Progressives, the Right and the Dangerous Purge of “the Deep State”

While out walking my dog yesterday I had a revealing political exchange with a neighbor.

The conversation began with a polite discussion of the neighborhood; the neighbor generously volunteers to keep up maintenance in the community to save the homeowner’s association money on repairs. As we discussed various concerns about the neighborhood people had brought to his attention, his reference to “the liberals” came up; I self-identified as such. That’s when things got interesting.

In response to my confession, the first thing my neighbor asked was how much I knew about Stalin and the number of deaths for which he bore responsibility. Taken aback, I probed the source of the question. Knowledge about Stalin was his litmus test for liberals – and evidence of their denial of atrocities on the political left.

University students, apparently, are kept from knowledge of the horrors of Stalinism by professors who sweep this history under the rug as a means of sanitizing the political left.  I responded that this was not only entirely untrue, but that his association of progressives with Stalinism was severely misguided.

I chose not to take the discussion in this direction, but the obvious irony is that the political right is at this moment engaged in a campaign to “purge” the “deep state” in our federal government – a project with clear Stalinist overtones.

What is this project about?  What are its objectives and its consequences?

The New Yorker recently published an insightful account of the shameful “deep state” campaign.

The project amounts to a decision to go after civil servants who were important to developing Obama-era policies that the new administration finds objectionable. The New Yorker focuses on a loyal, talented young woman who was targeted due to her value in negotiating the nuclear deal with Iran and extracting the best possible terms for the U.S.

Of course, the record of the federal civil service is one of faithfully executing policies of successive administrations regardless of their politics. There can be obstruction and foot-dragging, but civil servants also are bound by a code of ethics that illuminates by contrast the disgraceful behavior of the current cabinet oligarchy.

The New Yorker points out how the Nixon administration systematically sought to marginalize civil servants it saw as a threat to that lawless administration’s political control.

The infamous “Malek Manual” was the guiding document for that project. This was an 80-page memo associated with a business executive brought into the Nixon Administration as a loyalist to1526960943.jpeg be assigned to political tasks in various agencies.

The manual establishes a system for classifying civil servants on a K, O, L, or N basis — for “Keep,” “Out,” “Let’s Watch,” and “Neuter.” The very project is reflective of an administration with no more regard for the rule of law than the current administration.

The manual rehearses in detail civil service rules of appointment and laments the difficulty of removal and adverse action against civil servants.

The objective is to identify means to circumvent these rules.

As the manual states on p. 72: “there are several techniques which can be designed, carefully, to skirt around the adverse action proceedings.” These include the “frontal assault” involving a frank announcement that the individual “is no longer wanted” and can leave either under favorable conditions immediately or be forced out under humiliating conditions later on.

“There should be no witnesses in the room” for the frontal assault.

Then there is the “special assistant technique” of assigning a “family man” who does not want to travel to duties involving extensive travel in order to force a resignation. The report actually contains this passage: “Until his wife threatens him with divorce unless he quits, you have him out of town and out of the way.”

But even this odious document refers in its conclusion to political costs that will ensue: “There is no question that the effective activities of a political personnel office will invoke a one-shot furor in the hostile press and Congress.” The costs would nonetheless be worth the benefits because of the necessity of establishing “political control.”

That political control, the document arrogantly concludes, “is the difference between ruling and reigning.”

Still, the document was to be kept confidential and there could be no links to the president.

What differs now is the brazenness of the purge and the very public way in which the process is portrayed as a virtuous assault on forces seeking to undermine a legitimately elected political authority.

In fact, while the Nixon era politicization of the civil service relied on secrecy, the “deep state” purge depends on its public nature.

In short, the current occupant of the Oval Office is attempting to turn the world inside out by weaving a story of victimization at the hands of federal institutions – from the intelligence agencies to the Justice Department to the Obama loyalists seeded throughout the federal bureaucracy.

This narrative has gained momentum on Fox and other right-wing media, and has reverberated on the official English-language Russian news station, RT.

If American citizens like my neighbor buy into the “deep state” purge, American democracy is on very treacherous ground indeed. As reported recently by the Washington Post, that is precisely what is happening as increasing numbers of Republicans (now a substantial majority) express opposition to the Mueller probe.

The objective, of course, is to undermine the legitimacy of Mueller’s findings in advance so that it will be possible to continue to wage political war on the findings as a buttress to the legal assault, which may well fail.

But democracy can not function without effective institutions whose legitimacy is widely embraced by citizens. The American political system will bear the costs of this institutional wreckage for years to come.

 

 

 

 

 

Subordinating the Public Good to Private Profit: The Abuses of the Department of Education Under DeVos

It is one of the many ironies of contemporary American politics: On the one hand, portions of the Republican Party attack the nation’s leading public institutions of higher education. On the other, the federal government withdraws scrutiny from for-profit colleges, some of which do nothing more than exploit vulnerable populations of students.

Like so much Republican Party propaganda, the campaign against American universities, which have contributed enormously and in multiple ways to U.S. global leadership in the decades since World War II, has been effective. The consequences have been popular discourses ranging from the insistence that universities smother free speech to the more fundamental claim that college may just not be “worth it.”

One consequence of this assault on not-for-profit higher education institutions is to make for-profit colleges look less unattractive in comparison – a development in synch with the current administration’s elevation of activities that generate private profit over investments in the public good.

The Department of Education under Betsy DeVos has embarked on a systematic deconstruction of efforts to investigate and punish fraudulent activity at for-profit colleges. Why, in a capitalist economy, would we wish to encourage and abet fraud?

Last week it became public that DeVos has appointed as the head of one of the Department’s teams that had been investigating fraudulent activity at for-profit institutions a Dean from one of the largest colleges formerly under scrutiny.

De Vos has appointed other officials from for-profit institutions to senior positions in the Department of Education – displaying the blatant disdain for rule of law and the public good repeatedly demonstrated by this administration.

This week, the New York Times reported on the frustrations of New Jersey’s Attorney General as the Department of Education withdraws its cooperation on efforts to punish fraudulent activities exploiting students at for-profit colleges in that state.

The scope of federal support for for-profit colleges is not new, and has been a problem in our system of higher education for years. In 2010, a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report documented the explosion in enrollment at for-profit colleges, which were the beneficiaries of $4 billion in Pell Grants and $20 billion in federal loans provided by the Department of Education in 2009.

In 2008-9, for profit institutions received 23% of the $105 billion total in federal grant and loan funding to higher education. Furthermore, for-profit colleges garner a large share of their funding from the federal government; in 2014-15, 30% of 1838 for-profit institutions received more than 80% of their funds from federal financial aid.

These institutions do enroll a disproportionate share of financially needy students; nonetheless, a model in which institutional existence is based on pulling in students and their federal loan money should at the very least face tough public scrutiny to ensure students are well-served. In the event they are not, the model comprises a grossly ironic federal subsidization of the for-profit system.For-Profit-College-List-4.png

The GAO report focused on 15 for-profit institutions, identifying fraudulent activities at 4 of these, and deceptive practices (including misleading information about graduation rates, accreditation, program costs and earnings potential) at all 15. While there are undoubtedly some honest for-profit institutions, the GAO report establishes that deception is the prevailing business model.

The Obama Administration drafted regulations to address these issues, citing the high debt to earnings ratio of student borrowers at for-profits as well as their high loan default rate – 11.9%, nearly double the 6.2% rate at public colleges.

Federal regulations drafted in 2010-11 established debt to earnings limits, adjusted based on program-completion and job placement rates.

According to the Sunlight Foundation, when the Obama Administration began pursuing regulations to address the high level of student loan defaults at for-profit colleges, the industry responded by tripling its funds spent on lobbying to more than $7.5 million. Lobbying activity intensified in 2011, focused on contact with officials in the then-Democratic administration. Reporting from the time refers to the industry’s “aggressive efforts, even by Washington standards.” As a Penn State education professor who studied the process concluded, “the industry did largely what it set out to do.”  “The Department of Education,” he added, “really bent to the lobbying push.”

With the new administration, subordination of the public good to private profit, and the misallocation of federal resources, have become far more egregious.

In recent weeks I’ve written about the evisceration of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau; policy making there, at the Department of Education, the Environmental Protection Agency, etc. reveal a very clear pattern: industry personnel are being ushered into the federal government not for their business expertise, but so that they may systematically restructure federal regulation in the service of private profit and at the expense of American citizens.

Other than those who are profiting from predatory financial and marketing practices, which Americans are served by these policies?

No citizen, regardless of political inclination, has an interest in supporting this massive fleecing of the American people and the resources of the federal government at the hands of a colossally corrupt administration. The damage is spreading; Americans of all political persuasions should be alarmed.

Why Democracy Will Not Save Us From the Globalization Divide

Those of us interested in trying to understand the deep political divide that has emerged in the U.S., the UK and other capitalist democracies trace the gulf to citizens’ starkly contrasting experiences of globalization.

The prescient and prolific Harvard political economist Dani Rodrik suggests we’ve entered an era of hyperglobalization, in which globalization has become an end in itself that drives policy choices and constraints rather than serving as a means to prosperity.

Rodrik argues that negotiation of international trade agreements has been captured by lobbyists, with gains accruing narrowly to powerful transnational businesses such as financial institutions and pharmaceutical companies.

As a consequence, he points out, we are witnessing an “insurrection against business and political elites” by workers bypassed by the gains of globalization.

In his work, Rodrik considers two ways of reining in hyperglobalization: intensified global economic governance or greater reliance on domestic economic control.

Rodrik makes the case for the latter. His argument rests on two premises: any effort to derive global standards would encroach on and deny the norms and preferences of varying societies; and inclusion, transparency and accountability of policy making do not operate effectively at a global level. The excesses of globalization are very real, and must be balanced by greater national autonomy if we are to avoid still deepener societal fissures and to begin healing the enormous societal divide between those thriving in a globalized world and those who are struggling.

Fair points.

But there’s a problem. The argument for enhanced national autonomy implicitly assumes that democratic accountability functions well at a national level. Is this true? Is this so in the contemporary U.S.? Is it true in a UK mired in a divisive and debilitating process of exiting the European Union?

Can we assume that the policies pursued by the U.S. government are any more the “will” of the American people than international trade or other agreements reached between negotiators in closed processes?

British exit from the European Union was indeed the result of a popular referendum. But the ill-advised referendum itself was a result of political maneuvering by governing elites who sought to avoid the costs of political leadership. (Put differently, it makes a great deal of democratic sense to hold a referendum on whether to build a new water treatment plant across town. Does it make equal sense to hand over to the public a decision on something with such far-reaching, multifarious and irreversible consequences for the national welfare as membership in the European Union? No. Doing so was, therefore, a gross abdication of political leadership.)

Is domestic policy making any more accountable and any less subject to control by powerful and wealthy elites than the international agreements about which Rodrik so insightfully voices skepticism? Did the American people demand steel and aluminum tariffs? Have we asked the administration to gut the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau?

Did the public clamor for the U.S. federal government to abandon the Obama-era Clean Power Plan and to withdraw from a Paris Climate Agreement based on voluntary national contributions?  Did advocates of ordinary taxpayers have more than marginal input into the recent tax bill?

More directly to the point, do ANY of these policies serve the interests of those who have been left out of the gains from globalization? Or, in contrast, are these policies simply political tools to reward and retain rich and powerful political supporters, while simultaneously mobilizing a political “base”?

Sadly, we cannot – at least at present — rely on domestic democratic accountability to ensure the “sane” globalization Rodrik justifiably calls for. Rodrik is an astute student of economic incentives. At present, political incentives encourage exploitation and exacerbation of societal divisions. These divisions carve a path to political power.

No doubt, the dynamics of globalization deepen the economic and social divide. But our political leadership is dedicated to exploiting this divide, not to healing it.

Without democratic renewal, domestic politics will remain part of the problem.

The Great Perceptual Rift

As the perversions of contemporary governance in the United States accumulate, the perceptual divide in society deepens.

We witness daily the lies of the current administration and levels of corruption that we have not seen for many decades. As this takes place, one portion of American society recoils in disgust, lamenting assaults on the rule of law, separation of powers and fundamental human decency and the failure of those with institutional levers of power to use them to achieve accountability.

Meanwhile, another group of American citizens grows increasingly angry with what they perceive to be a coordinated effort to delegitimize an administration that simply refuses to adhere to conventional norms imposed by elites, and takes delight in this refusal.

This dynamic is not unique to the United States. In the UK, evidence mounts that Britain’s exit from the European Union will be economically damaging, that the British government is faring poorly in negotiations over the terms of exit and that the promises of the loudest champions of a British exit were entirely hollow.

Yet the roughly even divide in British society about the desirability of leaving the European Union persists.

So how do we explain these great rifts in the realm of human perception, and what are the consequences?

Social psychology yields substantial insight. The literature identifies two different types of motives undergirding attitudes. Some beliefs result from a desire to arrive at the best conclusion warranted by the evidence at hand – an accuracy motive.  However, other attitudes and beliefs are central to an individual’s sense of identity or self-worth, and therefore defense of those beliefs has psychological utility.

While the first set of beliefs may be revised in response to additional information, the latter will prove resistant to revision, and the individual’s response to contrary evidence or counteragument will be to adopt strategies that intensify their convictions.

As experimental evidence suggests, when individual attitudes follow from a quest for accuracy, individuals will make evidence-based claims, and may respond to challenges by citing additional evidence or by seeking to establish the superior value of their body of evidence. Such claims, though, will be vulnerable to contradictory evidence, and the individuals can revise their views without incurring high psychological costs.

When attitudes are central to identity, individuals will be less willing to leave their views vulnerable to falsification.  Accordingly, the likely response to evidence-based challenges is to justify the position in unfalsifiable terms. As authors Frieson, Campbell and Kay argue, “people will shift their reported reasons for a political stance to be more unfalsifiable . . . because this unfalsifiability allows them to maintain their stated stance even when the facts appear to contradict it.”

The consequences are damaging to society in two fundamental ways. First, when society is deeply divided on fundamental interpretations of political behavior, political leaders are not held accountable for their actions. Democracy itself is endangered.

Second, when there is no shared grounding in objective reality, it becomes impossible to have genuine policy debates. Debates about taxes, healthcare, education, climate change are stunted in two ways: (1) there is no shared understanding of the nature of the problem we confront; and (2) political leaders have incentives to mobilize supporters around their preferred conceptions of reality rather than around particular policy programs. To give an obvious example, the national debate about climate change focuses at least in part on alleged motives and biases of the scientific and academic community warning of the dangers of climate change rather than on the appropriate mix of government-led and market-based solutions or the most promising avenues for the application of technology.

Given the proliferation of media sources and the attendant ability of individuals to select information from outlets that confirm and reinforce their biases, we seem to have reached an equilibrium characterized by a self-perpetuating societal chasm.

Is there a way out?

I offer three potential paths. First, a dramatic break. This would entail something like an indictment of the current occupant of the White House for obstruction of justice, with an avalanche of evidence that renders it untenable for Congress to continue to enable the administration’s abuses. The challenge to world views of all but the most ardent supporters would be so fundamental that perhaps at least some would be willing to countenance an alternative version of reality.

A second path would involve the emergence of new national leadership – perhaps in the 2020 presidential election – dedicated to diminishing the societal divide. One question is whether, in a climate of deep division, such leadership can even emerge. All incentives at present are for strategies of mobilization around competing realities.

The third path requires that a critical mass of citizens engage sufficiently on a daily basis to draw the polity back toward reason in the interest of democracy, inclusion and decency. There are indicators afoot of such political activism and efforts in educational institutions, for example, to teach students to more carefully assess the validity of information sources.

But can any of these paths serve to bridge the divide?

I don’t know.

I invite readers to engage this question by commenting on this post. Do you believe there is a way out of the great societal rift? If so, what does it look like?