I loved my work as a civil servant. It fulfilled my desire to work in the public interest, but I did not have to do the campaigning, shaking hands and fighting it out in public with political opponents, none of which fit my basic nature. I spent the first ten years of my career in Texas’s civil service. We were formally state employees but highly dependent for funds on the matching provided by the Social Security Act and titles added since its inception in 1935.
Then came the presidential election of 1980 and Ronald Reagan’s war on bureaucracy. He clearly had no respect for people working in civil service and used the term “bureaucrat” as a pejorative. His attacks on bureaucrats and “welfare queens” led me to move into private sector social welfare planning. His attacks were popular enough that he served two terms. Nixon and the Bushes continued the Republican assaults on the civil service.
Even the Clinton administration saw advantages in belittling the efficiency of government employees. And by the time of Trump’s inauguration most government employment had been re-defined by legislation to be at-will, thus losing the insulation from politicization that the merit system was designed to provide.
Trump has taken the war on the civil service much farther than his predecessors. He came into office promising the “drain the swamp.” He has been very open in the use of executive power to remove and replace career civil servants to the service of his own political interests. His hero Andrew Jackson would be proud of his ability to grab the spoils which victors deserve as their reward for being winners, not losers.
Moreover, he has taken up the position of right-wing extremists that the civil service constitutes a “deep state” that overrides the will of the people in its simple acts of continuing to implement the law that has come to it from previous administrations and congresses.
In his attacks on civil service professionals who have testified against him and in leaving great numbers of positions unfilled, he has weakened the government’s ability to respond to national crises. He has attacked the national intelligence agencies, the State Department, the FBI and, at one time or another, just about every agency of the federal government.
This has left the government unprepared to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. Valuable public servants in the Center for Disease Control have had to submit themselves to professional humiliation in order to remain in a position to have any influence at all on the national response.
This should be high on our list of things to repair as soon as we can sweep the Trump family out of the White House. Restoring the independence and respect of the civil service may require some legislation but I suspect that a good deal will be accomplished by simply having a president that values the service of career employees and who respects their independence.
Governing is complicated, hard work. A deep state, if one wishes to characterize it as such, offers guidance and ideas that Trump’s shallow state can’t even begin to understand. In our complicated and suffering world, it is the shallow state that is the enemy of the people.