The political belief system of most normal people in the Western world is well-described, I think, by the phrase democratic centrism.
This belief system is democratic because it assigns unconditional positive valence to the word democracy. A rule of the modern world is that anything which can get away with describing itself as democratic will do so. The fewer Kevin Bacon steps between you and democracy, the better. Granted, I have never seen any breakfast cereal, personal hygiene product or mobile phone which managed to associate itself with democracy, but I’m sure it’s not for lack of trying.
For example, most people today would agree with, or at least take no offense at, the suggestion that in a democratic country, it’s important for corporations to be socially responsible. Perhaps we can allow this wonderful phrase, socially responsible, to hang in the air for a moment. It certainly has earned its delicious, bacony odor of democracy.
Obviously, neither the word democracy nor any of its multitudinous declensions, conjugations, and obfuscations can convey any information in any reasonable discussion between civilized and intelligent people. To define something as democratic is to define it as good, leaving us face to face with Hume’s ought – the ultimate rhetorical dead end. At this point, one might as well just have it out with cavalry swords. (The only practical use I can imagine for democracy is as an ingredient of fun, contrarian labels, such as antidemocratist.)
So we are left with centrism. What is centrism? And why do so many people believe in it?
A centrist is anyone who believes in the concept of objective public policy. Another way to say this is that a centrist is someone who believes in the science of government.
To the centrist, government is not just one thing. It has a kind of metaphysical binary structure. Its staff is divided into two classes, elected officials and career professionals. Or if you prefer to be negative, politicians and bureaucrats. The gap between these tracks is about as bridgeable as the gap between vanilla ice-cream and Mongolian beef. And the two have completely separate responsibilities: elected officials make political decisions, career professionals set public policy.
Isn’t this weird? I mean, does anyone who holds any position in this entire system ever stop to think about how bizarre this situation is? If by some wild off-chance you ever happen to have been employed in the actual productive economy, can you imagine working in a company whose organizational hierarchy was divided into political and professional categories? Surely if it was any way to run a railroad, at least one railroad in history would have been run this way. Perhaps one of our readers is familiar with some such animal.
(If you read the New York Times regularly, you will note that decisions which are driven by politics are often bad ones. Whereas policies formulated by experts tend to be good. Isn’t this interesting? Is the New York Times generally right about this, or generally wrong?)
Anyway, it’s easy to explain why centrism is a fallacy.
First, there is no conceivable categorical distinction between political and apolitical actions or decisions. Since the real world cannot be controlled or predicted, since we never step in the same river twice, every decision made by every organization which operates successfuly on the real world is a judgment call by definition. All decisions are executive and discretionary.
In particular, there is no such thing as scientific public policy. Public policy and science have no more in common than lawn tennis and animal husbandry. It is impractical to conduct any controlled experiment on the real world, human or natural. Economic remedies cannot be tested, diplomatic strategies cannot be modeled, military tactics cannot be verified, ecological outcomes cannot be predicted. At least not in any way that can claim Popperian falsifiability – and thus immunity to the tides of groupthink and general human folly.
Ergo, there is no “objective” or “nonpartisan” or “apolitical” basis for any public policy – even in departments often regarded as “scientific.” Perhaps it is possible to define any policy whose motivation does not depend on pseudoscience (pseudoscience being anything that claims to be science, but ain’t) as “scientific.” But this is (a) hardly a high bar, and (b) yields results with no relationship to the conventional concept of “scientific” public policy.
For example, the absorption spectrum of CO2 is a matter of physics. The concentration of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere is a matter of chemistry. But absent infinite computer time or other magic superpowers, the climate sensitivity of the Earth cannot be calculated by any falsifiable procedure. Moreover, it is impossible to construct any conceivable objective conclusion as to why it should be “good” or “bad” for Earth, or even just for us poor schmucks who happen to live on it, to be warmer or colder than it is now, whether as a result of geoengineering by CO2 release or aerosol emissions, or variations in solar output, or UFO exhaust, or whatever. Therefore, climate policy is a value judgment of an unforecastable outcome, and any suggestion that it can be formulated “objectively” is comical at best. Reasonable people can disagree on the subject, and will always be able to.
So why is this belief in apolitical government – especially, of all things, apolitical democracy – so prevalent? There are several interesting answers to this interesting question.
We can start by observing that the illusion of objective policy creates an objective center for any system of government built around it. If you are a democratic centrist, you believe that an intelligent visitor from Saturn, knowing no more and no less about Earth history than we do, would come up with exactly the same structure of government as that we see in Washington today. Perhaps our Saturnian would withdraw from Iraq, perhaps there would be a few tweaks to energy policy, perhaps he would revitalize the Department of Health and Human Services with new performance-oriented metrics for a more efficient budget process. But, basically, he would look on what he saw and find it good.
In other words, his political perspective is essentially that of Dr. Pangloss. Our democratic centrist is no more than a believer in the status quo. His arguments are not arguments. They are excuses. Perhaps they are valid excuses. But we have no reason at all to assume so.
To the democratic centrist, the burden of proof always rests on whoever disagrees with him. (For example, anyone with proof of racial equality should forward it at once to Jim Goad.) There is no reason to even bother debating under such conditions. All attempts at rational conversation terminate in the democratic equivalent of “but Brawndo has electrolytes.”
The rest of us, who due to some cosmic computer fuckup have retained our compos mentis, can see quite easily that the democratic center is not absolute or objective. Because, above all, if it was absolute or objective, you would kind of expect it would stay in the same place. And, um, it, um, doesn’t.
In other words, if our Saturnian’s political philosophies remained unchanged, he could not be a centrist on his first visit in 1907, and remain a centrist on his second visit in 2007. The centrist ideas of 2007 were held only by dangerous extremists in 1907. The centrist ideas of 1907 are held only by dangerous extremists in 2007. This does not preclude the possibility that either the 1907 center or the 2007 center is right, but it does preclude the possibility that both are. And they could just as well both be drifting way out in head-case space.
So, before showing that something enormous and damaging has happened to English society since the Second World War, it is worth quoting an astonishing footnote from Jose Harris’s social history of Britain before the First World War, Private Lives, Public Spirit: Britain 1870-1914:
A very high proportion of Edwardian convicts were in prison for offences that would have been much more lightly treated or wholly disregarded by law enforcers in the late twentieth century. In 1912-13, for example, one quarter of males aged 16 to 21 who were imprisoned in the metropolitan area of London were serving seven-day sentences for offences which included drunkenness, ‘playing games in the street,’ riding a bicycle without lights, gaming, obscene language and sleeping rough. If late twentieth-century standards of policing and sentencing had been applied in Edwardian Britain, the prisons would have been virtually empty; conversely, if Edwardian standards were applied in the 1990s then most of the youth of Britain would be in gaol.
As it happens, 1913 was a fairly bad year by the standards of the time, with 98,000 serious offences recorded. This level would not be surpassed again until 1920 when the total rose to 101,000 after a wartime truce during which annual crime tallies sank to as low as 78,000 in 1915. Even convicts were reported to be showing patriotic zeal as they broke their rocks. Measure this against the figure of 2,521,000 recorded in 1980 and, even when you grant that the population had risen from 36 million to 49 million, the figures could be from different planets as well as from different eras.
Now, since I am a child of the late 20th century, the idea of a prison term for saying “fuck” does not strike me as sensible. On the other hand, one can scarcely regard a 2000% increase in crime as evidence of effective, scientific public policy. Surely the aficionados of scientific government in 1907 did not preface their promises with the caveat that, while the New Jerusalem that was to come would have this and that and the other thing, it would also come with, oh, 20 times as much crime. (Even setting aside the defining-down of “crime.”)
Democratic centrism draws a sort of N-dimensional bullseye on policy space. Everything that the State does now, the center of the eye, is bipartisan, centrist, apolitical public policy. As we drift away from this magic vertex, our policies become first politicized, then radical or extremist. And when we see that this bullseye moves over time, that we have no reason to believe it is in any way correlated with reality, that in fact we have quite a bit of evidence that at least in the past it has been thoroughly delusional, we realize that we are dealing with a very weird, scary thing.
So, if we reject the self-framing of democratic centrism, if we refuse to accept this phenomenon on its own terms, we need to find another explanation of the movement that is simpler and makes more sense. Democratic centrism exists. It may not tell us anything useful about the world, but it is a part of reality and its existence at least can be explained.
One straightforward question is “where did it come from?” In American politics, the concept of centrism dates at least to the Greeleyite Liberal Republicans of 1872. (It’s a little difficult to detect before then – perhaps there is some Prussian heritage, as many American intellectuals of the period studied in Germany.)
Perhaps the founding achievement of American democratic centrism was the Pendleton Act of 1883, which ended the spoils system and established a civil service which was effectively independent of democracy – excuse me, I mean, “politics.” Another important milestone was Walter Lippmann‘s Public Opinion (1922), which perhaps best represents the birth of objective journalism – ie, of our present regime in which journalists consider themselves civil servants, responsible to “the public” rather than to their readers.
But this does not explain why we have democratic centrism, rather than nothing, or rather than something else.
One interesting clue is that, while this center does not appear to remain continuously in the same place, it does not appear to wander unpredictably, either. Over the last century at least, the American political center (and thus the US Federal Government) has moved in a direction which can be generally described as progressive. There have been occasional mild reversals of the trend – for example, in the 1920s, the 1950s and the 1980s – but even across these nadirs, we see the secular (no pun intended) curve. The same ideas that were centrist in the 1980s tended to be progressive in the 1950s, and radical in the 1920s.
Readers of UR are, of course, quite familiar with this trend. But what could explain it? I have talked quite a bit about what happened, but much less about why it happened.
First, we should never disregard the possibility that the progressive migration of the center is simply a passage out of darkness and into light, a gradual escape from delusion. This narrative is sometimes described as Whig history. By definition, to be a Whig is to believe in Whig history, and here at UR we do try to respect the reader’s beliefs.
Moreover, it is easy to see how Whig history could be true. The truth has an obvious advantage over any delusion: everyone wants to believe the truth, no one wants to be deluded. So perhaps people were deluded in the past, and are just now getting over it.
If Whig history is true, this does not validate the fallacious, Panglossian philosophy of absolute centrism. But it suggests that the center of today just happens to either have arrived at an accurate perception of reality, or is in the process of arriving at it.
The latter possibility is especially interesting. It suggests the interpretation that an accurate view of reality is, if anything, far more progressive than today’s worldview. If the causal motor of Whig history is simply best described as progress, there is no reason to believe that this process should stop in the present.
Indeed, it would be surprising if the relationship between increasing progressivism and general enlightenment had a nonmonotonic maximum precisely at the center point of contemporary American politics. The whole strange journey from Teddy Roosevelt to Nancy Pelosi was, as per Pangloss, for the best, but any continuation into Dennis Kucinich land would be a sad story of decline. Is it possible? Sure. But it seems unlikely. So many sensible people, having grown up on Whig history, extrapolate logically and end up as progressives in today’s sense of the word. (It’s worth noting that my father’s parents, who were in fact card-carrying Communists, described themselves as progressive for their entire adult life.)
But is there an alternative to Whig history? There is. I’m not aware that the phrase “Tory history” is much used, but surely it would not displease the likes of Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn. (I have recommended this book before, but it’s been a while. It really is essential reading. Although perhaps I should worry that after you read K-L, UR will seem like a cheap plastic imitation.)
Finding a way to convey the Gestalt of Tory history to readers in our uber-Whiggish age is definitely a bete noire of this blog. I don’t believe I have done it. Perhaps it is simply impossible for a modern reader to simply grok Tory history, in one tremendous mental flash. However, the possibility is so seductive that I can’t stop myself from trying.
Russia today is actually an independent country, which is pretty cool. I don’t get the impression that it is particularly well-governed, but it could be a lot worse. Ideally, the mafias which run Russia today will coalesce into a more coherent entity, less like the New York mob and more like Singapore or China, and neocameralist incentives for good government will start to replace informal incentives for corrupt government. I wouldn’t necessarily bet on this happening, but I wouldn’t necessarily bet against it, either.
And Nashi is a fascinating phenomenon. It is best categorized as a pro-government activist group. Somehow, members of Nashi manage to be simultaneously rebellious and official. Does this remind you of anything? Anything at all?
We have many reasons to be thankful for Russia. Chekhov, Bulgakov and Brodsky are three. But one great reason to love Russia is that Russian history so often mirrors the political tropes of the West, but in a particularly crude, obvious and Russian way that makes their true nature especially apparent.
From the perspective of Tory history, progressivism is to Nashi as you and I are to the benthic and vagile California sea hare, Aplysia. Aplysia has something like ten neurons, each the size of a large asparagus stalk. I exaggerate, slightly. But just as Aplysia is the perfect research organism in which to develop a basic understanding of the neuron, Nashi is a perfect way to understand the fascinating phenomenon of pro-government activism.
It’s especially helpful that Nashi, being basically a fascist movement, is aligned directly against Western progressivism. (Nashi’s perception of the US State Department as its primary natural enemy strikes me as quite accurate.) So, for example, we hear:
Talking to Nashi members offers a sample of the kaleidoscope of fears that swirl in Putin’s Russia. An alleged U.S. plot to infiltrate politics, get hold of natural resources and shatter mighty Russia into smaller, more easily managed countries is a recurring theme.
As a resident of San Francisco, perhaps the world’s most progressive city, I find the phrase “kaleidoscope of fears” quite evocative. Especially when it comes to “swirling.” San Franciscans have no swirling fears of the US State Department, but they certainly compensate in some other departments.
And then we have the money quote:
Nashi, the largest and most prominent of the youth groups, is heavily wrapped up in the concept of upward mobility. Many of the youths have been lured to Moscow with promises of yuppie dreams; they view Nashi as an investment in their careers, akin to joining the right fraternity at a U.S. university.
Of course, progressivism has nothing at all to do with upward mobility. The other day I was at a Christmas Eve dinner party, where all the other guests (except of course Mrs. Moldbug, whose agility at Ketman is unrivaled) were hardcore progressives, and someone was wondering out loud how Angelina Jolie manages to be involved in so many good causes. “Because she’s obviously just so… shallow.”
“Perhaps it has something to do with her PR people,” I suggested. “I mean, they’re not exactly going to tell her to endorse the Burmese junta, for their energetic maintenance of public order, are they?” Ketman is not exactly my strong point.
“I guess.” I really did get the impression that this woman believed supporting progressive causes was some great sacrifice on the part of Brangelina. But why wouldn’t she? I’m sure Brad and Angelina believe it, as well.
Of course, progressives also think of themselves as anything but pro-government. And how is this neat trick accomplished?
Welcome to our old friend, objective public policy. Progressives can think of themselves as bravely resisting an oppressive regime, because they oppose the Bush administration, which is political, and support the Federal civil service, which is professional and scientific. When they think of “the government,” they think exclusively of the former, which seems to invest a considerable amount of its energy on frustrating the efforts of the latter. Needless to say, this is nothing but a vicious attack on democracy. At a certain point, all ya can say is wow.
The parallel between Nashi and progressivism gets even tighter when we realize that, although progressives are not acting in the service of any present leader whose personality cult can be compared to Putin’s (for one thing, you can’t really have a personality cult unless you have a personality, which pretty much disqualifies all living American politicians), we get a far better signal when we compare the American past to the Russian present.
Note that there is a discrepancy between Wikipedia’s version of the Greer incident and the Nazi version – according to the Nazis, the Greer had dropped depth charges before the U-boat fired a torpedo. With all due respect to Dr. Goebbels, I think I’ll go with La Wik on this one.
But when we look at the overall exchange, I don’t think the picture leaves us feeling too good about Whig history. What’s astounding about the American side of this exchange (there is nothing surprising in the fact that the Nazis, having truth on their side, could just stick to it) is not just the sheer volume of blatantly fraudulent inventions, not just the almost perfect inversion of reality, not just the incredibly crude and paranoid tone of the speech (doesn’t it make Rush Limbaugh sound like Adlai Stevenson?), but the fact that the intended audience was the American electorate. And, by all historical evidence, this was exactly the sort of material they lapped up. (If this period interests you, there is more here.)
Imagine a Russia 70 years from now in which all significant intellectual movements are descended from Nashi. All teachers, professors and journalists grew up on the Nashi definition of reality. For most of them, their parents probably did as well. In fact, the Nashism of 2007 is remarkably tame compared to the Nashism of 2077. Anyone in 2077 who even begins to question that Putin saved Russia from disaster at the hands of George Soros and the State Department is simply a nut, a crank, an extremist.
Do I think Nashi and Putinism will actually survive until 2077? Of course not. It’s Russia, after all. On the other hand, we still have the New Deal to kick around.
So here is our brief explanation of democratic centrism. First, centrism is a misnomer, because when we examine the movement over time we see that it moves gradually in a progressive direction. What we are looking at is democratic progressivism. The “center” is just the center of its shifting window at the present time.
Second, progressivism is a form of pro-government activism. Unlike Nashi, progressivism does not revere any living ruler. Its faith in the State is given entirely to the professional civil service. The mechanism by which it delegates this faith is the strange concept of apolitical government, which makes about as much sense as a cheeseburger without the cheese.
Third, democratic progressivism is not “democratic” in the classic sense of representative democracy, ie, wherein the government is managed by elected politicians. As we’ve seen, democratic progressives despise politics and all its works, unless of course the political process produces “leaders” who nourish and support the civil service, in which case they are wise and visionary statesmen.
The trick is that progressives are absolutely right about this. Political democracy is a disastrous system. As James Madison wrote:
Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.
Madison was referring to direct democracy, Athenian style. His judgment of this form was indeed shared by his contemporaries, who could hardly avoid noticing the rather striking connection between the destruction of Athens and its adoption of democracy. But in the rest of Federalist 10, Madison goes on to explain how representative or indirect democracy will not suffer the same consequences:
A republic, by which I mean a government in which the scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect, and promises the cure for which we are seeking. Let us examine the points in which it varies from pure democracy, and we shall comprehend both the nature of the cure and the efficacy which it must derive from the Union.
The two great points of difference between a democracy and a republic are: first, the delegation of the government, in the latter, to a small number of citizens elected by the rest; secondly, the greater number of citizens, and greater sphere of country, over which the latter may be extended.
You will frequently hear people, often otherwise very perceptive people, telling us that “the US is not a democracy, but a republic.” Next time you hear this, ask the wise sage who is speaking what exactly a “republic” is. Perhaps he will explain that republic is from the Latin res publica, ie, government. Ask him to give you an example of a government which is not a republic. Perhaps he will come up with a monarchy. In this case, thank him politely for explaining that the US has no king, ideally without revealing that you knew that already.
Here we have it straight from James Madison: a republic is different from a democracy because the former (a) has elected representatives, and (b) is bigger. This will have the following effects:
The effect of the first difference is, on the one hand, to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.
Elected politicians will be wise and noble.
Under such a regulation, it may well happen that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves, convened for the purpose.
At least, wiser and nobler than the people who elected them.
On the other hand, the effect may be inverted. Men of factious tempers, of local prejudices, or of sinister designs, may, by intrigue, by corruption, or by other means, first obtain the suffrages, and then betray the interests, of the people.
The question resulting is, whether small or extensive republics are more favorable to the election of proper guardians of the public weal; and it is clearly decided in favor of the latter by two obvious considerations:
Isn’t it funny how bigger always turns out to be better?
In the first place, it is to be remarked that, however small the republic may be, the representatives must be raised to a certain number, in order to guard against the cabals of a few; and that, however large it may be, they must be limited to a certain number, in order to guard against the confusion of a multitude. Hence, the number of representatives in the two cases not being in proportion to that of the two constituents, and being proportionally greater in the small republic, it follows that, if the proportion of fit characters be not less in the large than in the small republic, the former will present a greater option, and consequently a greater probability of a fit choice.
The more people you have, the more wise and noble people you have. Duh. World elections now! What are we waiting for?
In the next place, as each representative will be chosen by a greater number of citizens in the large than in the small republic, it will be more difficult for unworthy candidates to practice with success the vicious arts by which elections are too often carried; and the suffrages of the people being more free, will be more likely to centre in men who possess the most attractive merit and the most diffusive and established characters.
I’m afraid we’ve learned a lot about the “vicious arts” since then.
The other point of difference is, the greater number of citizens and extent of territory which may be brought within the compass of republican than of democratic government; and it is this circumstance principally which renders factious combinations less to be dreaded in the former than in the latter. The smaller the society, the fewer probably will be the distinct parties and interests composing it; the fewer the distinct parties and interests, the more frequently will a majority be found of the same party; and the smaller the number of individuals composing a majority, and the smaller the compass within which they are placed, the more easily will they concert and execute their plans of oppression. Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other. Besides other impediments, it may be remarked that, where there is a consciousness of unjust or dishonorable purposes, communication is always checked by distrust in proportion to the number whose concurrence is necessary.
If we adopt the Constitution, there will be no national political parties. The country is just too big. Besides, even if there are national parties, they will be weak and disorganized.
The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular States, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other States. A religious sect may degenerate into a political faction in a part of the Confederacy; but the variety of sects dispersed over the entire face of it must secure the national councils against any danger from that source. A rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project, will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the Union than a particular member of it; in the same proportion as such a malady is more likely to taint a particular county or district, than an entire State.
“Duh-huh, duh-huh. He said Confederacy. Duh-huh.”
So much for Little Jimmy Madison, political sage. With geniuses like this, who needs fools? It’s obvious why Ron Paul wants to restore the Constitution. Because it worked out so well!
As I explained last week, the actual form of government in the US at present is a massarchy, ie, a state whose legitimacy is dependent on the mass of public support. Democratic centrism is the ideology that legitimizes the state. Of course, one of the main activities of said state is to teach its free, independent citizens how great democratic centrism is. Everyone loves a self-licking ice-cream cone.
Electoral politics is quite vestigial in a modern massarchy. Polling is a far more efficient and reliable way to measure support. The EU, in which politics plays an even more negligible part, is a perfect example. It is quite tricky to convince people that they can have democracy without politics, but most of the work has already been done and the project is clearly practical.
One easy way to understand how the US power structure actually works is to adopt the hypothesis that the strongest institutions are the most stable and permanent. For example, in a conflict between Microsoft and the New York Times, who would win? One can imagine a situation in which the NYT triumphed and Microsoft was no more. Whereas it is impossible to imagine any force, short of the US military if its patience somehow turns out to be less than eternal, which could destroy the Times.
(People who talk about declining newspaper revenue have no clue. The NYT is an NGO which happens, for reasons that are basically historical, to be sponsored by a publishing corporation. If said corporation were to disappear from the face of the earth and Times reporters had to be supported by grants and foundations, like every other NGO in the world, do you really think they’d have trouble raising money?)
When we forget NGOs (they’re called “NGOs” because of how easy it is to forget that they’re not part of the State) and look only at the US government proper, stability is easy to find. The civil service and the judiciary cannot be replaced by any force short of God. Ergo, we would expect to see that they have most of the power, and I believe this is indeed the case.
What remains is largely in the hands of Congress. And it is not distributed evenly across the members of that august body. It is in the hands of the committee staffs and the committee chairmen. Congresspersons are technically politicians and can be replaced, but they also have a 98% incumbency rate, and I don’t believe this is lower for committee chairs. Furthermore, when a chair dies or (theoretically) loses an election, his or her replacement is chosen not by lottery but by seniority, preserving general institutional continuity.
By changing the majority party, voters can also replace all the committee chairs en bloc. This has been known to happen, most recently in the ’90s. It is these changes of party that really show us how close to the “center” both Republicans and Democrats are. To judge by their actions, the incentives affecting the Republican Congress did not seem to differ particularly from the incentives affecting the Democratic Congress. I think a few minor programs were abolished or restructured. But I could be wrong.
For obvious reasons, voter interest in Congressional elections tends to be negligible. In fact, by 19th-century standards, voter interest in all elections is negligible. There is simply no modern counterpart to the great mob upheavals that were 19th-century elections. Perhaps this has something to do with the depoliticization of government. However, to the extent that Americans care about elections at all these days, they care about Presidential elections.
The President is nominally the chief executive of the Federal government. But a real chief executive controls three levers of management: budget, policy, and personnel. The White House has no budgetary power other than the veto. Domestic policy is generally prescribed by law, or what at least is called “law,” which is written in very vague terms by Congress and refined by judges and agency experts. Civil servants are completely insulated from political selection or promotion. The White House does select political appointees who are nominally the senior officers in their various departments, but their ability to steer the civil service ship is minimal and their temptation to “go native” is unending.
As late as the 1860s, as the debate over the Tenure of Office Act shows, the President was believed to have unchallengeable power to hire and fire all Federal officials. This did not work out well, and it shortly disappeared. Even in the ’30s, FDR could promote a political general like George Marshall directly from brigadier to Chief of Staff. Like so many of FDR’s executive decisions, this would be unthinkable today.
The Presidency today is perhaps best compared to the British monarchy as of 100 years ago. It is gradually becoming an entirely symbolic institution. Today there are still substantial exceptions to this pattern, but the pattern is clear.
The influence of politics is probably doomed to decrease over time, because politics sucks. Electoral politics is a disastrous way to run a railroad. Any politicization of government tends to have immediate negative effects on its performance. As anyone who recalls Sir Humphrey can testify, the permanent government has the motive, the opportunity, and the propensity to exacerbate these effects, and so the cycle continues.
So this is what it means to be a democratic centrist: it means you support, cherish and revel in your loyalty to a permanent government which is immune to electoral politics. Like Mary’s little lamb, you follow it wherever it goes. Because you are a centrist, you believe the decisions of this Beamtenstaat are scientific and objective, whereas really it is just a bunch of people playing their usual hominid power games.
And why is democratic centrism so popular? Because as in Russia, all the State has to do to persuade large numbers of young, energetic people to support it is to create a situation in which pro-government activists are more likely to succeed – professionally, socially, and financially. In Russia, its methods are conspiratorial, heavy-handed and crude. In the West, they are anything but. But perhaps this is a discussion for another week.
I hope everyone out there is having a happy Winterval. I suppose it behooves me to report that, last Thursday, Mrs. Moldbug and I went to City Hall and made it official. This is not really an excuse for the large pile of unanswered email that still towers oppressively over my inbox, or the large number of highly perspicacious comments that deserve a response. But perhaps it will serve as some sort of lame excuse.