Never has timing been more opportune to spotlight the hypocrisy of conservatives who mock and deride those who work in government.
Right now the storm-damaged red states of Texas and Florida are relying on public workers and tax dollars paid in part by those of us in blue America. This must especially gall Texans, with their macho ethos of self-reliance and disdain for the federal government.
Let’s put aside for now how conservative zealots deny climate-change science even in the aftermath of catastrophic storms like Harvey in Texas and Irma in Florida. (And catastrophic they are: Moody Analytics has projected the combined losses from the two at $150-$200 billion.)
Conservatives have long been masterful at painting anyone who works in the public sector — at least anyone not wearing a military uniform — as being self-interested and sinister.
For many years, their preferred code word was “bureaucrat,” frequently invoked in contrast to what always are “hardworking” taxpayers, because anyone in the private sector has instant work-ethic credibility.
More recently, President Trump and his former alt-right strategist Steve Bannon have spread a truly outlandish narrative known as the “deep state,” the notion that the public sector has undertaken a dark and orchestrated plot against the American people.
To combat this “deep state,” Trump has appointed men and women to government who know nothing about and care not at all about the functions they oversee, from the environment to education to financial regulation.
But this trend of vilifying public employees predated Trump. It was the basis of Republican Scott Walker’s entire plan, starting in the 2010 campaign, to use the office of Wisconsin governor as a springboard to the White House.
It was a pretty simple formula, really. Get elected in a GOP wave election year by pretending to be open-minded and right of center, then, once elected, refuse to even hear voices on the other side. This was, after all, the most efficient way to succeed as a compliant lapdog for wealthy donors.
Walker has always sought to diminish public employees, with school teachers first in line. And he appointed people like Cathy Stepp. The best measure of her effectiveness in harming Wisconsin’s environment as secretary of the Department of Natural Resources was her recent “promotion” into Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency.
Under her “leadership,” the state vastly decreased environmental enforcement actions, cut the DNR’s science and research capacity, largely ignored chronic wasting disease among white-tailed deer, slowed state acquisition of precious land through a stewardship program, and supported increased fees for state parks and campsites.
Many of these DNR actions fit under Walker’s “open for business” mantra. Yet what’s actually “open for business” is Walker’s re-election coffers, which are always open to business interests expecting to profit from lax or nonexistent government oversight.
That is pretty much how Republicans everywhere — Walker, Trump and the whole party —act when they claim to be looking out for the regular Joes and Janes.
They blame public workers first. That’s job one, because they must neutralize government-employed experts who might interfere.
The irony is that public workers at both the state and national levels are so dispersed across far-flung professional silos that they could not possibly coordinate and conspire, which is the only way they might constitute some “deep state.”
An essay by Jon D. Michaels, a UCLA law professor writing in Foreign Affairs magazine, asks in a headline “Does America Have a Deep State?”
His conclusion is an unambiguous “no.”
The “deep state,” as defined by Michaels, is a “conspiracy of powerful, unelected bureaucrats secretly pursuing their own agenda.” He suggests the term is relevant in developing countries such as Egypt, Pakistan and Turkey, “where shadowy elites in the military and government ministries have been known to countermand or simply defy democratic directives.”
But he writes: “It has little relevance in the United States, where governmental power structures are almost entirely transparent, egalitarian, and rule-bound.” Michaels argues that what he instead calls the “American state” of public workers should be embraced, not feared: “It is not secretive, exclusive, monolithic, but open, diverse and fragmented.”
I think that is as true of state agencies in Wisconsin as in the sprawling federal government in Washington, D.C. Both employ experts who enforce regulations, design and run social programs, combat corruption, protect consumers and the environment, and much more.
In contrast to genuine “deep states” elsewhere, Michaels writes, the U.S. “state” is “an amalgam of middle-class technocrats without any strong collective identity or financial incentives to profit personally from their jobs.”
He follows with the point that I wish more voters would ponder: “In fact, one could make a good case that the bureaucrats are closer to and more in tune with median voters than the mostly rich, elite politicians who control them.”
Public employees actually operate from weakness and deference because they are “disaggregated and siloed,” contends Michaels.
Capable national leaders, Michaels argues, recognize that trained and competent bureaucrats are a “national treasure,” adding, “it is the insecure presidents, unable to hear honest technocratic feedback, who go to war with the state they nominally lead.”
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist — maybe a bureaucrat from NASA? — to know who he is describing.
“Now more than ever,” Michaels writes, “the state (public sector) and its officials need to be supported and nurtured rather than demonized and starved.”
This whole “deep state” thing represents one half of the GOP political playbook of division in Wisconsin and beyond.
The other half, broadly speaking, is using race and ethnicity to divide people. In Wisconsin, for example, the GOP helps smear people of color in Madison and Milwaukee with pejorative stereotypes.
By fostering a simmering distrust — hatred even — of public workers and people of color, the GOP diverts attention from its real motive — further concentration of wealth and power by those who purchase their fealty.
In that way, Walker and Trump are quite alike, and the model has worked well for them in both Wisconsin and Washington.
Because, sadly, the politics of resentment seem to scale nicely.
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