Trump’s ineffective federal leadership in the face of the coronavirus crisis is the culmination of a decades-long agenda to erode federal bureaucracy. Now, as the nation suffers the consequences, it is crucial — particularly leading up to the 2020 election — to examine the past choices that produced our present situation and consider how to avert future disasters.
Efforts to diminish the federal bureaucracy and its services can be traced to the conservative political movement that followed the New Deal and World War II, though such efforts gathered bipartisan support over time. The New Deal encompassed an expansion of social benefits, and then the administrative state needed to manage them. Politicians and bureaucrats built a safety net capable of protecting Americans from the perils the Great Depression. Employment programs and unemployment insurance put workers back on their feet, while old age pensions enabled older workers to retire and clear room in the workforce for others.
World War II brought further administrative growth. Federal management of the wartime economy stabilized material life for unprecedented numbers of Americans. Wartime production boosted domestic employment, while military service provided other economic possibilities. Even after the war’s end, the 1944 GI Bill provided veterans (especially those who were white, male and heterosexual) with affordable education and housing, launching them into the middle class.
None of this would have been possible without the bureaucrats to ensure programs ran smoothly.
Yet, growth of the bureaucracy generated pushback. While President Dwight D. Eisenhower is popularly remembered for his “modern Republicanism” that upheld some aspects of the New Deal’s social safety net, his presidency also empowered conservatives to alter the federal government’s course. Eisenhower’s first executive order, for instance, established a new committee on “government organization” that intended to achieve “economy and efficiency” in federal administration. The order implied the federal bureaucracy was too big, too unwieldy and too often used for dubious purposes, lending rhetorical legitimacy to the need to shrink the administrative state.
The Cold War and the Red Scare saw anti-communist, anti-feminist and homophobic attacks on individual federal bureaucrats, undermining the legitimacy of the federal bureaucracy more broadly. Historian Landon Storrs estimates more than 2,500 federal workers were dismissed by 1956, while another 12,000 resigned. The purge took a toll on the federal administrative state’s functionality by removing so many bureaucrats, and drove a shift toward a political culture that continued to erode faith in the federal government.
The 1960s saw renewed support for the broader social role of the federal government, exemplified by President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs. New legislation sought to protect the workforce from earlier civil rights abuses, while diversifying it. But even as the Great Society expanded its administrative reach, conservatives double downed on their message of the incompetence of the federal government.
During the 1964 election, Republican nominee Barry Goldwater called for “limited” government and railed against the “growing federal bureaucracy.” Though Goldwater lost, this rhetoric resonated with Americans across the political spectrum. On the left, some faulted the government for not doing enough to mitigate poverty and inequality, while those on right saw the government intervening too much, particularly in the realm of civil rights.
By the 1970s, talk of bureaucratic “deadwood” and calls to reduce administrative “red tape” abounded across both parties. President Jimmy Carter claimed “government cannot solve our problems.” This notion shaped the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978. Calling the bipartisan bill “absolutely vital,” Carter argued it would remove incompetent and inefficient federal workers through a novel merit-based pay structure. Critics of the bill noted the adverse effects it would bring to women and minority groups. Nevertheless, its central premise — that bureaucrats were inept and their services unnecessary — garnered widespread support.
President Ronald Reagan spent the 1980s decrying “overgrown and overweight government,” which he said was antithetical to American values. A rising Democratic faction, led by senators like Bill Bradley, Gary Hart and Paul Tsongas, agreed. According to “A Neo-Liberal’s Manifesto,” a call-to-arms published in The Washington Post, they no longer supported “big government,” which had produced “inefficient and unaccountable public agencies.”
Outside the halls of power, Americans shared these sentiments. In one stark example, a 1983 public opinion poll asked Americans whether they preferred a president who was “concerned about people who are poor and elderly,” or a president who focused on “cutting down bureaucracy.” While 47 percent of respondents supported care for the poor and elderly, 43 percent answered that eliminating bureaucracy was the more important quality.
With public support, the executive branch continued to deploy anti-bureaucratic language. When President Bill Clinton set his sights on health-care reform, he promised a system in which “the American citizen, the worker, not the boss and certainly not some government bureaucrat” would have the power. Indeed, Clinton wanted to “totally eliminate the federal government bureaucracy” and replace it with the practices of a “big venture capital outfit.”
George W. Bush soon claimed Clinton had not gone far enough in this direction. And a few years later, President Barack Obama drew on the history of bureaucratic critique when he issued Executive Order 13563 to cut the “red tape” that accompanied governmental regulation. It was important, he said, to carefully measure the “costs and benefits” of federal administration.
Despite more than a half-century of sustained attack, the federal administrative state has often proved durable, in no small part thanks to the efforts of bureaucrats who push back against political attacks and make clear to voters the benefits they deliver to society: economic security in retirement though Social Security, health care through Medicare and Medicaid and, more recently, protection against predatory financial practices with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Yet the current public health crisis reveals the outcome of the long campaign against federal bureaucracy: The administrative state has been left ill-equipped to protect the nation’s citizens, leaving state and local governments to pick up the pieces. Governors and mayors are scrambling to try to get adequate medical equipment, as doctors sound alarms about the shortage. But when asked about federal help, Trump recently told a group of governors to “try getting it yourselves.” The same goes for decisions about closing schools and businesses, and trying to ramp up virus testing capacity.
If crises reveal the limits of a government’s ability to serve and protect its citizens, crises also reveal how government can be improved and built anew. The human toll of the coronavirus now puts this into existential perspective.
The public health disaster makes clear the need for far-reaching federal bureaucracy capable of providing care and security. It is long beyond time to stop deriding the people who help provide government services, and to provide adequate staffing and funding so that they can address Americans’ needs, especially in moments of crisis. This realization should also drive voters’ decision come November.