One of the great lies told from the progressive era in American history is that politically-disinterested experts run bureaucratic agencies. Progressives claimed professional bureaucrats would run these offices with none of the passions of elections, mobs, or wealthy elites. The problem is that these new technocrats are appointed to federal agencies by political actors and their jobs are wholly part of the political process. Everything they do is political.
Progressives didn’t create an apolitical area in the state; they made a fourth branch of government. When the Founders designed the constitution and the initial three branches of government, they understood all of these branches and the employees within them to be political. Factions would inevitably arise within them, and people would vie for power. The same has happened in the fourth branch, the administrative or bureaucratic state.
That branch has long been run mostly by the progressive left, which has entrenched itself in it. But, just as conservatives built a movement to challenge liberal and progressive orthodoxies in law, they’re now challenging the administrative state monopoly.
There are two ways to challenge the progressive hold on the federal administrative state. The first is to deconstruct and remove power from this state and restore it to Congress, the Executive branch, and the courts. Generally speaking, this has been the project of those who work within the Federalist Society circles. Restoring Article One, the powers vested in Congress, is chief among those objectives. I’m sympathetic towards this project.
But the second method studies how liberals and progressives have made the most of their technocratic bureaucratic authority over the decades and asks: why should we be barred from using that same power towards conservative ends?
Why indeed? The same political powers available to the left are open to the right too. And if the right decides to use those powers towards conservative ends, what principled argument do progressives have against that? The bellyaching sounds no different than the leftist anger directed towards the conservative legal movement. The left doesn’t like losing at their own game.
President Trump’s decision to attack the progressive left’s attempt to insert the New York Times’ 1619 project falls into this second category. Instead of just looking for ways to deconstruct federal power, Trump seeks to use federal power and bend it towards conservative ends. In a statement, Trump said:
“Critical race theory, the 1619 project, and the crusade against American history is toxic propaganda, ideological poison that if not removed will dissolve the civic bonds that tie us together. It will destroy our country. That is why I recently banned trainings in this prejudiced ideology from the federal government and banned it in the strongest manner possible.”
On pure ideological grounds, there’s nothing in what Trump said that’s wrong to conservatives. Every word is an accurate assessment of that leftist project. And when Trump takes it further and says he’s signed executive orders to create a more “patriotic education,” he’s using the same tactics progressives have used for decades to promote things from the 1619 project and beyond.
In a way, this view of using government power differs little from Hillary Clinton’s stated goals in her book, “It Takes a Village.” The controls used, and the assessment that we need top-down management of the public education system is identical in nearly all respects except the ends pursued. That’s why the post-liberal movement views these developments approvingly; they want the powers and agencies that progressives have built to achieve separate ends.
If the conservative legal movement’s attempts to rein in the administrative state fail, or fall short of their intended goals, then the only remaining answer is to work the technocratic levers of power in your side’s favor. If you’re a progressive or a liberal, and the idea of giving people like Donald Trump the levers of power to dictate what beliefs and principles get funded in the school system bother you, then why do you offer that power to government in the first place?
The conservative movement’s turning to accept higher levels of government control is the natural outgrowth of feeling like you’re losing control over the country and culture. In general, if we’re following the Founder’s example, the idea of having the federal government dictate anything in a classroom should chill us to our core. But if both sides accept this power, they can’t complain, as they’re doing now, when that power gets used against them.
Progressives built these institutions. They don’t want those same institutions used against them. That’s not how politics works, at all. The opposition can use the powers you give yourself. Our political environment is defined by action and reaction. This moment is the reaction to decades of leftist excess in the name of remaking education. Go back and watch any right-wing rant, pre-Trump, towards common core or any related education changes. The seeds have been there for years.
I’d like to have these powers removed entirely and return all power to the states and local governments. But I’m also cognizant of the political reality here: powers can’t be used in a way that benefits one set of partisans forever; eventually, the pendulum swings. We’re in the middle of that swing now.