Some people, including me, are inclined to disparage social media as an insidious and anencephalic force. Insidious it may be, but it is not entirely brainless. As proof, I offer the fact that I just learned the valuable word “quockerwodger” from a Tweet proffered by a friend. Who or what is a quockerwodger? It is, my friend observed, the perfect word to describe the current president of the United States, Joe Biden, to wit, “a puppet figure or individual whose strings are pulled entirely by someone else.”
Everyone knows this. Who or what that “someone else” is remains something of a mystery. As I have had occasion to observe elsewhere, I am wont to refer to this puppet magisterium as “The Committee.” I do not know who populates this agency or even whether it is a deliberate body or merely an anonymous aggregation of shared sentiment.
It could certainly be more expert. If it were, Joe Biden’s verbal emissions would be less incontinent and more truthful. He would not, for example, say that he had “flown over every major wildfire” in the country. The puppeteer would have pulled up on the mouth string when Biden claimed to have traveled 17,000 miles in the “foothills of the Himalayas” with Xi Jinping.
The puppeteer could be more adroit, but no one can doubt his presence, whoever or whatever he is.
The late political commentator Joe Sobran called this locationless body “the Hive.” Just as in a beehive, Sobran observed, members of the coven feel they are free, yet their attitudes and behavior are utterly predictable. “Liberals laugh at conspiracy theories that assume that because there is a pattern there must be some central control; but the fact that there is no central control doesn’t mean that there is no pattern.”
Sobran is especially good on the honey that coats the Hive’s often unspoken program. “By using pragmatic language for its agenda,” he notes, “the Hive misleads the general public about its ultimate goals.”
It gains power as ordinary people adopt its language without grasping the implications. After all, who could oppose such worthy causes as “civil rights,” “a woman’s right to choose,” “protecting our children” and “saving the environment”? The news media use the buzzwords of the Hive so habitually that they have become virtual organs of the Hive.
In other words, the Hive triumphs insofar as people mistake its blandishments for the good. Here’s how it goes: “We’re in favor of Disney/CRT/lockdowns/higher taxes/less freedom/the welfare state because we believe that good people must endorse those things. We like to think of ourselves as good people. Therefore, we endorse whatever the Hive proposes.”
These days, most commentators refer to the Hive as the “deep state,” “the administrative state,” or “the regulatory state.” There has been a lot of hand-wringing about the activities and influence of this shadowy force. I have written about it many times myself, often drawing upon an observation Edmund Burke made in his 1770 essay, Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents. Criticizing the court of George III for circumventing Parliament and establishing by stealth what amounted to a new regime of royal prerogative and influence-peddling, Burke showed how the king and his courtiers maintained the appearance of parliamentary supremacy while covertly dismantling it.
“It was soon discovered,” Burke wrote with sly understatement, “that the forms of a free, and the ends of an arbitrary Government, were things not altogether incompatible” (my emphasis). That discovery stands behind the growth of the administrative state. We still vote. We still have a bicameral legislature. But behind these forms of a free government, the essentially undemocratic activities of an increasingly arbitrary and unaccountable regime pursues an expansionist agenda that threatens liberty in the most comprehensive way, by circumventing the law.
The Biden Administration is the intermittently smiling, if vacant and dozy, face of this project. The reality of this enterprise is more widely felt than understood. One of the best contributions to articulating exactly what is at stake in the machinations of the administrative state is “What Trump and Covid Revealed,” a recent essay by Glenn Ellmers for The American Mind. Based on an earlier essay by John Marini, who more than anyone has plumbed the stygian depths of the administrative state, Ellmers zeros in on the essential tension between constitutional government, which is based upon a broadly shared common sense, and its would-be replacement: technocratic government, which is populated by an unaccountable elite, “experts” whose leading characteristic is faith in their own prerogatives. This “permanent government,” Ellmers writes, “is a powerful force.”
It has established its own legitimacy apart from its political or constitutional authority, within the ranks of both political parties and the courts. Bureaucratic rule is defended as essential to solving, in a non-partisan way, the problems of modern government and society. But the bureaucracy has become a political faction on behalf of its own interests. Moreover, the party that defends progressivism and elite authority is increasingly open about politicizing the last vestiges of non-partisan government, including the Justice Department and federal law enforcement. As their power has grown, these defenders of administrative government are increasingly unable to understand, let alone tolerate, anyone who fails to recognize the legitimacy of the administrative state.
It is important to note that this progressive project is as much a Republican as a Democratic pursuit. Despite some rhetorical differences, both parties are fully paid-up worker bees in this hive. The “pragmatic” cover they give themselves is the supposed “complexity” of modern life and complication of contemporary governance. Who but they are equipped to manage the machinery of the state, the minutiae of government? Ellmers nails it: “The pursuit of progress, social justice, and equity becomes for them the moral equivalent of constitutional authority.”
As a result, the growth and consolidation of the administrative state have made it more difficult to control the apparatus of government by political means alone. It is no longer clear that the bureaucracy understands itself as the willing servant of its political masters, when the “masters” are perceived as a threat to the administrative state.
And this is where that strangest of strange messengers, Donald Trump, comes in. Trump understood—and more to the point, he articulated for millions of Americans—what was at stake in the battle between constitutional government as traditionally understood and its technocratic doppelgänger. Challenging the hegemony of experts requires a widespread reassertion of that “common sense morality” to which the founders appealed but which is regarded by our would-be masters as an impediment to utopia. A key problem, as Ellmers sees, is that “what is left of public morality is now understood in terms of ‘values,’ or subjective preferences based only on individual will. Even in the small handful of healthy institutions in civil society, the political and civil rights of the ordinary citizen rest upon a precarious foundation, threatened and undermined by the powerful claims of social progress.”
Those claims are nearly irresistible, as anyone who has dared to question the dominant narrative on issues from “climate change” to COVID policy to race and identity politics will know. The question, as I have put it elsewhere, revolves around the location of sovereignty. Who rules? The people, articulating their interests through the metabolism of ordinary politics? Or the bureaucratic elite, who claim to discern the inevitable direction and goal of history and are prepared to marshal the coercive power of the state to prevent anything from cluttering up that highway to enlightenment?