Why the Divide

Posted By Elgin Hushbeck

There is little question that Americans are polarized now more than at any time since the Civil War, and it seems to be getting worse. There is lots of blame to go around.  Democrats point to Trump; Republicans point to the Pelosi and Schumer. Yet the frustration driving this polarization has been building for a long time, much longer than the current major players have been on the political scene. It is visible at least as far as the 1960s, with the roots going even further back to the turn of the last century.   

Rather than the cause, the current political leaders are themselves caught up in a much larger phenomenon and are often just reflecting the concerns of their constituents.  Neither political camp is very happy with their side’s leaders.

This dissatisfaction is the result of the general frustration among voters who keep voting for things that never seem to happen.  Candidates campaign strongly for various changes one way or the other, and once elected seem to do little or nothing.  There is a slow drift to the left. The right wants to stop it; the left wants it to go faster; both are frustrated. To be heard, both sides become more extreme, and the polarization increases. What they don’t realize is that this is how the current system was designed to work.

At the core is Progressivism, with its separation of administration and politics. On the one hand, Progressivism seemed very democratic, pushing for and achieving the direct election of Senators, along with the initiative and recall in many places.  Even today, their successors, the Democrats, still fight to make voting easier and more readily available to more people. For some, this even includes extending voting rights to those here illegally and reducing the controls to the point that fraud becomes a serious concern.

While lose voting rules and fraud are a problem, the other part of Progressivism, the administration part, is even more dangerous. While Progressives push more democrat political institutions, it also pushes for a greatly reduced role for those institutions. Progressives wanted everyone to have a say, but they did not think that say should amount to much.  According to Progressives, by the beginning of the 20th century, the world was becoming too complex to let common people have any real control. What was needed were experts, those with knowledge and skill. 

Thus the Progressives pushed to have the real power removed from the President and the Congress, transferring it to experts or what we would call administrators or bureaucrats.  Over the last century, the actual running government has become more and more removed from the people and those elected by the people and given to those who are not only unelected but actually insulated from the public.

Thus on several occasions, when the Congress “failed to act,” the bureaucracy had to step in to do what Congress would not do. At least that is how it is often present. It is just as legitimate to describe this as, when the people, through their elected representatives, said no, the bureaucracy ignored their wishes and did it anyway. The sad part is there is little the people can do about it.

Again, this is a feature of the Progressives system, not a bug. After all, Progressives did not think ordinary people knew enough to rule. Thus they looked to experts to act on the people’s behave. Experts were better than ordinary people because they were both knowledgeable and disinterested, i.e., they would be able to put the people’s interest first. In contrast, passions and self-interest would guide the people. There are problems with both of these premises.

The progressive idea of the knowledgeable expert was based on the false assumption that science would always be like physics, verifiable, and certain. It is not.  In fact, a hundred years later, there is growing debate about whether or not the social sciences are even science.  Disagreements and schools of thought are the norm. The verification of theories is often very difficult, if not impossible. As such, now the question is not an expert, but which expert?  This focus on science has brought about a politicization that is very damaging. Follow the party line and get funding, challenge it, and be suppressed or worse. Rather than the Progressive goal of bringing the best of science to public policy, the result has brought the worse of politics to science. It should not be a surprise that the falsification of results and the failure of the peer review system have been growing scandals.

As bad as the politicization of science has become, the other Progressive assumption is even worse, i.e., that the experts are disinterested. What Progressives ignored was that experts are still people. They are subject to all the same flaws and problems that caused the Founding Fathers to create the system of checks and balances that Progressives reject.  Thus it should be no surprise that over the last 100 years, as the administrative state has grown, it has become an interest in and of itself.  While the various departments have their subject area, they all share in common self-interest. The very thing the progressives were trying to avoid in the people still exists in the expert.  Yet rather than contained by checks and balances, the experts are insulated and largely unaccountable. As the saying goes, presidents come and go, but bureaucrats are forever.

Even when the people vote for change, the bureaucrats can dig in their heels and resist. They can slow roll policy changes demanded by elected officials, burying them in red tape until another administration can come along and reverse the policy.

The net effect is that the administrative state seeks first and foremost to serve itself; the people are second. Decade after decade, this has gotten progressively worse; people on both sides keep voting for change, and nothing happens. As a result, the frustration has built while public discourse has declined.

To fix this is conceptually easy. Rollback the administrative state and start putting more and more control back into the legislative branch.  However, in practice, it will be extremely hard.  It may even be impossible. For one, the spiritual successors of the Progressive, the Democrats, like the administrative state.  At the moment, the administrative state runs somewhat in their favor, and more importantly,  votes as a block for the Democrats. Another is that the administrative state can fight back. Over the last 100 years, this administrative state has built up a lot of allies who have a vested interest in the status quo to assist them.

Ultimately this will come down to who rules whom. The founders set up a government where ultimate authority rested with the people.  Some of that system remains. Then there is the Administrative state that rules with varying degrees of independence from the people. One side or the other will win.  We can move back to a system where ultimate power rest with the people.  Or we will have the progressive system, where there is an illusion of power from the people, but the real power rest with the experts.  The jury is out on who will win.

Jul 28th, 2020

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