May 13 • 1HR 0M

Volts podcast: Doug Thompson defends the deep state

Learning to love bureaucracy.

David Roberts
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Volts is a podcast about leaving fossil fuels behind. I've been reporting on and explaining clean-energy topics for almost 20 years, and I love talking to politicians, analysts, innovators, and activists about the latest progress in the world's most important fight. (Volts is entirely subscriber-supported. Sign up!)
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It’s well-understood that the modern US conservative movement is a mix of two primary forces, fiscal and social conservatism. (See: fusionism.) Put more crudely: it’s the oligarchs and the evangelical white nationalists.

The left’s pushback to social conservatism — anti-racism and civil rights more broadly — is well-developed and richly articulated. But what about the oligarchs and their stated mission to, in Steve Bannon’s words, “deconstruct the administrative state”? Where is the left’s defense of the administrative state, or as it’s less fondly known, the bureaucracy, or even less fondly, the “deep state”? Who will speak up for the deep state?

The left has an ambivalent relationship with bureaucracy (which, after all, only overlapped with democracy for the last century or so) and has largely failed to articulate a coherent defense, even as Biden’s administration scrambles to rebuild the agencies Trump decimated.

The right has told a clear, consistent story: government bureaucracies are corrupt, inefficient, incompetent, and expensive. It has been repeated to the point that it is folk wisdom. To this day, the left does not have a similarly clear and consistent counter-story about the merits of bureaucracy, or, to use a less loaded term, administrative capacity.

State administrative capacity may not be well-theorized on the left, but it is nonetheless a necessary condition of virtually all progressives’ solutions to contemporary problems, climate change chief among them. The wealthy can not be taxed, corporations can not be forced to follow the rules, and wealth can not be transferred to those in need without a robust, competent administrative state.

Doug Thompson
Doug Thompson

My guest today, Doug Thompson, an associate professor of political science at the University of South Carolina, has been thinking and writing about bureaucracy lately, as part of a larger book project on authoritarianism in America. He wondered why aspiring autocrats invariably degrade administrative capacity the second they are able — what they know about it that small-d democrats don’t seem to — which led him to an investigation of bureacracy that traced through Tocqueville and du Bois.

Anyway, I’m excited to geek out with Thompson about the intense oligarchic hatred of the administrative state, America’s rich and somewhat surprising history with bureaucracy, and the kinds of positive arguments that can be made on behalf of administrative capacity as such.