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The Road to Neopatrimonialism

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UNITED STATES – DECEMBER 1: Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., makes remarks during the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol markup in Cannon Building on a ???report recommending that the House of Representatives cite Jeffrey Clark for criminal contempt of Congress and refer him to the United States Attorney for the District of Columbia for prosecution,??? on Wednesday, December 1, 2021. Appearing from left are, Reps. Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., Pete Aguilar, D-Calif., Adam Schiff, D-Calif., Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., Thompson, Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., Jamie Raskin, D-Md., and Elaine Luria, D-Va. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Paul already posted about the new Jonathan Swan report, which details how the people who tried mount a coup d’état on January 6th are planning to turn the entire Executive Branch into an extension of Trump’s dictatorial whims. Paul also zeroed in on a crucial implication:

One thing that [Merrick Garland] ought to take into account is that the coup attempt is very much ongoing, and if Trump is re-elected, or “re-elected,” it will succeed. At which point there will be no more investigations, except those conducted by Trump loyalists of the countless traitors in our midst. One of these traitors is going to be Merrick Garland, of course.

If you haven’t already, you really should go read the entire article.

This post is about how Trump’s plan fits into the broader contexts of neopatrimonialism, U.S conservatism, and reactionary populism. 

Let’s start with a reminder about the nature of the plot.

Even if Trump did not deploy Schedule F to this extent, the very fact that such power exists could create a significant chilling effect on government employees.It would effectively upend the modern civil service, triggering a shock wave across the bureaucracy. The next president might then move to gut those pro-Trump ranks — and face the question of whether to replace them with her or his own loyalists, or revert to a traditional bureaucracy.Such pendulum swings and politicization could threaten the continuity and quality of service to taxpayers, the regulatory protections, the checks on executive power, and other aspects of American democracy.

I think Swan intends to say ‘look, you may not believe Trump is the wannabe despot that he obviously is; you should understand that it’s still a terrible idea.’ Nonetheles, his phrasing strikes me as odd. If the plan works as intended, there won’t be any any “pendulum swings.” The executive branch will operate as an engine of maintaining Trumpworld’s grip on power for years to come. 

Over at Vanity Fair, Bess Levin captures the overall mood:

In a long, terrifyingly specific article published on Friday, Axios’s Jonathan Swan reports that should Trump win in 2024, he’ll unleash an authoritarian rule that will make his plot to steal a second term look innocent by comparison—which is sort of like saying that for his second act, Jeffrey Dahmer was going to do something worse than eat all those people.  …. Put another way, [Schedule F] gave him the power to fire thousands of federal workers who actually knew what they were doing and replace them with people who only knew how to pledge their undying loyalty to the 45th president. The former are the kind of people you want, say, working for the Federal Aviation Administration and deciding if a plane is safe to fly. The latter you want on a no-fly list.

Gerry Connolly successfully added an amendment to the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act that would ban Schedule F. Swann notes that Republican Senators hope to strip the amendment out.

Even if Connolly’s amendment becomes law, though, I worry that Trump’s cronies get it right: “his” federal judges will side with the White House – probably via some sort of handwaving about the “unitary executive.” 

I suppose that it is within the realm of the possible that Trump would ultimately lose. Never say never and all that. But anyone interested in preserving liberal democracy needs to assume that the Supreme Court will continue to expand the doctrine of <em>quid acturus de illo</em>, which holds that any exercise of executive power by a Republican president is presumptively lawful. If so, the question becomes “will the opinion merely imply that civil-service protections are unconstitutional or do we get another ‘BURN IT ALL DOWN BABY! YOLO!! decision?”

At some level, Swan’s article provides another reminder that Trump remains an existential threat to the Republic. Unfortunately, it seems likely that any number of other GOP presidential hopefuls – say Ron DeSantis or Josh “Running Man” Hawley – would, if elected, implement the exact same plan. 

As I’ve argued before, Trumpism is a variant of contemporary reactionary populism. The GOP has been home to a reactionary-populist faction since at least the 1930s. The modern incarnation of that faction gained strength during the Obama years, but the national party remained out of its control.

Republican politicians rode that tiger; they never expected that the tiger would ride them.

This changed with Trump. His rise made reactionary populism the dominant force in Republican politics.

Once in power, reactionary populists almost invariably adopt neopatrimonial styles of governance: they attempt to transform state bureaucracies into an extension of their own personal authority. As Stephen Hanson and Jeffrey Kopstein explain:

German sociologist Max Weber…  considered the key act of politics to be obedience to the leader’s command. Such obedience is more likely and consistent, Weber argued, when subordinates subjectively believe that orders from their superiors are “legitimate”—that is, that they have a duty, and not merely a self-interested motive, to obey. Without obedience to commands there can be no government, no matter how it is chosen. The core link is between the leader and his or her administrative “staff.” This relationship can be highly personal and intimate, or it can be impersonal and legalistic. The staff accept commands as legitimate for basically one of two reasons: because of their sense of duty to the person of the leader or because of their sense of duty to law and abstract rules. For much of human history, this sense of duty was based primarily on personal relationships. During periods of social crisis, followers might obey orders under the spell of a leader’s personal charisma. Yet charismatic leadership generally does not last long. The patrimonial bond, when durable, was emotional, one of respect, friendship, and devotion, embodied in the beloved monarch whose royal lineage had ruled since “time immemorial.” Finding a loyal staff is not easy, so in its purest form “patrimonialism” amounts to rule by the family and friends of the leader. To provide a succinct definition, a patrimonial regime is a form of legitimate domination in which the ruler and his staff fuse administration with personal authority, considering the state itself to be a “family business” of sorts.

We should not conflate patrimonialism (whether new-style or OG) with authoritarianism. Plenty of authoritarian regimes operate along more legal-rational lines – that is, they make use of state bureaucracies “staffed by a civil service of educated professionals” who follow “rules and procedures” and are “recruited on the basis of merit rather than personal relationships.” In such authoritarian regimes, like their liberal-democratic counterparts, “the basic grounds on which commands” are “obeyed” stem not “from duty to the person of the ruler”” but from “duty to the impersonal abstraction of the rules themselves.” 

While all real-world political systems combine different forms of authority, “neopatrimonialism” describes a specific kind of hybrid arrangement.

On paper, neopatrimonial regimes look like legal-rational ones. Most civil servants do standard civil-servant things; state bureaucracies and political officials invoke principles of fairness, equal treatment, merit, and following the rules. In practice, patrimonial authority predominates; the state serves the personal interests of its leadership.

Hanson and Kopstein point out that the current patrimonial wave has affected both democratic and autocratic regimes. Many commentators note that rise of personalist authoritarianism in countries like Russia and China. Others point out that democracies are becoming, on average, more personalistic.

Erica Frantz and her co-authors write that:

[O]bservers’ intuitions are correct: Levels of personalism have increased in democracies in recent years. Importantly, we show that greater personalism is associated with a variety of negative outcomes, such as higher levels of populism, a higher probability of democratic erosion, and greater political polarization. In addition, we explore the potential causes of the personalist wave and find evidence that new technologies and digital tools are facilitating it.

We should distinguish between personalist regimes and personalist politics. When we talk about the latter we mean, more or less, the relationship between political leaders and political parties:

  • How much do people think of politics in terms of leaders or parties? One reason to think that there’s a connection between communication technologies and personalism: the increasing salience of leaders in parliamentary systems.
  • How autonomous are political parties from their leaders? Some parties are independent of their leadership. Others exist only as a vehicle for an individual politician.

Personalist politics makes neopatrimonialism much more likely; personalist regimes exhibit high(er) levels of neopatrimonial governance. But we also find neopatrimonial styles of governance where authority rests in families, ethnic groups, or parties.

In the United States, it’s quite possible that we’ll see a succession of reactionary-populist neopatrimonial regimes that respect term limits. Authority would derive from an admixture of loyalty to person and to party.

Hanson and Kopstein argue that political scientists tend to think of regimes mostly in terms of the autocracy-democracy continuum; when they do study neopatrimonialism, they usually assume that it only occurs in “developing” countries.

In consequence, the field has struggled to make sense of regimes that combine electoral democracy with neopatrimonial governance. 

Neopatrimonialism does erode liberal democracy, which is predicated on legal-rational governance. Moreover, some leaders undermine democracy in order to pursue neopatrimonial style of governance. They want the benefits – including personal enrichment and, perhaps, staying out of jail – of holding onto power. Democracy is just collateral damage. Others use neopatrimonial styles of governance in order to subvert democracy from within. In most cases, we’re probably looking at some combination of the two motives.

Nonetheless, neopatrimonial quasi-democracies are going to look and behave differently than legal-rational quasi-democracies.

In my view, the problem extends way beyond political science. Americans don’t tend to think about regimes in terms of patrimonial and legal-rational styles of governance. This is a real problem, because it makes it much harder for people to understand the nature and extent of the threat. 

This is particularly true for Republicans who otherwise don’t particularly care for Trump or Trumpism. That’s because Trump’s efforts to establish personal authority over the civil services easily slot into longstanding GOP complaints about bureaucracy.

Republicans have spent decades attacking the federal bureaucracy. The rhetoric that they use has a strongly “polyvalent” quality: it communicates distinctive meanings to different audiences. 

At the risk of massive oversimplification, let’s call the different valences “libertarian,” “technocratic,” and “populist.” 

  • For libertarians, attacks on “government bureaucrats” are part of a larger, general criticism of the administrative state. The aim is to shrink the size and scope of government in favor of markets and private actors.
  • Technocrats focus on bureaucratic pathologies: the proliferation of “red tape,” conflict and duplication among agencies, lack of responsiveness, and so on. These are problems in their own right, but they are also a concern to the extent that they interfere with the implementation of specific conservative policies.
  • Populists believe that a group of “elites” exercise control over powerful institutions. These elites use that control to benefit themselves at the expense of “the people.” Government bureaucrats either serve the interests of elites or are themselves part of the elite (see arguments about the “professional managerial class,” which is where the horseshoe actually does meet.

These threads can combine in a lot of different ways. Technocratic criticisms commonly feature in more populist and more libertarian attacks on the civil service. By the 1980s, national politicians usually encoded populist objections to Civil Rights in libertarian and technocratic language.  

Some reactionary populist demagogues are true believers. Others are cynical opportunists. But no matter where they fall on that axis, they invariably attempt to consolidate their power by transforming the state into their own personal patrimony.

Successful populist leader are able to cultivate a self-reinforcing process.

They use every incremental increase in personal control over government finances to reward supporters. When their loyalists take control of a regulatory body, they turn it into a political weapon. That kind of thing.

Populist leaders paint their actions as returning power to the people – what could be more democratic than breaking the institutional power of “the elite?” 

Trump did the same thing, but with a twist.

His uncoordinated assault on the independence of the civil service was also legible in libertarian and technocratic terms. In essence, Republicans from different wings of the party each could view his action through a frame that obscured the nature of Trump’s personalist power grab. 

Or at least made it easier for them to accommodate it. From a technocratic or libertarian perspective, what was Trump doing? He was finally reining in those liberal, big-government bureaucrats! This talk of Trump killing U.S. democracy? Just liberal hysteria. Even if he actually wanted to, there’s no way he could succeed.

For what it’s worth, this gets at why, after January 6, it took massive intervention by FOX News and the broader right-wing media ecosystem to rescue Trump form political collapse. It’s also why the committee hearings are damaging, however modestly, his changes of winning the presidency in 2024. January 6 was consistent with a more ‘traditional’ understanding of how leaders try to destroy democracy. It wasn’t slow and complicated.

Now, as far as I know, its true that members of the civil service lean Democratic. There’s apparently little evidence that this translates into a disposition to undermine Republican presidents. 

So did some parts of the civil service “thwart” Donald Trump? Sure. 

In January 2017, something like 900 members of the State Department signed a “dissent memo” over Trump’s “travel ban.” They used normal channels to register disapproval. Hardly a ”rebellion.”

Sometimes, I expect civil servants prioritized bureaucratic interests or organizational mission over enacting policy directives. The same thing happens to Democratic administrations. 

There are also clearly pockets of active partisanship. This is most worrisome when it shows up in the security services – a pattern that seems to skew right, not left.

Most of the time, though, civil servants “thwarted Trump” because they were doing their jobs.

For example, a career employee blew the whistle over concerns that Trump pressured Ukraine’s president to investigate his political rival. An inspector general cited whistleblower protection laws when siding with a Customs and Border Protection employee who blew the whistle on his agency’s racial profiling of motorists. A court relied on civil service laws to issue an injunction protecting several Voice of America employees from an agency head accused of “political meddling” and trying to “disseminate political propaganda.” An inspector general’s report later vindicated other VOA employees in this work environment.

Both the “technocratic” and “libertarian” frames imply that this is precisely what the civil service should be doing. Unfortunately, the “populist” frame now predominates. It’s conventional wisdom in the GOP that civil servants make up a hostile “deep state” – one dedicated to destroying Republican presidencies.

The only solution, it follows, is to purge it and install reliable Republicans. Or those loyal to the current GOP president. Doesn’t really matter. Same difference.

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