World in the Grip of an Idea: 19. The United States: The Concentration of Power

In this series, Dr. Carson examines the connection between Ideology and the revolutions of our time and traces the impact on several major countries and the spread of the ideas and practices around the world.

Politics, it has been said, is the art of compromise. But compromise is not the object of politics; it is only a method. The end of politics is to gain and maintain control over the in­struments of power over people. Politics is, then, the art of the strug­gle for power, any kind of power, but above all the power residing in gov­ernment. There are other ways of gaining political power, of course. The most common way, historically, has been to inherit it. Another way has been by conquest. The coup d’etat has also been used, but this usually involves some combination of the methods mentioned earlier. But in modern day democracies, the approved way of gaining and main­taining power is by politics. That is certainly the case in the United States.

The primary task of those who wished to introduce socialism in the United States was to get control of political power. There were a con­siderable variety of such socialists in the latter part of the nineteenth century. There were anarchists, syndicalists, Marxists, nationalists, unionists, and other sorts of socialists. They made what political splash they made, at the outset, with inflationist schemes of one sort or another. In the early twentieth century, the Socialist Party, under the leadership of Eugene Debs, emerged and gained considerable following as a minor party until the end of World War I. It continued to exist thereafter but ceased to grow. Indeed, it went into a decline from which it has never recovered. The Communist Party, under the leader­ship of William Z. Foster and others, had even less political success.

But even before the 1920′s many of those who were inclined toward socialism had concluded that they could not attain power in America by professing to be socialists. Most Americans simply would not buy the package of socialism when it was wrapped in that way. The best way to move toward socialism would be by way of the established political parties and by gaining footholds in governmental and other institu­tions. There was no need to call par­ticular programs socialistic and to describe their adoption as a move­ment toward socialism. In fact, it would be counterproductive to do so. Much better to advance them as cures for particular problems and as made necessary by changing condi­tions. The Fabians in England had pointed the way, and the American socialists modified their tactics to fit their own conditions.

A Surreptitious Movement

The movement toward socialism in the United States has been sur­reptitious, even sneaky, and infil­trative in character. Even so, it has not been directed by some master plan conceived by some planner, or planners. Nor has it been advanced, by and large, by a conspiracy. It would be easier to understand if there were a master plan and a well-organized conspiracy. But the evidence does not warrant the draw­ing of any such conclusion. A conspi­racy is, after all, an agreement be­tween two or more people to do something illegal. Whereas, the dis­tinctive feature of gradualist socialism is that it will achieve its goals legally. (Communists have, of course, often engaged in illegal acts, been under the control of foreign powers, and been parts of con­spiracies. However, communism is an adjacent movement to the main thrust toward socialism in America and has never been in control of it.)

Moreover, the movement toward socialism is not done by a plan in the United States. It is not a plan but a method. There is an objective: It is to gain control of political power and transform America. The method is to employ those means which, at any given time, give the greatest pro­mise of producing the desired re­sults. This method is called prag­matism, and its practitioners pride themselves on their lack of commitment to any overall plan or strategy. Pragmatists feel their way toward their objective, thrusting through at weak spots and turning aside when resistance becomes so great as to threaten failure.

Though the goal of the gradualist socialist movement in America is power—political power—, it is not, as such, a political movement. It is, at bottom, an intellectual move­ment, a movement aimed at con­trolling what men think, or at the least establishing a subtle authority over what men say. Those who per­sist in thinking of it as a political movement will ever have difficulty in grasping how it could maintain a coherent direction without a master plan and planners. Once it is under­stood as a set of ideas, an ideology, this difficulty disappears. The cohe­rent direction derives from the ideology.

Anyone who is to any extent under the sway of the ideology can perceive which proposals for the use of government power are most in keeping with it. Those who do not subscribe to the ideology are disci­plined by denying them the advan­tages that stem from adherence to the prevailing ideology. It requires no conspiracy to carry out the punishment or ostracism; it does re­quire the concurrence of true believ­ers in the ideology. In addition to the concurrence of true believers, the thrust toward socialism is accomplished in America by the desire of many to be in keeping with what they believe to be intellectual fash­ion or their fear of flouting it.

A great deal more could be said on this head, but only so much need be said as will put at naught the notion that what follows is an account of action by an organized conspiracy. Viewed in retrospect, the thrust to­ward socialism in America—or, for that matter, in the world—may ap­pear to follow a pattern, a pattern such as events have when they are planned and directed by some body of men. This pattern arises from two sources: one, there is a direction, of sorts, to the course of development; two, the historian organizes them for the telling so that the events have a greater coherence than they had in reality. At any rate, what follows is an effort to explain how the thrust toward socialism gained momentum and power over the American people.

Powers Dispersed

The United States government was deliberately designed to thwart the efforts of any one man or group of men from gaining any continuing control over it. To that end, the powers of the federal government were separated into three branches, as were those of the states. Further, the powers of government were dis­persed by granting certain powers to the general government and reserving others to the states. In addition, some powers have been specifically denied to the general government and others to the states. Some of the other safeguards against the con­centration of power were: staggering the terms of Senators so that only one-third of the Senate is to be elected at any one time, having Congressmen elected for two-year terms and the President for four, and providing for an appointed judiciary. The states have generally dispersed their powers by having them exercised by municipalities, counties, and other local govern­ments. All these arrangements tended both to prevent the concen­tration of power and its use by any faction for its own purposes.

Anyone conversant with devel­opments in government in the twentieth century knows that these obstacles to concentrating power and its regular use by a faction—a faction under the sway of the idea that has the world in its grip—have been largely overcome or circum­vented. How it has come about does, however, need to be explained. It has not come about, not to any sig­nificant extent, by amendments to the United States Constitution. The separation of powers among the branches still formally exists. The reserve of powers to the states has been only slightly altered by amendment. The constitutional pro­tections of life, liberty, and property can still be found stated in the ca­dences of eighteenth-century rhetoric. But much of the substance has been drained away while the forms still stand.

In the broadest terms, here is what has happened. Power in the United States is today concentrated where it is least subject to popular control and most amenable to man­ipulation by intellectuals and intel­lectual fashion. More specifically, it is concentrated in the executive branch, the courts, and the bureau­cracy. Preceding and accompanying this has been the concentration of power in the federal government. The federal government is the most amenable of governments to ideolog­ical influence brought to bear by the press, national magazines, televi­sion, book publishers, and other media of communication. In a simi­lar fashion, the executive branch, the courts, and the bureaucracy are readily swayed by these ideological influences.

Lack of Popular Control Over Federal Government

Vast political power is exercised today by those in the federal government over whom there is lit­tle or no popular control. This state of affairs came about gradually over the better part of a century. Indeed, in the case of the Federal courts the potential was there from the begin­ning. Federal judges were always appointed by the President subject to the approval of the Senate. Their tenure in office is for life or during good behavior. But the "good be­havior" requirement early became largely a dead letter because of the failure of Congress to persist with impeachments. Thus, the courts have ever had but a tangential rela­tion to popular control.

This was by design, of course. The idea was that the judiciary should be independent, independent of politics so as to make their determinations according to law. This was a noble concept and was reasonably work­able so long as judges believed themselves to be bound by the Con­stitution, by precedent, and by rea­son. But a subtle change began to occur in the latter part of the nine­teenth century. Legal realism, as it is sometimes called, began to re­place the concept of fixed and im­mutable laws. What was the law began to be thought of as something that was changing, relative, and subject to continual mutation. This set the stage for a judiciary that was not only independent of politics but independent also of the received law. To an amazing extent, the Su­preme Court became a law unto it­self, upsetting and ignoring prece­dent and ruling by pronouncements which were considered binding upon the lower courts.

Popular control over the bureau­cracy declined as Civil Service reform made headway. The idea of having a body of civil servants who would be professionals free from the shifting political tides had broad appeal in the latter part of the nineteenth century. It got much impetus from the fact that President James A. Garfield was assassinated by a disappointed job seeker. Thereafter, a tenured civil service began to be created. Over the years, more and more employees came under it.

Tenured Civil Service

Having a tenured civil service did not matter so much as long as the sway and activities of the federal government were limited. But in the twentieth century, as the federal government intervened in more and more matters and began to touch and control the lives of Americans in an ever greater variety of ways, the effect of having an independent and tenured civil service became some­thing else again. So far as the bureaucracy was the government, they were controlling the lives of people but were themselves subject to very little popular (political?) con­trol.

Another significant development in cutting government loose from popular control and concentrating power was in the authorization of independent commissions. The Interstate Commerce Commission was the first of these bodies. It was created in 1887 and given limited powers over the railroads but has since had its powers greatly aug­mented and extended over other forms of transportation. It has since been joined by a goodly number of other such organizations, among them the Federal Reserve Board, the Federal Power Commission, the Civil Aeronautics Board, and others.

Only a tenuous control over these organizations is maintained by the elective branches of the govern­ment. They are authorized by Con­gress, their members approved by the Senate after nomination by the President, and after that they pro­ceed more or less on their own. Gen­erally, they combine in single bodies powers of government that were separated by the United States Con­stitution. That is, they legislate—create a body of administrative law by their decisions; execute—carry into effect their rulings; and adjudi­cate—hold hearings and make deci­sions which often have the effect of law.

Not only do these independent commissions concentrate powers within the federal government but they also have tended to claim large new powers for the federal govern­ment. By way of them, the federal government exercises extensive powers over transportation, electric­ity, money and banking, basic fuels, and labor relations. Nowadays, by way of their sway over energy and the environment, the federal gov­ernment reaches through to the most basic undertakings of Ameri­cans.

Presidential Power

The growth of power vested in a bureaucracy was long paralleled by and even was an augmentation of presidential power. Presidential power began to dominate the other branches during the administra­tions of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. It became pre­eminent during the three terms plus a fraction of another of Franklin D. Roosevelt. These Presidents pro­ceeded to dominate the legislative branches by setting forth pro­grams—described respectively as the Square Deal, New Freedom, and New Deal—which they undertook to push through Congress. Once these programs were enacted into legisla­tion, the executive branch was usu­ally given many new powers and more extensive ones.

After the death of Franklin Roose­velt, three Democratic Pres­idents—Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson—attempted to advance similar broad programs under the rubrics of the Fair Deal, the New Frontier, and the Great Society. Truman, however, faced increasing opposition to his programs, and Kennedy was assassinated before he managed to translate much of his program into legislation. (In fact, until the media transformed Kennedy into a folk hero following his assassination, he had made little mark on government.) In the wake of Kennedy’s assassination, Presi­dent Johnson was able to get a mul­titude of laws passed, though there have been no prophets to proclaim that the Great Society emerged from it. But before he had served out the term to which he was elected on his own Johnson had become so unpopu­lar, at least among radical elements, that he grew fearful of making pub­lic appearances and declined to run again.

It is now possible to conclude that following World War II the tide began to turn against presidential power. Democratic Presidents, the main architects of the surge of pres­idential power, were repeatedly drawn into actions which placed them at odds with some of the most vocal of their constituents in the intellectual community. As Wood­row Wilson had written long before he came to the presidency, the major constitutional opening for the in­crease of presidential power is in foreign affairs. Nor can it be doubted that Presidents reached the peak of their hold on power during wars.

After World War II, the United States was confronted with expan­sive communist powers, became em­broiled in a Cold War with them, and there were two hot wars, Korea and Vietnam. Anti-communism, however, was not popular with many Democrats, and particularly not with intellectuals. Moreover, those Americans who were anti-communists were hardly inclined to support Presidents who conducted lukewarm and increasingly limited wars in Korea and Vietnam. In con­sequence, Presidents were unable to rally many members of their own party behind them and alienated much of the rest of the populace by their conduct of the wars.

There have been many indications that the tide has begun to run against presidential power. There was, of course, a Constitutional amendment, the 22nd, ratified in 1951, limiting Presidents to two terms. There have been congres­sional efforts to restrain Presidents in foreign engagements. There were the weakened positions of both Truman and Johnson in their last years as President. There was the forced resignation of Vice-President Agnew and the even more dramatic resignation of President Nixon under the threat of imminent impeachment. The attacks on the FBI and CIA, and subsequent limi­tations placed on them, have had the effect of limiting the President. Moreover, President Carter was the first Democrat elected to the office in the twentieth century who did not run on the basis of some program name such as New Deal, Fair Deal, or the like. Nor has Carter thus far succeeded in getting much of his proposed legislation through Con­gress.

None of this should be interpreted to mean that there has been any lessening in the trend toward concentration of power in the gen­eral government. On the contrary, that has gone on at an accelerated pace even as presidential power was being restrained. While Johnson was being made virtually impotent by critics of the Vietnamese War, the Department of Health, Educa­tion and Welfare was expanding its powers into more and more fields. Even as Nixon was approaching dis­grace, the Environmental Protec­tion Agency and OSHA were ex­tending their reach into every nook and cranny of America. Vast grants made from the federal government to states and cities during Nixon’s presidency concentrated decision-making power in Washington and continued the process of making state and local governments ad­ministrative arms of the federal government.

Rather, the relative decline in presidential power should be inter­preted as a further decrease in popu­lar control over this vast govern­ment with its concentration of power. The executive branch, i.e., the bureaucracy, increases in power as the powers of the Chief Executive decline. The Congress, historically the branch over which there has been the most direct popular control, does not, and cannot, exercise effec­tive control over the bureaucracy and the independent commissions. Congress has failed for several de­cades now to restrain the judiciary, though there are ways it could do so. Presidents exercise only the most tenuous control over the bureaucracy.

How Bureaucracy Functions

The determinative role of bureaucracy is well described in this story which appeared in the Atlanta Constitution, March 26, 1978:

Almost nobody has heard of Joe Sher­man, a $47,500-a-year federal civil ser­vant. He commutes quietly to Washing­ton every morning from a modest brick home in suburban Alexandria, Va. His work is seldom noticed by the press or the public.

But Joe Sherman may have an enor­mous impact on the everyday lives of Americans for years, even generations, to come. . . .

Sherman and his staff at the Depart­ment of Housing and Urban Develop­ment are devising energy standards for building construction that are likely to alter the appearance, shape, or inner workings of every office building, hospi­tal, school, factory, and private home in the United States after February 1981.

The process is much like that by which thousands of other small but important decisions are made throughout the gov­ernment. The decisions influence the type of food that people eat, the clothes they wear, the kinds of loans they get, the construction of the cars they drive.

The process is usually followed very closely by the specialists with a financial and a professional stake, but the public mostly learns little until it comes time to pay the bill, use the product and learn to live—and maybe suffer—with the re­sults. . . .

This is the story of how one law is being carried out. It began in 1976 when Congress passed the Energy Conserva­tion Act. A little-noticed provision, heavily influenced by lobbyists for ar­chitects, ordered the administration to draw up "performance standards for new residential and commercial buildings which are designed to achieve the maximum practical improvements in energy efficiency and increases in the uses of nondepletable sources of energy."

Congress often leaves laws vague like that and allows the bureaucracy to work out the details. It is people like Joe Sherman who must figure out just what Congress meant by "maximum practi­cal."

The standards, which are expected to be incorporated into building codes all over the country, will for the first time require that all buildings be designed to meet an "energy budget"—that is, they should be built to operate without using more than a specific amount of energy per square foot of space, depending on the purpose of the building and the cli­mate where it is situated.

The vast accretion of governmental power involved in this should not go unnoticed, either.

The Department of Health, Edu­cation and Welfare may be most correctly conceived as a sort of inde­pendent kingdom or fiefdom set up within the bounds of the United States and being charged with or assuming authority over some of the most sensitive areas of American life. When it was founded during Eisenhower’s presidency it brought together a hodge-podge of bureaus which theretofore had modest pre­tensions. Its activities and sway burgeoned with the spurt of legisla­tion during the first two years of the Johnson administration. Congress and Presidents might have con­ducted diplomatic relations with it during most of its lifetime if they could have discovered who, if any­one, was in charge of it.

If the bureaucracy, the indepen­dent commissions, and the courts—the organs of the concentrated power of the federal government—are not under the effective control of the elected representatives of the American people, who does control them? One way to answer the ques­tion is to say that nobody does. And that answer is correct so far as it goes. The President does have some little residual power over them; the Congress does have potential power; and pressure groups do sometimes modify their actions. But nobody controls or directs them in the ordi­nary conduct of their doings. Yet it would be incorrect to suppose that each bureaucrat or commissioner or judge simply decides his course of action, letting his conscience be his guide, and doing as he will. It may sometimes happen, but it is not characteristic.

As indicated earlier, the bureau­cracy, the commissions, and the courts are ruled, by and large, by intellectual fashion. It is not usually called fashion; more commonly it has been thought of as the zeitgeist, spirit of the times, intellectual milieu, or reigning ideology. These latter terms and phrases may be more precise or comprehensive, but "fashion" captures better the way in which the ideas work on individuals and groups.

The Ebb and Flow of Fashions

Intellectual fashion changes even as do fashions in women’s clothes. One year it is environmentalism, another consumerism, another the eradication of poverty, another the menace of big business, another in­vestigative journalism aimed at purifying politics, and so on. These intellectual fashions appear, de­cline, virtually disappear, and recur much as do fashions in men’s jack­ets, say. Just as padded shoulders in jackets become fashionable, then not, then again, so do fashions in prevailing ideas; the abolition of poverty was prominent in the 1890′s, 1930′s, and 1960′s. The purification of politics was a major theme in the early twentieth century and then again in the 1970′s.

Intellectual fashion is determined in much the same manner as fash­ions in clothes. Just as there are leading clothes designers, so there are leaders in setting forth what becomes intellectual fashion. For in­tellectual fashion, there have been such thinkers as John Kenneth Gal­braith, Ralph Nader, Michael Har­rington, and the like. Just as among clothes designers, there is competi­tion for whose notions will prevail among intellectuals. And just as in clothes design, the more radical ideas are for the Haute Coterie. Be­neath these, those who conform to the fashion do so in less drastic and, hence, more popular formulations.

Underlying and supporting this shifting intellectual fashion is an ideology which does not change. Ideology informs the continuing thrust to change, providing its direc­tion and substance. What is in fash­ion at the moment is the leading wedge of the drive toward transfor­mation. American intellectuals and politicians generally pride them­selves on their pragmatism, but they are pragmatic only in changing emphases with the fashions.

Control over American govern­ment and increasingly over the lives of Americans is exercised by intel­lectual fashion and the underlying ideology. It is thus that the United States has been brought under the sway of the idea that has the world in its grip. This was made possible by the concentration of power in the central government and its further concentration in those areas of government most remote from popu­lar control. More and more people vote, but they have less and less control over the government and their own affairs and lives.

The Concentration of Power

The greater the concentration of power the more readily can it be manipulated by intellectual fashion under the subtle control of ideology. It is easier to influence one man than several, to influence the Presi­dent, say, than the nine justices of the Supreme Court. In like manner, the Supreme Court may be more readily influenced than can 100 Senators, and the Senate more read­ily than the House of Representa­tives. It should be equally clear that one general government can be swayed more easily than can fifty state governments.

Influence may not be the right word; what often develops may be more correctly understood as pres­sure. Leaders of intellectual fashion exert pressure on government, exert pressure until they get action quite often. Some examples may make the process clearer. In the 1960′s, Ralph Nader wrote a book entitled Unsafe at Any Speed. He charged that American auto makers were turning out unsafe cars, failing to incorpo­rate features that would save lives, and thus making auto travel pre­ carious. In consequence of his charges a campaign to change all this emerged, laws were passed, and in the course of time various safety devices became mandatory for all automobiles. The impetus from this and similar works provoked two much broader campaigns: con­sumerism in general and safety requirements by governments in general. Hence, a Federal Office of Consumer Affairs was authorized, and most states followed suit with their own offices or bureaus. Also, the federal government set up an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) which began to promulgate thousands of rules and restrictions affecting the safety of workers. As for the gov­ernmental intrusion into the auto­mobile business, a newspaper re­ports that more vehicles were re­called because of defects in 1977 than were sold in that year.

Some years back, the late Rachel Carson came out with a book enti­tled Silent Spring. This was the in­tellectual opening for the environ­mentalist campaign which got underway in the late 1960′s. Environmentalism swiftly became the fashionable cause, horror stories spread of how we were destroying the environment with chemicals, threatening the oxygen supply, making the air poisonous to breathe, the water hazardous to drink, and making our surroundings desolate.

Protective legislation was, of course, forthcoming, and a new branch of the bureaucracy was created to see to the well-being of the environ­ment.

Where does this pressure come from? It comes from those who deal in one way or another with ideas, with opinion making and the spread of ideas, those in the grip of the idea of transforming man and his universe. They are mostly intellec­tuals, or have intellectual preten­sions: they are professors, students, teachers in general, journalists, writers, preachers, publicists, and what have you. How do they exert the pressure? They do so by the holding of key positions in the media of communication and by their suc­cess in purveying the approved at­titudes. Mere Presidents must be continually wary of them, lest a thoughtless word will ruin their chances for re-election. Generals who voice unapproved attitudes are likely to be hounded out of the ser­vice, denied promotions, or buried in some administrative office in the Pentagon. Judges who hope for promotion must take care that they have never harbored opinions, or at least spoken or acted upon them, which will bring them to the unfa­vorable attention of media spokes­men.

There are numerous examples of what horrendous things can happen to those who provoke the wrath of media spokesmen, but no more dra­matic one has yet occurred than that of the resignation of President Nixon in the wake of Watergate charges and revelations.

Ordinarily, however, the power of intellectual fashion directed by those under the sway of the idea that has the world in its grip is not demonstrated by the destruction of men in high places. It evinces itself, rather, in the day to day pressures on politicians and others to take approved positions and advance their enactments. It makes certain courses of action unthinkable and those that are approved largely un­questioned. It is a subtle and effec­tive tyranny over thought. The con­centrated power of government is wielded by those who dare not op­pose this intellectual fashion. There are enough victims strewn along the wayside to serve as cautionary examples for those who consider any other course.

The power of government is wielded both directly and indirectly. We are all aware, more or less, of how control over our lives is wielded directly. It may be instructive, then, to examine into one of the promi­nent indirect ways government wields power.

Next: 20. The United States: Business as an Instrument of Politi­cal Power.

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