By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

Missing from this shutdown: the usual bureaucrat-bashing


As the partial government shutdown approaches the three-week mark, there is a news story that has been notable by its absence: Nobody seems to regard the standoff as a new occasion to bash federal employees.

One could easily imagine a situation where many Republicans were saying the shutdown is not a hardship, because federal employees, and the government they work for, are nearly useless anyway -- so it hardly costs the country if the government closes on behalf of the effort to build a border wall.

Yet nobody is saying that. The media is framing the feds missing paychecks as "us" -- regular people of flesh and blood -- rather than "them," whom the rest of the country don't need to care about.

Given the prevalence of bureaucrat-bashing in American political culture, this is surprising. Politicians going back to Ronald Reagan and earlier have routinely portrayed feds as either feckless and lazy ("couldn't fight their way out of a paper bag") or, somewhat contradictorily, as overbearing oppressors of the people.

Why is it missing this time around? The short answer is I don't know, and am myself surprised. But I have a few thoughts.

One thing this suggests is that bureaucrat-bashing is not a torrent that gushes forth spontaneously from the depths of the American soul. Rather, it needs to be stoked.

So why are anti-bureaucratic sentiments are not being stoked this time around? My guess is that the politicians or media who would normally be doing the stoking have bigger fish to fry. The shutdown is about immigration. Many, probably most, of those who are against bureaucrats oppose immigrants even more. And politicians don't need to muddle that anger by also directing it toward bureaucrats. With no stoking, there is no outbreak of bureaucrat bashing.

This is good news for those who hope that hostility to bureaucrats is not a fundamental feature of our culture that cannot be rooted out or overcome. Let's therefore dedicate ourselves to the patient work of improving both the reality and the perceptions of government performance. These are good for their own sakes, and they should also reduce the ability to stoke negative views about feds in the future.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Jan 10, 2019 at 3:46 PM


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