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State Under Siege

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28.10.2019

It is an article of faith among many strategists and activists within the Democratic Party that shifting demographics will be its salvation. The Republican electorate gets older and whiter with every election. Greatest Generation and boomer Fox News addicts can’t live forever, and Big Data shows that it’s merely a matter of time until the modal Republican voter is firmly in the minority.


When I come across this talismanic bit of folk wisdom, I counter with an example that has little relevance to anyone under 40: apartheid-era South Africa. A white minority that made up around 15 percent of the population in that ostensibly “democratic” country kept a death grip on power for decades. Power in a democracy is not about the force of numbers; it is about control of the levers of the law and state power.


The South Africa case may seem extreme, akin to Trump-Hitler analogies. Yet both in spirit and in practice, the modern GOP is embracing a similar strategy of maintaining power in a nation where it has managed to win the popular vote in a presidential election exactly one time since 1992. The politics of blood-and-soil white nationalism, once restricted to the Pat Buchanan fringes and twitchy men distributing homemade pamphlets about the Zionist Occupied Government outside gun shows, are the new mainstream of the right.


A key tenet of the Trump-led version of these politics is the dismantling of the administrative state—namely, the “deep state” of unelected bureaucrats whose machinations (the argument goes) thwart our conquering-hero president at every turn. Former Trump guru-strategist Steve Bannon built the modern alt-right around, in part, the idea of dismantling the entire administrative state.


In truth, however, breaking the government has been part of the right’s modus operandi since at least Reagan. The impulse to take power in order to hobble, misdirect, and destroy is one of the uniting threads of modern American conservatism. Yet out of the other side of its mouth, the Republican Party is admitting, by action if not by word, that the hated administrative capacity of the state is all that is keeping its power intact long past the point when the conservative movement was advancing an agenda that appealed to a majority of American citizens.


What is the purging of voter rolls in Georgia and elsewhere, or the enactment of an effective poll tax in Florida, but the cynical use of the administrative capacity of the state to manipulate election outcomes by restricting the franchise? What else is the use of state boards of education to kneecap curricula and hand public money to private entities under the guise of school choice? What else can we call anointing Immigration and Customs Enforcement as an all-in-one tool for creating, enacting, and interpreting border policy?


Bannon’s promised dismantling of the administrative state will never happen, for the simple reason that the ability to use the state to tilt the playing field and engineer movement-goal political outcomes that lack popular support is the only thing the leaders of the Trump-era right have left. It turns out the hated deep state is an incredibly useful tool for governing in a manner that represents the interests of a minority of the population that happens to be convinced that it alone is the legitimate nation. Today’s anti-democratic, anti-majoritarian rhetoric on the right reflects only a renewed willingness to say out loud what fire-breathing conservatives have long believed: that regardless of their relative number or election outcomes, a certain group of “Real Americans” defined by race, religion, ideology, and often gender simply deserves to rule.
 


The combination of anti-state rhetoric and embrace of state power is not a modern development. Of all of the failures of American political journalism, the willingness to repeat the well-flogged rhetorical claim of Republicans that modern conservatives favor “small government” or a rollback of state power is unique in its persistence and duplicity. The size, cost, and reach of the administrative state grows under divided or unified government, whether directed by Republican or Democratic administrations. Talk of “small government” is at best a goal conservatives harbor but never achieve—and at worst a bald lie that supporters hear as a code word for the redirection of social welfare spending to tax cuts and defense.


Despite their rhetoric to the contrary, budgets and deficits grow as persistently under Republican control as under divided or Democratic leadership. The contest is not between one faction that seeks to expand the state and another attempting to shrink it, between statism and anti-statism. Rather, the signature conflict here simply involves an alternating roster of preferences, between New Deal-style liberal statism and conservative statism oriented toward right-wing ends.


The political scientist Ira Katznelson accurately described twentieth-century American politics as a debate not between liberalism and conservatism but around what flavor of liberalism the nation would have. In the postliberal dispensation of twenty-first–century politics, however, political competition concerns the more brute, transactional, and historically momentous question of entrenching liberal and conservative ideas of state power at the center of American governance. Using the federal government to offer immigrants social services or using it to round up immigrants at gunpoint represents, at the structural depths of things, opposite sides of the same coin. The harnessing of bureaucratic power and money is the same; the issuing of orders using the established channels of the executive branch is the same; the translation of electoral victory into meaningful public policy is the same. All that differs is the intent and goal. The vast American administrative state is, in that sense, like a Taco Bell menu—a question of how the same four basic ingredients are shuffled, combined, and prepared to produce different outcomes.


Of all of the failures of American political journalism, the willingness to repeat the well-flogged rhetorical claim of Republicans that modern conservatives favor “small government” or a rollback of state power is unique in its persistence and duplicity.

As another group of political scientists—Nicholas F. Jacobs, Desmond King, and Sidney M. Milkis—argue in an article titled “Building a Conservative State,” it is inaccurate to view conservative politics and ideology as aiming to “deconstruct” the administrative state, as Steve Bannon........

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