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The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.
By Richard Wilson
March 28, 2017
It has long been axiomatic for most scholars that “politics” and “administration” cannot be distinguished. When this perspective is questioned, which happens far too infrequently, its defenders point out, quite correctly, that political DNA is ubiquitous in the institutions of government. This does not render the institutions of government political in the way scholars often assume.
The larger purposes of politics and administration are not the same. The practice of politics is about the preservation, or replacement, of the political order. It is well and good to talk about the policy viewpoints of competing political persuasions, but it is more instructive to observe how malleable these viewpoints are in practice.
The Republican Party, for example, used to be the party of Ronald Reagan, and the party’s partisans proudly proclaimed their principled support of Reagan’s outlook. These principles, they claimed, could be traced back to the American Revolution, and were inviolable.
The party is now the party of Donald Trump. That President Trump’s outlook is utterly at variance with the party’s pre-Trump views is of little moment, because Donald Trump succeeded in replacing the political order headed by Barack Obama.
The practice of politics is about preserving, or replacing, the political order. It is a visceral question, not an intellectual one. Politics is about who holds office and who does not. The next election begins the instant the results of the last one are declared. The question of preserving or replacing the political order is always before us.
The institutions of government—federal, state and local—transcend the political order. To be sure, they embody the sum total of elections past. They are said to anticipate elections future. They are only in small part about elections and politics. They constitute an order of their own — the institutional order of government, if you will.
Like all institutions, public and private, those of government seek to preserve themselves. Succinctly put, the organizations of government, and those who work there, stand for the preservation of the institutional order. They can be counted on to welcome politicians who support the institutional order and to struggle with those who oppose it. To the extent any political order is compatible with the preservation of the institutional order, the latter will be politically compliant. To the extent that a political order threatens the institutional order, the institutional order will not be compliant.
This is the context in which the remarkable leaks of the political present can best be understood. These leaks are neither about the Obama administration’s legacy nor the Trump administration’s political future. They are about the institutional order, and the extent to which the men and women who work there feel their livelihoods and career commitments are under threat. It is true there is political DNA in every leak, but the political order has been set for the next four years. What has not yet been set is the extent to which the institutional order will be subject to change.
Seen in this context, the plethora of leaks to the press is readily understandable. And the more threatened those in the institutional order feel, the more they will leak information that would tend to protect and preserve the institutional order.
The incredulity and disdain of the Trump administration toward the leak phenomenon is demonstrative of inexperience. In the private sector those in authority can tell their employees they don’t matter any more and make them disappear. This is not how things are in the public sector. When you tell the men and women who make up the institutional order of government they don’t matter anymore, they respond by saying, “We’ll see about that.”
As much as political conservatives decry government’s institutions for being liberal, they are actually conservative, in that they represent the sum total of past elections, rather than just the most recent one. Presidents are powerless to change this. Understanding they are powerless in this regard is a prerequisite for any president who wants to make the most of the limited authority that comes with the office.
There are always those who stand for tearing down the institutional order. But they hardly ever say what they would do next, because they have no notion. In truth, there is no alternative to the institutional order of government in our country. Which is a very good thing, because our institutions of government are the envy of the world, and rightly so.
Author: Richard Clay Wilson, Jr. is a retired city manager with 38 years of local government experience. He is the author of numerous columns and of the book Rethinking Public Administration: The Case for Management, published by Melvin & Leigh.