You've successfully subscribed to American Purpose
Great! Next, complete checkout for full access to American Purpose
Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.
Success! Your account is fully activated, you now have access to all content.
Success! Your newsletter subscriptions is updated.
Newsletter subscriptions update failed.
Success! Your billing info is updated.
Billing info update failed.
Valuing the Deep State Part III: A State of Courts and Parties

Valuing the Deep State Part III: A State of Courts and Parties

Francis Fukuyama examines the dysfunctions of the public sector.

Francis Fukuyama

Third article in a series on bureaucratic autonomy; the first installment can be found here, and the second here.

We now come to the American state. Having spent a lot of time thinking about public sector reform in developing countries, it seemed to me important to look at the dysfunctions of the American public sector as well.

In the course of my career, I have had the enormous fortune to study under several great academic mentors: Alan Bloom and Harvey Mansfield, who taught me political theory; Samuel Huntington who exposed me to the idea of political development; and Seymour Martin Lipset who helped me secure my first academic position and was a colleague at George Mason University.

I’ve often said that everything I know about American politics came from Marty Lipset. I had never taken a political science course on American politics either as an undergraduate or in graduate school, and so was self-taught in this area. When I first started at George Mason, Marty had just published his book American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword, where he talked about the unique features of American political culture. He and I taught a graduate seminar together built around this book, a course that I went on to teach myself at Johns Hopkins' School of Advanced International Studies and at Stanford.___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Marty argued that hostility to the state was one of the most enduring features of American political culture. This proclivity arose out of the American Revolution, and the colonists’ struggle against British monarchical authority. Distrust of state authority existed both on the Right and Left; while the Left tended to want more government programs, it often had an equally cynical view of government being controlled by malign elites.

According to Lipset, American anti-statism was manifest across the board in American political development. The American state was less extensive and slower to develop than its counterparts in Europe. While Germany began a social security program in the 1880s, America did not follow suit until the 1930s. While virtually every other developed democracy created a government-mandated system of universal health insurance early in the 20th century, America succeeded in getting this in place in 2010 with Obama’s Affordable Care Act, which the Republicans denounced as “socialism” and spent the better part of the next decade trying to repeal.

The American state nonetheless grew enormously during the 20th century, first during the Progressive Era, then under the New Deal, and finally during the 1970s with the addition of a host of new federal agencies dealing with issues from occupational safety and health to environmental protection. Most observers of comparative state-building would argue, however, that the American state (while extensive) tends to be of lower quality than its rich country counterparts. State modernization came later than in Europe’s most advanced democracies, and has regressed over time.

In the second volume of my Political Order series, I looked at state modernization efforts across a variety of countries: the creation of the grands écoles and Conseil d’État in France; the Stein-Hardenberg reforms in Prussia; and the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms in Britain. I was strongly influenced by Martin Shefter’s theory that such modernizations had occurred under authoritarian regimes facing national security threats; in Prussia/Germany, France, Britain, and other countries their autonomous bureaucracies then survived into a democratic era. By contrast, countries such as Italy and Greece opened up the democratic franchise before such state modernization had occurred, allowing democratically-elected politicians to use the state for patronage purposes. This led to widespread clientelism and corruption, which was subsequently hard to reverse.

The United States was a country that both demonstrated the Shefter thesis but also contravened it. It began to open up the franchise to all white men beginning in the 1820s, and politicians seeking votes found that the easiest way to mobilize support was to bribe voters with a Christmas turkey or bottle of bourbon, or else to give them a job in the post office. This widened franchise brought to power our first populist president, Andrew Jackson, who on being elected in 1828 declared, first, that he won the election and therefore could decide who would serve in government, and second, that any ordinary American could fill a government position. Thus began the so-called patronage or spoils system, in which virtually every U.S. official from cabinet secretaries to fourth-class postmasters got their jobs as a reward for supporting a politician. The patronage system defined American bureaucracy for much of the next century; the U.S. government was, in political scientist Stephen Skowronek’s words, a “state of courts and parties” lacking a modern European-style bureaucracy.

State modernization in the United States began in earnest in 1883 with passage of the Pendleton Act. The driver here was not military competition, but the recognition by both the business community and a nascent civil society that the spoils system was not delivering the kind of quality government required by a rapidly industrializing society. The Pendleton Act created a U.S. Civil Service Commission and established merit-based criteria for hiring and promotion into the federal service.  

George Pendleton

Existing patronage politicians fiercely resisted the act because it took away the currency they used to get elected, and would not have passed but for the assassination of newly elected President James A. Garfield by a disappointed office-seeker. Expansion of the classified service continued over the next decades at a slow pace, and it was not until the time of the First World War that the majority of federal bureaucrats had been hired under it. (By contrast, Chinese bureaucrats were being selected for office through competitive examinations already at the time of the Qin unification in 221 B.C.) Local party machines like Tammany Hall in New York or the Daley machine in Chicago didn’t get cleaned up until nearly the middle of the 20th century.

In line with Marty Lipset’s general observations about American exceptionalism, the U.S. bureaucracy still remains less professional than its European or Asian counterparts. In most other democracies, a change in administration after an election leads to the turnover of the cabinet and perhaps a handful of each ministry’s senior staff. In the United States, by contrast, each election leads to the appointment of 4,000-5,000 Schedule C political appointees, a thousand of whom need Senate confirmation. The Partnership for Public Service, the country’s premiere organization concerned with reform issues, recommends sharply reducing this number given the slowness of the appointment process and the poor quality of many of the appointees.

The U.S. federal bureaucracy has been in desperate need of reform for several decades. But the kinds of reform now put on the table by Republican opponents of the “deep state” would actually seek to dismantle the entire merit-based bureaucracy in favor of “at-will” employment that would in effect return the U.S. government back to the situation that existed prior to the Pendleton Act. The grounds for this reform will be the topic of the following posts.

Image: A caricature of Andrew Jackson as "King Andrew the First," likely published in the fall of 1833. (Library of Congress)

DemocracyEconomicsEuropeUnited StatesFrankly Fukuyama

American Purpose’s membership model is here! We hope you’ll join us in defending liberal democracy by affirming your support. As we benefit from new members, we will continue to rely on donations, as well.

With warmest thanks,

Jeffrey Gedmin, Francis Fukuyama, and the American Purpose team