Politics & Policy

Populism over Progressivism

(Larry Downing/Reuters)
John Marini makes the case in his new book Unmasking the Administrative State.

Unmasking the Administrative State: The Crisis of American Politics in the Twenty-First Century, by John Marini (Encounter, 332 pp., $27.99)

The proper purpose of political science is education for government. Since in America any citizen of age can be authorized by an election or an appointment to exercise an office and discharge its powers, it is proper and necessary to educate everyone about the character of American politics — the way the Constitution is intended to work and the purposes it serves, as established in the Declaration.

That is the intention of John Marini in his new book, Unmasking the Administrative State, the culmination of four decades of study on the unconstitutionality of the administrative state, the dangers it poses to self-government, and its mounting crisis, culminating in the election of Donald Trump. Marini teaches political science at University of Nevada, Reno, and is a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute. Along with the book’s editor, Ken Masugi, Marini was a special assistant to Justice Clarence Thomas when he ran the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in the Reagan administration. This brings us to the first practical effect of Marini’s teaching — Justice Thomas repeatedly credited them as his first teachers on the natural-rights doctrine of the Founding. Consequently, their Straussian (through Harry Jaffa) theory of the Founding now has a hearing at the Supreme Court.

More broadly, Marini is part of the group of students of Leo Strauss who have become the most dedicated opponents of progressivism, at least within political science. The Claremont Institute and Hillsdale College are the most famous centers of this opposition now but by no means the only ones. In a sense, as these scholars often cite the example of Donald Trump as an outsider attacking the establishment in Washington, they themselves are outsiders who have mounted a theoretical attack on the post-FDR consensus, but in academia.

Marini has two aims. First, to retell the history of American political ideas in the 20th century, in order to offer an alternative to the institutional progressive consensus. Second, to show the practical problems of the progressives’ administrative state and then make the theoretical case against it. Progress as a political project is Marini’s enemy, alongside its underlying theory, historicism, according to which we have achieved, throughout history, radical progress in thinking and in understanding humanity. The historicist assumption is that people today are morally and intellectually superior to people in previous generations, especially to the Founders under whose arrangements we nevertheless live for the most part. Any respect for the Constitution presupposes that we are not wiser than the Founders.

These, accordingly, are the book’s three parts, each introduced by Masugi: “The Triumph of the Administrative State over the Constitution,” “The Administrative State in Practice,” and “Theory and History of the Administrative State.”  This book is Marini’s most comprehensive statement on the problem the administrative state poses to our tradition of self-government. Since he is the most theoretically coherent opponent of the administrative state, the book is one of the important documents of our constitutional crisis, especially now that our daily political scandals often involve conflicts regarding the authorities of the various branches of government and the agencies within them.

The book is timely for reasons that go beyond any particular scandal. Through his examination of the various conflicts in our politics, Marini reveals the constitutional justification of what we now call populism. His argument is that the progressive political project amounts to regime change — that this was stated clearly an hundred years ago when the originators of Progress first came to prominence and that it is now easily seen in the actions of the alphabet-soup government agencies created since the 1970s. Marini sees our political crisis as a conflict between two incompatible regimes: The old regime of the Constitution, with all the changes made to it since the end of the 18th century, and the new regime installed by Progressives, which culminates in the administrative state, or the rule of experts who are legitimated by their expertise rather than the consent of the governed.

Since President Trump was elected, quite a number of bestsellers have been written to defend or to damn the man, but we have very little work that makes a serious attempt to clarify the political issues involved in our new partisan conflict. Marini’s book is such an attempt. Only the concluding chapter deals with the 2016 election and its consequences, but the whole of the book does the work needed to articulate what’s involved in our populist politics, by showing how Washington ended up centralizing not just politics but also administration and therefore becoming the most important place in America for economics as well as politics and any number of other domains. Establishing the theoretical coherence of the progressive project we call the administrative state finally clarifies what it is that people opposed to the “establishment” or “the swamp” or “Washington” or “elites” actually oppose and offers a political ground for such an opposition in the Constitution.

It might seem odd to look to an avuncular professor of political philosophy to provide the coherence that populist politics needs but cannot supply for itself, but at least in America this makes sense, since the teachings of political philosophy, starting with natural rights, go back further than the Founding itself. What’s far more strange than this is the rarity of such efforts — Marini is one of a small number of writers on politics who have made it their work to question the legitimacy of rule by experts and to expose it as an attack on the constitutional system of the separation of powers, balances and checks, and accountability to the electorate.

Conservatives could therefore learn from this book how to hold on to conservative principles and at the same time engage in politics in a populist time. Marini’s argument about our times, about what’s urgent, should be very attractive to populists and perhaps palatable to those who, though they are not progressives, cannot commit to populism. He points out that now we have achieved unwittingly something no previous crisis managed to accomplish. We have a clear opposition between populism and Progress. The very accumulation of power in Washington has made it the favorite target of political ire. Our moment may prove decisive therefore. The American people can now decide between the Founders’ Constitution and the progressive — or “living” — Constitution.

This is not to say that Trump is an apostle of the Constitution or the true heir of the Founders, as Lincoln was. Nor that opposition to Progress is bound to be the majority opinion in America and at the same time the basis for a strong majority coalition. Far from it. Neither the champion whom such a cause might need nor the popular support for it are guaranteed. It is perfectly possible, after all, that even people who read this book and agree with Marini’s argument throughout conclude nevertheless that Progress inevitably wins, even if they think it corrupt. Progressives themselves might agree with everything in the historical and theoretical argument and walk away concluding that Progress is right, the Founders were wrong, and Americans need to recommit to FDR’s vision or Obama’s.

This book brings clarity about our politics and can help clarify our partisanship. It does not, however, offer any prediction as to the likely outcome of our present discontent, or any weapons with which to determine the outcome of the war of ideas. Chance and the American people will decide these matters in 2020 and afterward. Political science, even done well, can contribute only so much.

Now, our partisan conflict has taken its typical American form, populists versus elites. And Progress once again has failed either to secure control of America or to persuade the people that they are very happy and should be grateful to Washington, or at least content in the lives administered by Washington. So an alternative based on natural rights and common sense can oppose the rule of experts, bureaucrats, and punitive, sanctimonious elites. The doctrine of Progress is reducible to rational control of human affairs, organized through the federal government, especially the non-elected parts, whether federal courts or executive agencies (which are under very limited control by the president). In betting on the future and on rational control, progressives are vulnerable to being proven wrong by being defeated politically. We might have progressives with us always, but the authority of the power they’ve built into the administrative state could be destroyed quickly. Chance, simple bad luck, itself is helpful to the opponents of progressives, if we only take our chances and spread the good news that the administrative state is illegitimate and has failed. Experts are not smart enough to rule America.

It is Marini’s special achievement to have married populism and a defense of the Constitution in terms of natural rights. The founder of National Review, William F. Buckley Jr., expressed this preference for populism over unaccountable elites when he quipped that he’d rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston phone book than by the faculty of Harvard. Buckley was a friend of Harry Jaffa, Marini’s teacher, from whom he, like many others, learned about the decisive importance of the doctrine of natural rights in American politics.

Political science and populism ordinarily have very little in common, but they do now have a crucial alliance. The rule of experts in Washington is implausible, if not impossible, without the rule of experts in academia, not merely because all the jobbers have to be trained somewhere but because their authority depends on their control of academia, which in turn depends on their form of political science. It is already at that level that contempt for human experience, common sense, and ultimately the consent of the governed is decided. The progressive attempt to reduce politics to administration is also an attempt to impose a claim to scientific authority that precludes the political disagreement that politics and political science both need in order to give any serious account of justice, the common good, and our dignity. The alternative to political disagreement is some form of technological rule — administration involves robots and algorithms more and more — that would allow for no theoretical justification for the preference of human judgment.

Marini presents a non-progressive, non-historicist history of American politics in the 20th century and shows that the older political science of the Federalist and the sources in political philosophy that formed the Founders can hold their own against progressives in argument. He also shines the light of political philosophy on politics and government in a way that should inspire readers to take politics more seriously and defend it against administration. We will need political elites if we are going to oppose Progress, and they will need an education in political philosophy and American history. May Marini’s book be the beginning of a generational effort to restore consent of the governed to its rightful prominent position in American politics and to restore natural rights to their old dignity in American political thought.

Titus Techera hosts the American Cinema Foundation movie podcast. He is a Claremont Institute Fellow and a contributor to Law & Liberty.

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