The Progressives' Fatal Conceit

President Woodrow Wilson portrait December 2, 1912 (Library of Congress)

In the 2016 presidential election, the FBI under President Barack Obama spied on the Donald Trump campaign based on Clinton campaign propaganda that Trump was a Russian asset. Throughout his presidency, Trump warned about a “deep state” that worked in the federal bureaucracy to undermine his political agenda. This week, a former Border Patrol agent declared that there is “a planned, coordinated attempt to sabotage the Biden administration” from within.


Some of this is hyperbole, of course, but to some extent, the “deep state” really does exist. You see, the “deep state” is nothing more than human nature wreaking havoc on the Progressive movement’s fatal conceit.

Back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, some Americans started believing in science — not so much as a means of knowing but almost more as a religion. The Progressive movement sought to apply the scientific method to politics and the administration of human beings. Woodrow Wilson and his allies argued that through education, America could create a new class of bureaucrats who governed for the common good and followed the science of administration, rather than their own interest or political partisanship.

This class of administrative experts would govern more effectively than the people through their elected representatives, Progressives argued. While the people could vote for presidents and Congresses to direct the goals of the administration, the vast bureaucracy would tell the people what was good for them.

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The Progressive movement altered the way American politics worked. Alongside the branches of government established by the Constitution and ultimately held accountable to the people, a fourth branch of government grew — and this vast administration edges ever closer to becoming entirely independent of the American people.


Under Obama, the IRS targeted conservative groups for greater scrutiny — but that may have been the result of staff bias more than any plain directive. The FBI targeted Trump’s campaign for surveillance, and FBI staff have become notorious for their anti-Trump animus.

Career staff at administrative agencies likely did disagree with many of Trump’s policies. The Trump administration leaked like a sieve to the media, with anonymous sources spilling their guts every day or two, it seemed.

It is possible that some staff at Customs and Border Patrol disagree with Joe Biden’s immigration orders — after all, they deal with the problems on the ground, while Biden made promises to weaken immigration enforcement.

Some of this politicization of administrative work is heinous, but the basic pattern merely reflects human nature.

You see, education cannot expunge political bias from the bureaucratic class. Administrative staff are only human, and they may disagree with the overall direction of a presidency. The government should hold staff to high standards, but in America’s current polarized climate, it stands to reason that career staff may vehemently oppose the policy direction of the president they are supposed to serve.

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American politics today involves a fundamental clash of worldviews. Donald Trump and Joe Biden don’t just disagree about how high taxes should be or how much the federal government should spend. They disagree about when life begins. They disagree about whether a biological man who says he’s a woman actually is a woman or not. They disagree about whether the government can force people to violate their consciences. They disagree about whether or not carbon emissions will bring life as we know it to an end in a matter of years. They disagree about whether or not America is institutionally or systemically racist. They disagree about whether or not illegal immigrants pouring across the southern border is a problem.


Of course, a person who believes that life begins at conception, that “transgender women” are still men, that religious freedom matters, that climate alarmism is bogus, and that America is not systemically racist would have a hard time working in the Biden administration. It’s almost absurd to think he or she wouldn’t want to rebel somehow.

There’s no escaping it: the outworking of an administration is inherently political. Sure, both Republicans and Democrats trust science as they understand it, and want America to be fair. However, they fundamentally disagree about what science and fairness dictate.

Human beings are not automata that can mechanically fulfill one small bureaucratic task without caring how the government as a whole treats people. The Progressive movement’s vision of a scientific and disinterested bureaucracy does not fit human nature. Concerns about a “deep state” — whether justified or not — didn’t pass away with the Trump administration, and they won’t end under Biden, either. They’re a natural result of the modern administrative state trying to be something it can never be.

It’s just too darned human.

Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.

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