We shall never learn what needs to be learned about the American political system until we understand not only what the system does to the people, but what the people do to the system. Political institutions are no different from other organizations: to the great question of organizational life—who will bear the costs of change?—the answer, in the public as in the private sphere, is, “someone else, not me.” The universal tendency to make life easy for ourselves and to impose difficulties on others applies equally to politicians, and when they find their lives intolerable no one should be surprised that they react by seeking to lay their burdens on the shoulders of others.
Especially during the past decade, almost our whole attention as citizens has been devoted to the ways in which politicians have failed to serve the people. Few have asked how politicians manage to live in the world, because it is assumed that they are doing fine and that the problem is to make them behave decently toward us—almost as if politicians lived somehow apart from American life. Yet it would be strange indeed if our politicians were a special breed, uninfluenced by their milieu, springing full-born like Minerva from the head of Jove in a world they never made, but on which they work their mythical powers.
Politicians are like other animals; indeed their behavior, like our own, can often be analogized to that observed in lower forms of life. Laboratory experiments show that rats who are consistently given contradictory commands become neurotic, if not psychotic. The same phenomenon is readily visible among politicians. Give them incompatible commands, insist that they fulfill contradictory impulses at the same time, and they too will show the classical symptoms—withdrawal, self-mutilation, random activity, and other forms of bizarre behavior unrelated to the ostensible task at hand. An occasional deviant is even known to lash out at his experimenters, or at least at the apparatus in which he is enmeshed, though he remains quite incapable of understanding why he worked so hard to accomplish so little, or why life is so bitter when it should be so sweet.
We are all, in fact, doing better and feeling worse.1 Every standard of well-being, from housing to health, shows that every sector of the population, however defined, including all racial, religious, and ethnic groupings, has improved its lot in past decades. Even the twin problems of crime and drugs, areas in which we are vividly conscious of recent deterioration, have been considerably reduced in severity, so far as we are able to judge, since the turn of the century. When heroin was legal there were proportionately more addicts in the population; when the nation was younger and poorer there were more criminals, or at least a correspondingly greater degree of crime. Why, then, do so many feel so bad—and why do they continue to feel so bad when, of the two causes reflexively invoked to explain this feeling, the first, the Vietnam war, has come to an end while the second, racial inequity, has clearly and visibly diminished? I cannot pursue this subject in all its ramifications here. Instead I wish to add another element to the puzzle—the manufacture of incompatible policy demands that impose burdens on government which no government can meet.
The fact that the public demands on government in the various areas of policy are contradictory, in the sense that pursuing one policy inevitably means prohibiting the enactment of another, does not mean that an evil genius has been at work programming the political system for a nervous breakdown. Coordination need not require a coordinator; it can be tacit and informal as well as overt. Men coordinate their activities through adherence to a common body of assumptions or through the sharing of a common world view. Quite the same kinds of contradictions can be created by various people in different places making vocal demands that turn out to be mutually opposed. The lack of central direction, in fact, is an advantage because it adds to the general confusion: politicians are given a hard time but they do not know on whom to vent their own frustration. For our purposes it is not necessary to know whether demands on government are made by those who wish to see it fail, and therefore delight in giving it tasks it cannot manage, or who wish to see it succeed, and take pleasure in asking it to perform feats hitherto unaccomplished. Whether it stems from those who love government too little or from those who love it too much, the results of this pressure are the same: government is asked to perform wonders, but the attainment of one wonder often automatically precludes the possibility of attaining another, or many others.
The incompatibility of policy demands is a manifestation of a more general withdrawal of sovereignty from government in America. The rights of government and of politicians are being systematically whittled down. Public officials and professional politicians can no longer organize their political parties as they please, or hold meetings in closed sessions, or keep their papers secret, or successfully sue others for slandering them—even when they can show the allegations to be false—or make the smallest decisions without being hauled into court to convince judge and attorney they have followed standards of due process, considered every conceivable alternative, consulted all who might possibly be injured, or otherwise abandoned virtually every sense of what it used to mean to rule by enforcing binding regulations. We demand more of government but we trust it less. Angered and annoyed by evident failures, our reaction is not to reduce our expectations of what government can accomplish but to decrease its ability to meet them. That is how a society becomes ungovernable.
The legislation proposed by Lyndon Johnson and enacted during the first eighteen months of his Presidency wiped out the New Deal and destroyed both the historical coalition and the universe of common assumptions on the basis of which American citizens and political activists alike had long understood what was happening in the national life. By enacting every piece of social legislation it could lay its hands on, Congress obliterated all the old issues; where once a citizen knew on which side of a given question he stood, now all was confusion.
The passage of the Great Society legislation, in addition, had a devastating effect on many sectors of the federal bureaucracy. The second worst thing that can happen to anybody is to strive for a lifetime and fail to get what he wants. The first worst thing is to strive and to get and to discover that it is not good. Think of people who spent, say, twenty years in the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare and its predecessors, trying desperately to secure huge federal appropriations for education. In the mid-1960's they got them; they still have them, but they have discovered that the ground has shifted and that the clientele whose interests they thought they were serving is not the clientele the new policies are aimed at. So they fail and they are bewildered.
In the past, the clients of the New Deal had been the temporarily depressed but relatively stable lower and middle classes, people who were on the whole willing and able to work but who had been restrained by the economic situation; it a hand were extended to them or if the economic picture brightened, things improved for them right away. It hardly mattered one way or the other what government did or did not do in their behalf. Now, however, government policy was being designed to deal not with such people but with the severely deprived, those who actually needed not merely an opportunity but continuing, long-term assistance. No previous government had ever attempted to do for this sector of the population—those whom Marx had called the lumpenproletariat—what the American government set out to do. Yet nobody knew how to go about it, either. In the field of education, for example, no one had the faintest clue as to what amount of “input” would produce the desired result, and so vast amounts of money and even vaster amounts of enthusiasm were poured into various programs that ultimately ended in failure and bewilderment (as it turns out, we have learned that variations in expenditures of almost four to one make absolutely no difference—or only slight difference—in student performance, and that other variables, known and unknown, must be taken into account).
Far from giving up in the face of such complex ignorance, the tendency instead was to place the emphasis on those variables that did seem controllable. This led to the concept of community action. If no solutions were available and no one had the foggiest notion of how to do anything, it was possible to increase the demand for solutions, to create pressure from below that would effect the release of ever increasing amounts of federal money. But the fact that government was trying to deal with a different clientele and that no one knew how to do it meant that an awful lot of money was invested without accomplishing very much. The escalation of demands together with the lack of knowledge of solutions meant a multiplication of programs, each under- or over-financed, each justified by the notion that it was somehow an experiment that would prove something.
There is perhaps nothing new in all this, but the political consequences have not been seen as clearly as they might be. Welfare today has become a political albatross. In the past, those who paid for welfare may not have liked it while those who received it, if they did not love it, at least found it preferable to the alternative. Government got credit from those who received the money and demerits from those who had to pay. Since the poor were more numerous than the wealthy, a political trade-off was effected and things seemed to work out. Today the taxpayers curse and the welfare recipients tell government where to get off. The welfare system gets credit nowhere.
People who are involved in revolutions are usually the last to recognize what has been happening all around them. While the War on Poverty was being waged, those fighting the battles understandably lacked the time, energy, or discernment to see anything like the full implications of their actions. Like good soldiers everywhere, they went from skirmish to skirmish, leaving the grand strategy to generals who, as every classic account of warfare tells us, understood less than anyone else. First, as noted, the generals radiated a sense of hope: wonderful things could be done. On this basis many new programs were launched and even more were proposed, to capitalize on the new potential for eliminating poverty. Second, also as noted, they generated a sense of despair: hardly anything seemed to be working. Out of this was born a new determination to overcome obstacles—in the form of new programs. Third, whether one had hoped or despaired, it became almost a reflex action to call on government to justify the hope or overcome the despair. One consistent trend in this concatenation was the proliferation of demands on government from all quarters. Another trend, seldom noticed, was the incompatibility of the demands.
This particular characteristic of the public-policy debate of the 60's is still very much with us, and it can be seen at work in areas as diverse as welfare and election reform. Thus the same people who demand that government increase the levels of support and the numbers of people on welfare are just as likely to assert in the next breath that welfare is a total failure, that it costs too much, and that it should be scrapped. Similarly, the demand that the political parties be “democratized” and made more representative is often linked to the demand that the costs of elections be reduced so that the rich will not control the democratic process. As Nelson Polsby has pointed out, it is impossible to do both: democratization in practice means more primaries, more conventions, more meetings—in other words, increased costs.
Or consider employment. There have basically been two objectives in this area of policy: employ the hard-core and create jobs at reasonable costs. It is very expensive to train the hard-core; that is why they are hard-core. It is also very discouraging, because many will not get jobs and many others will not keep them. But in addition, if a government agency has actually been able to show that it created a number of jobs that people filled and stayed in for a while at some kind of reasonable cost (by reasonable cost I mean that it has cost less than it would have just to give them the money), it has then been criticized for dealing with people who were too employable. This is known as “creaming,” getting jobs for the best of the worst, so that anyone who has actually found a job was, ipso facto, as Groucho Marx might have said, not the right kind of person to have tried to employ in the first place.
Consider housing, where the demand has been to give preference to the worst-off and provide a better environment. That has led to such monstrosities as the Pruitt Igoe project in St. Louis, finally dynamited in order to reduce the incidence of social evil. Or consider the environment. It is tempting to condemn both pollution and high prices, but there is an intimate connection between the two. Today we expect our government to provide pure air and use less energy: it cannot do both at the same time.
How about community action? We demand widespread participation and we want fast action on the problems of the poor. Participation, however, requires built-in delays; the more committees, the more levels, the more people, the more time lost. It may not really be time wasted if greater participation results, but few remember the original impetus when frustration sets in.
The mischiefs unwittingly created by placing the phrase “maximum feasible participation” in legislation have been amply documented so far as government agencies are concerned. The documentation, however, is incomplete. Efforts to implement the spirit of the phrase have also wreaked havoc with the minority communities themselves. The idea was to facilitate the emergence of indigenous leadership, but, as Judith May has persuasively demonstrated,2 the paradoxical result has been to delegitimate virtually everyone in black communities who could claim to be a leader because there is always some criterion he does not meet. If poor, he may not live exactly in the right neighborhood. If professional, he may not be poor enough. And so forth. Thus the only people who fit the prescription are those who are poor and are in no danger of getting rich, who have lived in the neighborhood for a long time and who cannot get out, and who often care so little they seldom attend meetings of the numerous poverty programs. Such people, it has turned out, have precisely the characteristics—lack of motivation, lack of experience, lack of ability—that do not commend them to their neighbors.
The essential perversity of the policy milieu is its ability to frustrate nearly everyone at the same time. Few programs, for instance, are more noble in intent than those calling for the provision of extra resources and services to the educationally deprived. Since there is not enough money to go around to all who might be considered poor, amendments have been passed at the federal and state level requiring that the most severely deprived be given substantial additional increments so that the massing of resources will have some palpable effect on them. It is difficult to argue with this sensible point of view, but the political impact on the near-poor, who are too well off to receive aid but poor enough to need it, has been severe. They are more easily helped because they have a bit more with which to begin. As they observe extra resources going to the very poor, who are most in need but least likely to be helped, they cannot help but wonder why they, who need less help but can use it more, are being left out. Their dissatisfaction with government is bound to rise as they watch the competition to gather up the funds for which they cannot qualify. And so is government dissatisfaction with itself bound to rise, for officials are asked to aid the least able and to sacrifice the more able.
The political ramifications are potentially disastrous: rising discontent on the part of both those who pay the costs and those who get the benefits. The have-littles are plunged into conflict with the have-nots (the working and lower-middle classes with the poor) because compensatory mechanisms fail to help the one, and do not stretch far enough to reach the other. Observing dissatisfaction on the part of those receiving extra resources, the people who pay are likely to call it ingratitude. Part of the secret of winning, as any football coach knows, lies in arranging an appropriate schedule. Governmental performance depends not only on the ability to solve problems but on selecting problems government knows how to solve.
What are the consequences of constructing and defining issues so as to pose incompatible demands on decision-makers? Both the kinds of policies that we get from government and the kinds of attention paid to the various realms of policy are affected. Within the executive branch a greater emphasis will naturally come to be placed on foreign than on domestic policy because the foreign realm seems less forbidding to Presidents and even given a random occurrence of events it seems likely that some good can be achieved—for which, moreover, credit may accrue to the President. In domestic policy, on the other hand, Presidents have come to see little for which they will be applauded, and much for which they will be condemned for even attempting.
When a government does not expect that anything it does will garner credit it tends to push for form over substance. This comes out in the various “funny money” policies we have become accustomed to recently. An official thinks he has money for model housing—but is that not the money he should have spent three years ago and did not? Is it the money that was allocated for something else; that he thought he had but never received; that he once spent but was returned? Or is there actually a dollar or two of real money? It becomes increasingly difficult to know.
There are also substantive consequences of having incompatible demands made on government. One is a growing stress by analysts on an incomes policy) as opposed to a services policy for the poor. Why should government continue to administer a welfare system that everyone hates when one of the few things that can really be done well in Washington is programming a computer to write checks? If guarded with exceptional closeness such a machine will actually write the checks it is supposed to write and people will actually receive them. In this way government does away with the middle men, the agitators for welfare rights. It may spend more money, but it will reduce the size of the bureaucracy and may actually make it possible for people to realize that the help they are getting has come from the government. Another policy consequence is revenue sharing, a bone thrown to cities and towns with a warning attached that if the bone should taste bad or if indigestion should ensue they have no one to blame but themselves. Cities are now beginning to understand that they are getting a little money and a lot of trouble. Increasingly they become the center of demand and lack the capacity to respond.
Making incompatible demands on government is bound to have an impact on the federal system. When there is no way to garner credit, when everything attempted is clearly slated to fail, an effort will be made by government to rid itself of the source of anxiety—namely, its responsibility for policy. Any time the federal government can trade trouble for money, it will. Miniature revenue-sharing proposals in the fields of health and welfare are now being seriously considered. The consequences, of course, need not all be bad: people with demands to make will find it more worthwhile to approach the cities and states because these will have more to give. But in a federal system in which each level deliberately seeks to pass its worst problems on to the next, in which blaming the other party has become a national pastime, it will become harder than it is already to know who is responsible for not solving our latest set of insoluble problems.
Fairly construed, the government's record on social policy during the last decade has been one of vigorous effort and some noteworthy if nevertheless defective accomplishments. Food stamps do feed the hungry (as well as the hippies), and public housing is better than its alternatives. Steps have been taken in numerous areas to meet the needs of those who had previously been neglected. The men who have contended with these confusing times deserve compassion rather than contempt, and even a measure of applause. Yet it is only now, when programs are threatened with reductions, that a chorus of concern arises—and this, from quarters that had previously denounced the nation's social programs as too little, too late, misguided, or even positively harmful. It is in any event certain that these programs will die unless those who benefit from them (or who identify with the beneficiaries) come forward with vocal support. The critics of social policy have overplayed their hand; they wanted more and better, instead they are getting less and worse. The Nixon administration eventually came to the concluion that since no visible credit was forthcoming from the presumptively natural supporters of social programs, it might as well gain whatever benefits it could from the conservatives who opposed them. Like any other institution that wishes to remain solvent, governmental bodies must reestablish their credit when their policies begin to earn a deficit of political support.
“Government,” Alfred Marshall wrote, “is the most precious of human possessions; and no care can be too great to be spent on enabling it to do its work in the best way: a chief condition to that end is that it should not be set to work for which it is not specially qualified, under the conditions of time and place.” Once government is given not just one or two things it cannot do, but a whole host, the effects will be felt throughout the political system. Voters, for instance, have begun to lose their sense of identification with the major political parties, because they, like the government, cannot deliver on their promises. The nature of political campaigns has also changed. In 1972, instead of defending their record, the leaders of government concentrated on the alleged horrors about to be perpetrated by the opposition—or that had been perpetrated by their own party's past. “Elect me,” promised Richard Nixon in effect, “and I will save you from that fellow who created a $33 billion deficit. Elect me, and I will protect you from my Justice Department's former position on busing. Elect me, and I will save you from quotas imposed by my Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.” The President was running against himself, monopolizing the advantages of incumbency while at the same time pretending he had never been in office. No doubt future challengers will learn the wisdom of being vague, lest their promises, rather than the government's performance, become the focal point of the campaign.
If parties cannot make good on the promises of their candidates for office, what can they make good on? Party structure, for one thing; they can promise to organize themselves in a given way, if only because this is something over which they can exercise control. Thus parties, like politicians, move more strongly into the realm of the expressive and the symbolic rather than of substantive policy. The Democratic party can arrange itself in order to contain certain proportions of this or that ethnic group or gender. It can conduct endless meetings, primaries, conventions, all the while gradually shifting the definition of a party from an instrument seeking to govern the nation to an instrument seeking to govern itself. What parties contribute to the nation, then, is not so much candidates attached to a policy as procedures that meet certain visible but internal norms.
Politicians, too, are shifting emphasis from substantive policy to personal political style. They talk of basic changes in the political process, but move into action only when this consists of a form of opposition. They offer adherence to proclaimed moral principle, where they cannot fail, instead of offering innovation in policy, where they cannot succeed. They are often “against” what is happening but see themselves under no obligation to suggest viable alternatives. A sign of the political times is the growing proportion of Presidential candidates who come from the United States Senate, for that is the office which combines the longest term and the highest national visibility with the least responsibility. When people are angry they may picket mayors and shout down governors, but they rarely advance on the Senate or its occupants. The Senate is the place where a man can say his piece while others worry about the responsibilities of office.
Not only the Senate but the House as well, Congress as a whole, is involved in the dilemma of acting responsibly at a time when substantive achievements are hard to come by. The quandary in which Congressmen find themselves is illustrated in the controversy over impoundment. It is all too easy to blame the conflict entirely on the President; he had ample discretionary powers under the Anti-Deficiency Act of 1951, but he chose instead to throw down the gauntlet by saying that he might refuse to spend money in appropriations bills even after they were passed over his veto. That bit of arrogance deserves what it got. But underneath the surface clash of personalities lies a deepseated unwillingness in Congress to accept responsibility for raising the revenues required to support its own spending desires. It is easier to vote for this or that while laying the burden of reduced expenditures, or of finding new revenues, at the door of the President. The growing practice of Presidential impoundment may be part of a tacit agreement that Congress will get credit for voting the funds while the President takes Congress off the hook by refusing to spend. By allowing impoundment to go on for as long as it did and to cover so extensive a range of policies, Congress demonstrated its apparent willingness to see spending cut if only the blame could be placed elsewhere.
Of all our institutions, the Presidency has been the one most deeply affected by government's inability to get credit for domestic policy, because it is the single most visible source of authority and hence the most obvious target of demands. Even the Watergate affair, about which it is plausible to argue that the mentality that produced it is of a singular kind attributable only to President Nixon and his close associates, may be seen to have connections with the fate of the Presidency as an institution in recent years. This is hardly to deny, much less to excuse, the element of personal pathology, or criminality, involved, but even so extreme a series of events as those surrounding the Watergate affair may be clarified by reference to the general issue of the impact of public policy on the Presidency in the past decade.
The climate of opinion that made Watergate and its cover-up possible is part of (and will contribute further to) the delegitimation of government that I alluded to earlier. Although it is convenient now to forget this, from the middle 60's onward, national leaders of government have been subject to a crescendo of attack and even personal abuse. They have been shouted down, mobbed, and vilified in public. It was not possible for men like President Lyndon Johnson and Vice President Hubert Humphrey to speak where they wished in safety, or to travel where they wished without fear. Not merely their conduct as individuals, but the political system of which they were a part, has been condemned as vicious, immoral, and depraved. This, after all, was the justification offered for the stealing of government documents—that the government from which they were taken had no right to be doing what it was doing, that it was not legitimate. The rationale offered by Daniel Ellsberg for taking and publishing government documents was the same as that offered by the Watergate conspirators—national interest, a higher law than that applying to ordinary citizens.
Watergate emerged, in my opinion, out of an environment in which people who identified with government sought to delegitimate the opposition just as they believed the opposition had sought to delegitimate government. Presumably no one, in their view, had a right to beat President Nixon in 1972, so they sought to get Senator Muskie out of the race.3 They broke into Watergate ostensibly to find evidence that the Democrats were being financed by Cuban (Communist) money, as if to say that their own illegality was permissible because the Democrats were not then a legitimate American political party. The blame, to be sure, is not the same. Ellsberg was not entrusted with the care of government, and the Watergate conspirators were. But they cohere in the same syndrome; the one is a reaction to the other, each party rationalizing its exceptional behavior on the grounds of its enemy's illegitimacy.
Watergate is a curious scandal by American standards, in that it is not concerned with money; nor is it, like a British scandal, concerned with sex. By contrast, it resembles a French scandal, one in which small groups of conspirators make and execute their clandestine plans in the service of ideologies held by no more than 1 or 2 per cent of the population. Watergate may thus represent another step in the “Frenchification” of American political life begun in the mid-1960's, a mode of politics in which apparently inexplicable behavior is found to derive from attachment to ideologies of which the vast bulk of the citizenry knows little and cares less. We may have to accustom ourselves to men on the Left out to save us from Fascism and men on the Right from Communism, men who point to one another's activities as justification for illegal acts.
The French analogy gains strength in light of the entire pattern of President Nixon's conduct before Watergate. Seemingly disparate occurrences fall into place once we understand that Nixon had adopted a plebiscitary view of the Presidency, a view that has echoes in the American past but none in the contemporary Western world except in the Presidency of Charles de Gaulle and his successor in France. From this perspective the position of Nixon's Attorney General on executive privilege, with its suggestion that the Presidency exists wholly apart from other institutions, becomes more explicable. So does Nixon's march on the media. For if the Presidency is not part of a separation of powers with Congress, but of a unity of power with the people, then its survival is critically dependent on direct access to them. His victory at the polls in 1972 seems to have inspired in him the conviction that as the embodiment of the national will he should brook no opposition from Congress. If he said “no” on spending and the legislature said “yes,” so much the worse for it. Even the Republican party could not share in his triumph—it neither ran his campaign nor got any of its leaders appointed to high positions—lest it become another unwanted intermediary between the President and the people; Vice President Agnew and the Republican National Committee owe their spotless reputations on Watergate (apart from their undoubted integrity) to having been kept out of (or away from) the Presidential branch of government. It was his plebiscitary view of the Presidency that led Nixon to attempt to run a foreign and defense policy without the Senate, a budget policy without the House, and a domestic-security policy without the courts.4
I have momentarily digressed on the subject of Watergate only to suggest that there was more than personal idiosyncrasy at work here, and that there is reason to look upon Nixon's Presidency as the continuation and exemplification of a number of long-term trends in the political system as a whole. In like fashion, the organization of the executive office under Nixon continues an ever-growing trend toward bureaucratization, a reaction in turn to the perceived failure of the Presidential office to influence public policy in ways that will redound to its credit. And just as President Kennedy's and President Johnson's associates sought to lay the blame for bad public policy on the regular bureaucracy, so Nixon's men were following precedent when they sought to debureaucratize the bureaucracy while themselves becoming more bureaucratic. For bureaucratization is a way of seeking shelter from a stormy world.
The Presidential office has, as everybody can now see, become a bureaucracy in the same sense that Max Weber meant by the term: it has grown greatly in size and it is characterized by specialization, division of labor, chain of command, and hierarchy. At the same time it criticizes, castigates, and blames the regular federal bureaucracy and attempts to circumvent it and intervene directly in the political process at lower and lower levels. From the perhaps three secretaries that Franklin Roosevelt inherited, the executive bureaucracy has risen to several thousand. There are (or recently were) two specialized organizations for dealing with the media, one to handle daily press relations and the other concerned with various promotional ventures. There is a specialized bureaucracy for dealing with foreign policy, begun when John F. Kennedy appointed McGeorge Bundy to the White House; Henry Kissinger's shop now boasts a staff of about one hundred. There is a domestic council to deal with policy at home, started by Richard Nixon. And there is also the Congressional liaison machinery instituted by President Eisenhower. Since 1965 the growth of the executive office of the President has been geometric. The largest increases of all occurred in Nixon's first term, but he was merely accelerating a trend, not initiating it.
Because President Nixon, especially at the start of his second term, apparently set out to alienate every national elite—the press, Congress, the Republican National Committee—the fact that he had long been attacking his own federal bureaucracy has escaped notice. Such incidents abound, however. At ceremonies establishing the special Action Office for Drug Abuse Control, for example: “. . . the President told an audience of 150 legislators and officials that ‘heads would roll’ if ‘petty bureaucrats’ obstruct the efforts of the office's director, Dr. Jerome H. Jaffe. . . . The President said that above all the law he just signed put into the hands of Dr. Jaffe full authority to ‘knock heads together’ and prevent ‘empire building’ by any one of the many agencies concerned” (New York Times, March 22, 1972). President Nixon also “informed a group of Western editors in Portland that he had told Secretary Morton ‘we should take a look at the whole bureaucracy with regard to the handling of Indian affairs and shake it up good.’ The President blamed the bureaucracy for Indian problems, saying that ‘the bureaucracy feeds on itself, defends itself, and fights for the status quo. And does very little, in my opinion, for progress in the field’” (New York Times, September 29, 1971).
Here too, Nixon was not so much initiating as continuing a trend. Much the same hostility to the bureaucracy had been manifested by his immediate predecessors. Accounts of staff men under Johnson and Kennedy frequently reveal a sense of indignation, if not outrage, at the very idea of the separation of powers; federalism is an anathema to agents of the executive branch. Who are all those people out there thwarting us? they ask all but explicitly. Who do they think they are in the Congress and the state capitals? Strongest of all is the condemnation of the bureaucracy. The White House staff has great ideas, marvelous impulses, beautiful feelings, and these are suppressed, oppressed, crushed by the bureaucratic mind.
Why is it that the President on the one hand seeks to bureaucratize his own office, while on the other hand he holds the bureaucracy to blame for all his ills? In the end we return to our beginnings. Presidents have been impelled to attempt stabilization of their own office and destabilization of the regular bureaucracy because of radical changes in public policy demands. The structure of domestic political issues is now such that no government, and hence no President, can get the credit for what is done. Like all the other actors in this drama the President and his men head for cover in the White House stockade and shoot at others more vulnerable than themselves.
It would appear amazing, in retrospect, that we thought about the Presidency as if it were uncaused, as if the things that affected and afflicted us as citizens had no impact on the men who occupy public office. How long did we expect attacks on the man and the institution to go on before there was a response? Nixon's counter-attack, it now appears, may have threatened our liberties. Did the growing popularity of the idea that illegality was permissible for a good cause have no impact on the men surrounding the President? Did this political peril have nothing to do with the demands we make on our Presidents but only with their designs on us? John F. Kennedy struggled mightily with a sense of failure before he was assassinated. Lyndon B. Johnson was forced to deny himself the chance for reelection. Now Richard Nixon fights for a chance to serve out his term. One or two more experiences like these and someone may think it is more than coincidence.
It might be argued that my portrait of the Presidential office in particular, and of politicians in general, treats public officials as if they were the innocent victims of social pressures rather than active participants in the political process capable of shaping it to their own ends. Politicians, moreover, have faced conflicting demands in the past, and might reasonably be expected to face them successfully in the future. Problems arising from incompatible goals are what leaders are there to help solve. A purpose of leadership, after all, is to clarify what can and cannot be done, to set priorities, and to gain some agreement on a schedule of accomplishment. Is this too much to ask of a politician who wants to make a career out of leadership?
It is not. My thesis, however, is that the problems being allocated to government are not just a random sample of those ordinarily associated with governing, some of which, at least, are eminently soluble, given hard work and good judgment, but that government is increasingly getting a skewed distribution of problems that are insoluble precisely because people demand of government what government cannot do. What remains to be explained is how politicians have become strapped to this particular wheel and why they are so maladroit in getting off it.
Politicians are Americans and they, too, are caught up in American optimism. Just as the Vietnam war was a symptom of the optimistic belief in the boundless possibilities of American intervention abroad, so, too, the War on Poverty was a symptom of an optimistic belief in the boundless possibilities of government intervention at home. By the time public officials began to realize they could not do everything all at once, or even some things at all, they had become committed to a broad new range of social programs. And they did not call a halt to these indecisive engagements because they were liberals, that is, Americans.
America lacks an intellectually respectable conservative tradition. It has always, as Louis Hartz has sought to show, had a liberal tradition. For present purposes this means that equality, no matter how abused or disused, has always been the prevailing American norm; the long tradition of hypocrisy on the issue is itself eloquent testimony to its power. The new social and political programs, whether designed for increased participation in decision-making or a greater share in the good things of life, came into the world bearing the banner of the liberal concept of equality. It was hard to oppose, or even think clearly about opposing, these programs without appearing to be against equality or in favor of inequality. Individual politicians might have doubts, a few deviants might voice them, but there was too much guilt engendered by the rhetoric of equality to make collective action possible.
After the deed comes the rationalization. John Rawls's distinguished book on equality, A Theory of Justice, though long in the making, appears now as a gloss on the domestic programs of the 1960's. Its guiding principle is that no inequality is justified unless it helps those who are worst off. Armed with this communitarian thrust to liberal principle, one can defend any sort of policy which proclaims its purpose as that of aiding the worst off but which does not bother to balance smaller benefits to some against larger benefits to others. A few pundits aside, there is not now, if there ever was, a social stratum able to support a conservative ethic against the forces in favor of pushing public policy over the egalitarian precipice. Under the Nixon administration, instead of a social response we got a pitiful outbreak (or break-in) like Watergate.
The American politician, like the American political system, has been attacked at the most vulnerable point. The system is being asked to make good on its most ancient and deeply-held beliefs, and it hovers between an inability to abandon its faith and an inability to make its faith manifest to the believers. This is the American crisis of confidence, evident in professors who do not profess, scientists who call for alternative approaches to science that smack of witchcraft, and politicians who condemn politics.
The expectations created by the body politic (or by a small but influential part of it), the rewards and punishments it administers, go far to shape the successes and failures of public officials. Anyone who writes or speaks or thinks seriously about public policy has a special obligation to consider what his contribution, even when placed in the context of many others, implies for the ability of government to perform adequately. Otherwise, private vices will become public vices as well (to reverse Mandeville), and government, seeing that the game is rigged, will respond once again by secretly attempting to change the rules.
1 See ray essays, “The Empty-head Blues: Black Rebellion and White Reaction,” Public Interest, No. 11, Spring 1968; “The Revolt Against the Masses,” The Revolt Against the Masses and Other Essays on Politics and Public Policy (Basic Books, 1971); “The Search for the Oppressed,” Freedom at Issue, No. 16, November-December 1972.
2 Judith V. May, The Struggle for Authority: Four Poverty Programs in Oakland (doctoral dissertation in progress, University of California, Berkeley).
3 I pass over the intriguing question of what lesson the Democratic party might learn when its worst enemies conspire to nominate the candidate it was bent on selecting itself.
4 Nixon did not have these views when he came into office. It was his experience in office that led him to such desperate expedients. No doubt each man comes bringing his own desperation with him. But Nixon was already President. To go so far after four years in office he must have been more frustrated than anyone knew.