I recently found myself making the case that the United States is less a democratic republic than it is a semi-permanent technocratic state in which a minority of the nation’s population (the electorate) dispatch briefly-tenured officials (primarily on the basis of personal charisma rather than skill) to effect small surface-level changes, while the superstructure of the system remains untouched and untouchable. Ours is a system, in other words, that is actually run by long-tenured bureaucrats who are not elected but selected on the basis of competency and skill. These individuals form a kind slow-moving but powerful political lithosphere atop which elected leaders act out their impermanent prerogatives. Think of it as a kind of fixed tectonic plate beneath the shifting topsoil of electoral politics. A tectonic bureaucracy.
I don’t actually believe this — political leaders can and frequently do re-engineer the deep structures of government on at least a semi-permanent basis, and often for the worse. But as fantasy goes, it’s a pretty good one. In the wake of Trump’s election I saw several stories about the power and imperative of bureaucrats to stand up to the ethically dubious directives that are expected to emanate from a Trump White House. My favorite of these stories was Evan Osnos’s piece in the New Yorker about John Chiang, the California State Controller, who effectively stonewalled a terrible and cruel executive order from then governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
More recently, as the facts surrounding Russian interference in the election have gotten a wider airing, there has been a very sudden and very strange partisan realignment: while conservatives have developed a newfound love of Vladimir Putin, liberals have come to look to the US intelligence services — the very epitome of the tectonic bureaucracy — as a kind of savior. This is quite the 180 from the left’s natural inclination, reinforced after the Snowden leaks, to see the US intelligence apparatus as a kind of sinister deep state. I know politics makes strange bedfellows, but geez.
The tectonic bureaucracy is more fantasy than fact to my mind, at least in the United State. And it is almost certainly for the better. The most well-publicized version of this is probably the Turkish deep state, with its roots in the intrigues, conspiracies and secret armies of the Ottoman Empire. Its record of violence and corruption have made it a thing to be feared, and the depth of its penetration into the mechanisms of government have made it very easy for Erdogan to plausibly implicate many thousands of government employees, journalists, and business types as members of the deep state, regardless of the facts.
A somewhat more benign but no less destructive form of tectonic bureaucracy exists in Japan. In the wake of the Meiji Restoration Japan both restored direct imperial rule and jury-rigged a parliamentary democracy onto the imperial government. Two early imperatives laid the foundation for a tectonic bureaucracy: the desire to keep the emperor’s actions free from parliamentary oversight, and the tradition of keeping the emperor above politics by not intervening directly in government. Instead, the emperor’s privy council, originally made up of the samurai who overthrew Shogunate, acted on the emperor’s behalf, without oversight or interference from the elected parliament (and without input or protest from the emperor).
I had no idea about any of this until I read R. Taggart Murphy’s recent book, Japan and the Shackles of the Past. Here’s how he describes the process by which Japan’s bureaucracy first took hold:
As the genrō (elder statesmen–i.e., the Meiji leaders who survived into the twentieth century) began retreating from active policy-making into groups such as the Privy Council who could veto decisions without being required to bear the consequences, the stage was set for colossal political irresponsibility. That irresponsibility would culminate in the prosecution of a land war in Asia that lacked any plausible scenarion for victory and to a direct attack on an overseas power with an industrial base ten times larger than Japan’s The end-result would be precisely what the Meiji leaders had attempted to forestall: the loss of Japan’s control of its own affairs.
Japan’s bureaucracy metastasized over the decades, expanding even outside of the public sector. In the aftermath of WWII the Ministry of Finance, perhaps the most powerful of Japan’s unchecked bureaucratic forces of the era, pursued a hyper-aggressive growth policy, and in so doing co-opted some of the largest members of private industry into the tectonic bureaucracy. As Murphy describes it:
The economic ministries worked in a collaborative fashion with major companies as well as bureaucracies outside the formal government […]. Furthermore, the great business combines, particularly those in the guruppu gaisha (Sumitomo, Mitsubishi, etc.) where they owned shares in each other, functioned far more like bureaucracies than like profit-seeking business enterprises. They were not driven by “greed and fear” […]; among other things, large established Japanese companies effectively did not go bankrupt while “excessive” profit making was seen as socially suspect. Instead, like bureaucracies anywhere, these companies responded to expectations generated by the sociopolitical system in which they were embedded.
While this policy succeeded brilliantly in rebuilding the Japanese nation and vaulting it into the upper tier of the world’s economic powers, it went too far for too long, as Murpny expertly discusses in the book. Japan has been living with the economic consequences of this policy for almost three decades now.
As appealing a fantasy as an empowered, enlightened, benign tectonic bureaucracy is in this (hopefully brief) moment of extreme despair in our electoral politics, it is something that really ought to remain on the other side of the looking glass.