'Deconstruct' The Administrative State? Plenty Of Presidents Have Tried

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A draft of President Dwight D. Eisenhower's farewell address shows changes made around a reference to the military industrial complex, in December 2010 at the Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene, Kan. (Charlie Riedel/AP)

White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon said last week that the president’s cabinet secretaries would reduce regulation by deconstructing the government’s so-called “administrative state.” It’s not the first time presidents have promised to dismantle bureaucracy.

Here & Now‘s Jeremy Hobson speaks with historians Ed Ayers (@edward_l_ayers) and Brian Balogh (@historyfellow), co-hosts of the podcast BackStory, which is produced at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.

Interview Highlights

On Steve Bannon’s remark about “deconstructing” the administrative state

Balogh: “First of all, I just have to say that many presidents — and they’re not all Republicans — they’re just determined to take apart this behemoth that’s the administrative state. And probably the most famous one is Ronald Reagan. Reagan said that government is not the solution to our problems, government is the problem. And he was going to dismantle that government. Well, long story short, he failed to do that. He built up the military to a much greater status, more people in it, and actually more employees after the end of the Reagan administration. And, to achieve his objectives, he did some of the very same things that Trump is doing to achieve his. What Ronald Reagan really wanted to dismantle was the welfare state. And he had limited success in doing that. So, there’s a long history of presidents coming in, saying they’re gonna to take on the bureaucracy. What they really mean is they’re gonna try to shift the emphasis of where those bureaucrats are gonna work and how they’re gonna spend their time towards achieving objectives that presidents want to achieve.”

On President Eisenhower’s warning against the military-industrial complex

Balogh: “In fairness to President Eisenhower, he did try hard. He was a, what we would call a ‘deficit hawk’ today. He tried so hard to balance the budget. And until 1957, Eisenhower did a very good job of keeping down military spending. He ended the Korean War, and he was able to keep a lid on military spending. And then Ed what happened in 1957?”

Ayers: “I believe there were rockets launched by other people.”

Balogh: “That’s exactly right — the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, and Americans just freaked out, and especially Democrats. They said, ‘We’re not spending enough, the Russians are getting ahead of us… there is a missile gap,’ and actually that’s one of the reasons that John F. Kennedy beat Richard Nixon in the 1960 election. But poor Eisenhower continued to argue for balanced budgets. But basically a Democratic Congress steamrolled him, and military spending went way up. And regardless of spending amounts, Eisenhower presided over the construction of the military-industrial complex.”


On Trump increasing the military budget, and Eisenhower’s warning

Ayers: “Well, here’s the thing that I think we might want to think about is that Steve Bannon, the chief strategist for President Trump, argues that these analogies with the past are irrelevant. Because we are living in a time of redefinition of American history and these other precedences — or lack of precedent — is not really…”

Balogh: “How are we redefining things?”

Ayers: “Well, because we’re coming up on the fourth turning of American history…”

“He is very much influenced by this book called ‘The Fourth Turning,’ written by the guys who invented the concept of millennials. And his idea, the idea of this book, is that the American history is determined by the succession of generations. And that American history can be broken up into 80-year periods, and they point out that, ‘Isn’t it spooky that there’s exactly the same amount of difference from the Declaration of Independence and the Civil War and the Civil War and World War II. You’re telling me that’s an accident? I think not.’ It’s the way that generations succeed themselves and shape those who follow. And at the end of each of these 80-year periods, what do we have. At the end of the first 80 years, the Civil War. At the end of the next eighty years, World War II. How long has it been since World War II? We’re coming up on the time for another war.”

Balogh: “I’m doing the math, that’s scary.”

On the dismantling of Reconstruction

Ayers: “If you think about the one time that the federal state suddenly surged into activity doing the biggest thing the American state, which was end the largest and most powerful system of slavery in the modern world through a massive war. And then create a completely unprecedented national bureaucracy, and enforce it with troops on American soil. There’s nothing like Reconstruction, which just happens to rhyme with deconstruction, you’ll notice. And so if you think of this cyclical model that Bannon has, that should have been a cleansing time, that the wars come along and destroy what is bad. Well, slavery is obviously bad. But for generations, Reconstruction was understood as a great travesty. And I actually find it hard to believe that the same people who talk about deconstructing the administrative state today would think it was a great idea to have this federal power then. So, my point is that the cyclical model just doesn’t hold up.”

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