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Public Administration in “Post-Democracy” America: Part 1 – Implications of the Collapse of Consent

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Erik Devereux
January 19, 2022

This is the first in a series of columns I will write for the PA Times regarding the implications for public administration in the United States from the emerging crisis of American democracy. A wide array of political scientists and other observers inside and outside the United States are openly predicting that the “American experiment” rapidly is coming to an end, with the latest harbinger of that being efforts at the state level to shift the ultimate choice of presidential electors from the voters, to the state legislatures. Other recent signs of democracy’s decline cited by the same observers include restrictions on voting, apparently targeted at specific groups in the population, and the January 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol as members of congress were in the midst of certifying the results of the 2020 presidential election. If current demographic trends hold, one major political institution —the U.S. Senate—seems destined to be controlled by 70 senators who will represent just 30% of the U.S. population. Many recent public opinion polls have found that about 60% of U.S. adults believe democracy is on the verge of failure.

Assume that these dire predictions are true to some degree, whether that means a complete collapse of democracy into an authoritarian system or a partial collapse in which an appearance of free and fair elections is maintained, yet underneath the voters are not choosing the winners in many contests (especially those at the national level). What do such scenarios mean for rank-and-file public administrators?

One of the foundational tenets of American public administration is the strict separation between politics and administration. But that separation was envisioned in the context of the United States maintaining a strong adherence to democracy in its values and its practice. In that democratic context, unelected public administrators who formally are insulated from direct public or private pressures by the civil service system, acquire their legitimacy to act through the freely given consent of the governed. Such consent fuels the ability of public administrators to do their jobs, even when confronted with opposition to their work.

How will public administrators proceed when there is no democratic consent by the majority?

We can look around the world and quickly ascertain from existing authoritarian regimes that the most likely outcome will be a rapid rise in official corruption. Indeed, amidst the other trends itemized above, the ongoing collapse of local newspapers across the United States has observers predicting widespread corruption in local governments now “freed” from journalists’ daily scrutiny. The irony here is impressive: One of the major reasons cited by domestic opponents of U.S. foreign aid programs is that the recipient nations are rife with official corruption. These same opponents would like to cite the United States as an example of low levels of official corruption.

A rise in official corruption is likely if a future authoritarian government in the United States systematically defunds public agencies, leaving public administrators with the choice of either leaving their jobs or staying for vastly reduced salaries and benefits. That reduction in economic security, combined with recognition that the political system no longer serves the will of the majority, formulate the perfect conditions for official corruption. Please note that authoritarian leaders often prefer official corruption to be the norm because that provides the means necessary to hold direct sway over the bureaucracy. Corruption is not an accident of history nor a symptom of underlying societal problems, but a policy.

What then should honest and committed public administrators possibly do to push back against authoritarianism and corruption? The first item to note, inherent in this question, are the possible actions that American public administration has traditionally ruled unacceptable. One such action is direct political organizing. Another such action is coordinated protest. Then there is systematic disengagement such as mass resignations. None of these are comfortable choices for the persons most likely to read this column.

Much more palatable to most public administrators will be “muddling through” by staying in their jobs, keeping a low profile and trying to anticipate the demands of political leaders. From a collective action perspective this makes a lot of sense – any other approach entails severe risks without a decent chance of significant benefits. But if American public administration goes down this path, then it jettisons its original fuel – the consent of the governed – to be in service to authoritarianism. My next columns in this series will explore this dilemma in greater detail and through that, develop a critique of the separation between politics and administration.

Author: Erik Devereux is a consultant to nonprofits and higher education and teaches at Georgetown University. He has a B.S. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Political Science, 1985) and a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin (Government, 1993). He is the author of Methods of Policy Analysis: Creating, Deploying, and Assessing Theories of Change (Amazon Kindle Direct). Email: [email protected]. Twitter: @eadevereux.

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