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Tuesday, July 13, 2021


Daniel Stid at National Affairs:
To understand why even these acts of statesmanship appear increasingly rare in American politics, we can turn to an essay written by the great political scientist Herbert Storing in the early years of the Carter administration. In "American Statesmanship: Old and New" (which ended up being his last essay before his untimely death in 1977), Storing identified three categories of obstacles to American statesmanship: an original set that was consciously adopted by America's founders, as well as two more resulting from the spread of populism and technocracy, respectively.


If a system is designed to operate with minimal dependence on statesmen, it becomes difficult to identify what incentives and structures will remain in place to create them for the moments of crisis when they are needed. In such a system, it is easy to imagine that the people would come to take the machinery of government for granted and lose sight of the virtues of leadership upon which even the most well-designed governments ultimately depend. In Storing's estimation, by developing a system of government that so limited the need for statesmen, the America's founders created a polity that would likely fail to understand, appreciate, or generate them.

This original challenge to American statesmanship has been compounded by the rise of populism in the centuries since the founding era. Storing noted that, contrary to the standard critique from progressives, the founders sought to establish a popular government based on the principle of majority rule. But they also recognized the danger inherent to such democratic systems — which they called "majority foolishness or tyranny" — and sought to mitigate it through constitutional arrangements that would foster large yet unstable majorities. "Democratic statesmanship," Storing argued, "must be understood, above all, in the light of that great danger, which implies its great task" — namely, refining and enlarging and, if need be, standing against public views that run counter to the rights of some or the long-term interests of all.
In addition to the descent into populism, Storing identified the rise of technocracy as a force that undermined American statesmanship. Though Storing argued that the origins of this approach to governance can be traced to the founding era, and especially to Alexander Hamilton, it only became a dominant way of thinking about politics in response to Jacksonian populism in the mid-19th century. Following the Jacksonians' rank embrace of the so-called "spoils system" — by which administration offices are awarded to the supporters of election winners, rather than based on merit — subsequent generations of reformers became ardent proponents of meritocracy, efficiency, and "sound administration." One result of this development was an eventual push for civil-service reform in the latter part of the 19th century, spearheaded by a new generation of Hamiltonians seeking to save government from populists by professionalizing it.

These efforts gained momentum during the Progressive Era of the early 20th century, when the government began to undertake more daunting tasks in regulating society and the economy. As government swelled in size, politicians increasingly looked to technical experts to understand how best to achieve their desired results. The ideal of scientific management as the standard for government decision-making has been predominant in America — and in our governing class, in particular — ever since.

Writing in the 1970s, amid simultaneous waves of regulation and deregulation in federal policy driven by this worldview, Storing lamented that "what scientific management has been moving toward is not statesmanship, and not even administration or management, but rather economizing." He warned that the notion (per efficiency expert Frederick Taylor) that there is always one best way to solve a problem, and that it can be identified through research, analysis, and optimization uncoupled from moral considerations, would ultimately lead administrators down a blind alley. Though a statesman should take empirical data and research into account, Storing understood that true statesmanship hinges on the moral dimension of decision-making — on the statesman's capacity to grasp the ends of government and to balance competing moral values in his pursuit of those ends.

The combined effects of these two arcs of decline, Storing argued, was "to resolve the role of the public official into two simple elements: populism...and scientific management." Storing saw this problematic resolution embodied in the presidency of Jimmy Carter, who had won his party's nomination through the recently democratized primary system. A nuclear engineer by trade, Carter vowed to re-organize, streamline, and fix government to deliver what the people wanted more efficiently.

Despite Carter's determination to govern as both a populist and a technocrat, he had to make judgments and take actions on matters for which the will of the people was not clear, and for which there were real questions about not only the best means but also the proper ends of policy. Carter needed to practice statesmanship, but he and others could not understand or describe his leadership as such. For his part, Storing doubted "the feasibility, at least on any significant scale or over any considerable period of time, of a statesmanship in which there is such a sharp difference between style and substance."