Many years ago when the very intellectual Adlai Stevenson ran for President, a fan said he “would have every thinking vote.” But, Stevenson ruefully replied, “we need a majority.” This majority exists today, but beats to a different drum – one Stevenson could not have imagined.
It was his opponent, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who started to frame that drum. In a now famous Farewell Address, Eisenhower as President is remembered for his remarks on a military-industrial complex. “In the councils of government,” he declared, “we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”
In equally strong but less familiar words, he cautioned: “…we must also be alert” to the “danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.” Only a knowledgeable citizenry that takes nothing for granted, he added, can address the “weight” of one or more “combination” so “security and liberty may prosper together.”
Because John F. Kennedy’s incoming presidential Inaugural Address caught the nation’s imagination just three days later, the public paid scant attention to Eisenhower’s Farewell. The reason is not hard to fathom. Eisenhower, then closing a half-century of distinguished service to the nation, was a carpenter with prose. He wrote precisely, clearly, with no waste of words. Kennedy, by contrast, stirred a country.
Famously Kennedy said, “ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” Then, scooping the nation’s faith with gifted rhetoric, the young leader issued his clarion call that “we will pay any price, bear any burden…to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
But it is Eisenhower’s Farewell, today, which is material. The reason is the Cold War is over, and the bureaucracy has grown. Are we now there – has all this become, perchance, today’s administrative or “deep state?” At one level, that’s a leap. But the nature of bureaucracy is to close circles. Remove uncertainty. Grow, and grow again. Be somewhat obscure. Unchanging. Fiscally wasteful. Hard to penetrate. In control.
There is much irony in why and how a settled administrative state devolves into a destabilizing force. But this seems to have happened. Americans now think the bureaucracy has reached its carrying capacity. They believe it has lost its breath. And they are profoundly bothered by the accretions of power separating their government from the citizenry.
No one has captured this situation better recently than Daniel Henninger of the Wall Street Journal. Noting the bureaucratic state is in decay – like “an old dying star” – he says we are less in the midst of populism than a fresh “democratic awakening.” People now tie Eisenhower’s speech to a clock ticking away, touching in this hour, in an very unsatisfying way, the core of America.
The Public Square holds there is no place for permanent power accumulation to rest anywhere inside a government of the people. Otherwise, two systems of power are at work and war, vying to become one. Within top elements of a bureaucracy, if frozen lines of thought coalesce along some path of ideological energy, government divides. Why? Because bureaucratic enclosure by nature can yield anonymity, then information control, then habits of hiding, then cover and unaccountability, next, false guidance and faulty conclusions, and finally, if not rupture, distance from the truth.
How do we proceed? Beyond individual abuses having their proper course of action, there is a growing urgency to purge the “deep state” through reform leadership. The Public Square contends, however, such “systemic action” would careen in the wrong direction, veer from leadership, badly deepen the problem, and produce unpalatable results for the nation. The worst thing is to become part of a syndrome rather than solve it. And swamps which drain, just refill.
A sounder course is to make time and events our friend. Any deep state, because its solution is beyond ideology, party, or politics, is perhaps better viewed as a product of human nature. To help a variety of exploitive human tendencies and appetites, our Founders gave us a nation of laws. They enshrined integrity. They fastened upon principles to deepen and honor public service, not bend them, in semi-permanent form, and weaken America.
To surmount the danger of two power systems, and be one people, we must become again the nation first carved from a spirit of trust. It takes patience to allow the recuperative action of the system to come into play. And it’s a tall order to recast our public character. But The Public Square asks – is there any other way?