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Trump and the Fate of the Administrative State

Trump and the Fate of the Administrative State
AP Photo/John Minchillo

Dear Reader —

For nearly a century, our domestic policy disagreements have taken place against the backdrop of a government whose functions are increasingly bureaucratic, rather than political. Even the debate over government’s size, which has characterized our politics for so long, takes for granted the existence, if not the necessity, of the administrative state. Of course, a certain amount of delegation has always been necessary for the executive to carry out the laws passed by Congress. But this modern style of governance — in which a centralized, rational bureaucracy is empowered by Congress to formulate rules and regulations — is a creature of more recent times. Where did it come from? 

Nineteenth-century Prussia, says John Marini, a senior fellow of the Claremont Institute and professor of political science at the University of Nevada-Reno. Marini, who is the guest on the sixth and final episode of our podcast “The Future of the Administrative State,” argues that while the terms “bureaucracy” and “administrative state” would emerge much later, the philosophical seeds of bureaucratic governance were sown in the writings of 19th-century German thinkers like G.W.F. Hegel.

These philosophers articulated a political vision distinct from that of America’s founders. Rather than a “social compact” intended to protect natural rights, they saw the government as an organic and rational whole — the State — that is the “vehicle for the administration of progress.” Hence “more and more of the tasks of human society have to be handed over to those who have knowledge.” The end result? The push and pull of ordinary representative politics is superseded by centralized “rational rule” by a cognitive elite — what would later be termed the administrative state. According to Marini, these philosophical ideas, which were “imbibed” by Americans like Woodrow Wilson and other leading progressives, had at least three important effects on 20th century American politics.

First, Congress began ceding its legislative power to the executive and, specifically, administrative agencies. Second, as bureaucracy became the primary vehicle for enacting policies preferred by “organized interests,” the political parties ceased to represent the people. Third, administrative agencies took over more and more of the tasks once performed by civil institutions, especially the family and religious organizations. Thus the administrative state continues to expand to fill the void left by a weakened Congress, party system, and civil society.

Marini believes that Trump alone among last year’s presidential candidates understood this state of affairs, if only instinctively. His campaign exploited the weakness of our political system to appeal to a citizenry that has grown dissatisfied with Congress and frustrated by the power of administrative agencies and the attendant special interests.

Will the president be able to rebuild the democratic politics Marini claims has been dismantled with the rise of the administrative state? Marini is not especially optimistic. But whether Trump “succeeds or not,” Marini does not think “you can put a lid on the movement and the awareness that he’s created in the electorate about the administrative state.”

These are some of the many issues taken up at RealClearPolicy over the past week. Below you will find just a few highlights.

— M. Anthony Mills, editor | RealClearPolicy


Rebalance the Rules for Our Democracy. In our own pages, Liz Kennedy outlines changes that she believes would prioritize economic opportunity for all. 

Trump Has Quietly Accomplished More Than It Appears. The Atlantic’s David A. Graham argues that despite apparent chaos, the administration is “remaking federal policy in consequential ways.” 

The Democrats’ New Trade Platform Sounds a Lot Like Trump. In Vox, Zeeshan Aleem suggests that Democrats, not Donald Trump, may be “the real populists on trade in Washington.”

The Environmental Movement Should Embrace Free Markets. Also in our pages, Daniel Cochrane contends that an emerging “energy sharing economy” offers solutions to environmental problems. 

The Working Class Does Not Like Government Contractors. In Washington Monthly, Joshua Alvarez explains why combating government reliance on private contractors may be both “good policy and good politics.”

The Republicans’ Budget Mess. Also in RealClearPolicy, James C. Capretta asserts that the GOP lacks a coherent fiscal agenda. 

Maybe Health Care Was Impossible. In National Review, Robert VerBruggen considers whether the GOP’s repeal-and-replace effort was doomed from the start. 

The Christian Right Is Taking Liberals’ Advice. For Acculturated, Noami Schaefer Riley argues that by supporting Trump, conservative evangelicals are following the lead of liberals who argue that “politicians shouldn’t be judged by their personal actions.”

Regulatory Reform: A Beacon of Light for Bipartisanship. In our own pages, Ryan Young spotlights areas where common ground might be found in our polarized era.

Energy and Infrastructure Offer Common Ground. Also in in our pages, Guy Caruso makes a case for a bipartisan approach to funding.

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