 1920.

Historian Robert H. Wiebe picks up this thread in his excellent study of the period, The Search for Order. In contrast to the Jacksonians, the new reformers saw removing government jobs from the political realm as “democracy’s cure.” Wiebe wrote: “By denying politicians the spoils of office, the argument ran, civil service would drive out the parasites and leave only a pure frugal government behind. The nonpartisanship inherent in civil service would permeate politics, and as party organizations withered away, the men of quality now excluded by the spoilsmen and unscrupulous businessmen would resume their natural posts of command.”

It’s also important to see that civil service reform and enhanced faith in a professionalized bureaucracy arose at a moment of growing faith in scientific rationality and a belief in the importance of expertise. The professionals of the period, Wiebe observed, “naturally conceived of science as a method for their disciplines instead of a set of universal principles.” Or, as the sociologist Max Weber put it in his famous essay on bureaucracy: “Naturally, bureaucracy promotes a ‘rationalist’ way of life, but the concept of rationalism allows for widely differing contents. Quite generally, one can only say that the bureaucratization of all domination very strongly furthers the development of ‘rational matter-of-factness’ and the personality type of the professional expert.”

Still a Healthy Tension?

Where do our dueling traditions of political appointments and professionalized bureaucracy leave us today? The professional view suffered body blows during the 1960s from both the left and the right. The rise of the idea of “participatory democracy” on the New Left suggested that the distant bureaucrat claiming vastly more knowledge than average citizens needed to be taken down a peg or two. The War on Poverty’s goal of “maximum feasible participation” suggested that real expertise could be found only on the streets and in the neighborhoods. On the right, George Wallace’s attacks on “pointy-headed bureaucrats with thin briefcases full of guidelines” nicely captured the conservative rebellion against experts—and, in the case of Wallace and his followers, especially those pushing for new programs of racial inclusion.

But if the bureaucrat has not fared well in public esteem in recent years, neither has the average political appointee. Politics and government still do not enjoy the prestige they did when Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg’s father was president. The tendency in both political parties, described well by Martin Shefter and Benjamin Ginsberg in their book Politics by Other Means, is to fight political battles through the courts, press disclosures, and congressional investigations. Whatever the merit or utility of these approaches, they have had the effect of making the never-easy life of the political appointee far more difficult—and far less attractive.

It is thus striking, and not surprising, that young people devoted to public service tend less than ever to carry out that service through government—in either civil service or political posts. As Paul C. Light has pointed out, the trend among young people oriented toward service is to seek to reform institutions and change society through the nonprofit sector rather than through government itself. Part of the problem, as Light points out, is the difficulty government has under current rules and practices in offering the flexibility and work opportunities available in the nonprofit sector. But it’s also true that the idea of government service as an adventure, described so well by Hodgson, is about as fashionable as the now late, lamented Oldsmobile.

At its best, the American tradition of tension between the political and the professional control of government is highly productive. The Jacksonian instinct that elections should matter and that there should be a significant degree of political control—meaning democratic control—over the bureaucracy is right. But the desire for genuine expertise in the right places is also right. The president, and the people, need military strategists, research scientists, lawyers, economists, and environmental specialists who will feel free to tell the truth as they see it and inform decisionmaking. A democratic government cannot be effective if it changes capriciously from one administration to another. The American tradition creates a constant battle between the democratic impulse and the impulse for efficiency and predictability. This tension is not only useful, but necessary. The Jacksonian principle insists that in a democracy, there is not a bright line between “the government” on the one side and “civil society”—the array of communal institutions independent of government—on the other. If a government is not rooted in, and does not draw on, civil society, it can be neither democratic nor effective.

A Plague on Both Your Houses

It’s not at all clear that the tension between our traditions is serving us well today. At most points in our history, at least one side of the government (the politicians or the professionals) enjoyed some claim on public esteem. Now it can be argued that neither does. The Jacksonians lifted up the political appointee to put a check on the arrogance of expertise. The civil service reformers lifted up expertise to put a check on political abuses. Now putting down both sides is more the rule.

And the rise of a specifically presidential bureaucracy has in some ways divided the executive branch itself, aggravating its problems and the problems of those who work for it. As the political scientist Nelson Polsby has argued, one of the most interesting developments of the past half-century “is the emergence of a presidential branch of government separate and apart from the executive branch.” It’s the presidential branch, Polsby writes, “that sits across the table from the executive branch at budgetary hearings, and that imperfectly attempts to coordinate both the executive and legislative branches in its own behalf.”

In The Presidency in a Separated System, Charles O. Jones makes a parallel point: that “the mix of career ambitions represented by presidential appointees may well bring the outside world to Washington, but there is no guarantee that these officials will cohere into a working government.” Jones sees the president as “somewhat in the position of the Olympic basketball coach. He may well have talented players but lack a team.”

None of this means that George W. Bush or any future president will have trouble filling his (or, someday, her) government. None of it means that the country lacks the “practical idealists” of whom Al Gore liked to speak. But a government as peculiarly dependent as ours is on the willingness of citizens to interrupt the normal trajectory of their lives to devote themselves to government service needs to worry that it is not nourishing either of our great traditions of public service. When the political tradition has faltered, we have been able to call on our civil service tradition. When expertise falters, the politicos can step in to right the balance. But when both traditions fail, where do we turn? It would help to have a president who drew people to public service because he asked them to do it and because he made it an adventure in which ambition and democratic idealism could coexist.