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Our republic is under siege by an aspiring apparatchik class
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Our republic is under siege by an aspiring apparatchik class

Coming to politics from politics, or from state-dependent nonprofits, leading government after working for the government, elected officials run a country they’ve never visited.

America is developing a governing class that doesn't reflect American culture. But let's start telling that story by crossing an ocean.

For 75 years, the Ecole Nationale d’Administration was an elite pathway in France, recruiting at the socioeconomic top and credentialing for the sociopolitical top. It was the place that purportedly drew the “crème de la crème,” the school that the BBC described a few years ago as the destiny for young adults that was “coveted above all others.” The high status of a school of administration is instantly revealing, speaking of a society that elevates its bureaucrats to elite status. Imagine the pride of French parents, knowing that their son was being groomed for a position as a deputy assistant minister of culture.

The growing rigidity and professional isolation of the political class is a new development in American culture and not a healthy one.

Elite bureaucrats are a symbol of a culture that isn’t primarily about making and doing, and it’s a sign of a society that values leisure and paid vacation above creativity and risk. It’s the “neutral” gear on the national stick shift.

Meanwhile, strangely enough, the University of Wisconsin is reporting surprising levels of interest in its School of Public Affairs and is now crafting a new undergraduate program in government studies to meet the demand: “There are almost 500 students taking public policy certificates at UW-Madison and it’s one of the fastest growing programs on campus, according to Webb Yackee.”

We have 19-year-old Americans who aspire to become government apparatchiks. It’s one of the fastest growing programs on campus.

From disqualifying to normal

This cultural shift reflects the new shape of a political class that lives and dies in politics, never brushing up against the private sector or a productive function. I watched the mayor of Baltimore speak in front of a collapsed bridge this week, and then I looked him up: He graduated from college, then went directly on to the staff of a city council member, then ran for city council, then ran for mayor.

As I watched Mayor Brandon Scott, I saw an ad for a new candidate for governor in California, where I live. Betty Yee is running for the state government’s top job from her seat as the state controller, where she’s in charge of the $73 billion deficit. Clearly, then, she’s eligible for promotion.

So I looked her up: Board of Equalization, State Lands Commission, state budget director. She’s a 66-year-old woman who has spent her entire adult life bouncing from government job to government job. Her campaign bio brags about her “nearly 40 years in public service.” That should probably be disqualifying, but now we just call it normal.

A complete career path

Not so long ago and with lingering examples, our political norm was that politics was a second profession. The dentist Paul Gosar ran for a seat in the House of Representatives, where he serves alongside the emergency room doctor and U.S. Navy veteran Ronny Jackson. The lawyer and soldier Andrew Jackson ran for Congress. The retired army officer Dwight Eisenhower ran for president. City councils and school boards have usually been full of local small-business owners but are filling up with government employees who dream of a seat in the legislature.

The second profession is becoming the only profession, a complete career path.

There are counterexamples, of course. Lyndon Baines Johnson probably dreamed of public office in the womb. But the growing rigidity and professional isolation of the political class is a new development in American culture and not a healthy one.

The other emerging path to public office is through the helping professions, like the social worker Katie Hobbs. In California, the legislative committee created to resolve the state's $73 billion deficit includes Assemblyman Corey Jackson, whose proudest life accomplishment is his doctorate in social work.

Coming to politics from politics, or from grant-funded and government-dependent nonprofits, leading government after working for the government, elected officials run a country that they’ve never visited. George McGovern famously bought a hotel after he retired from politics and complained vociferously about the onerous regulations imposed on business by politicians. The better time to learn that lesson is before going to politics, and we're losing that path in a hurry.

Do this yourself: Look up a few of your elected officials, starting with cities and counties and passing through the state government on your way to Congress. See how many of your representatives ever had a job of some kind. Then remember where they come from when you hear them speak about how to solve problems and make the world a better place.

In France, by the way, the ENA is dead, replaced by French President (and ENA graduate) Emmanuel Macron with the Institut National du Service Public. The old ENA had a campus in Strasbourg, while the new and supposedly more democratic and diverse school has a campus in ... well, in Strasbourg.

U.S. Army veterans will similarly recall the moment the Pentagon capitulated to activist demands to eliminate the School of the Americas, changing the sign in front of the building to say that the classrooms now house the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. It’s totally different, we swear.

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Chris Bray

Chris Bray

Chris Bray is a former infantry soldier who earned his Ph.D. in history at UCLA. He writes at Tell Me How This Ends on Substack.
@a_chrisbray →