Dean Stuart Shapiro: The dangerous demonization of public servants

August 15, 2023

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) recently pledged to “start slitting throats” on day one if he is elected president. The throats he was referring to belong to bureaucrats in Washington — people he will be supervising if his campaign is successful.

I am happy to give the governor the benefit of the doubt and assume he was not being literal with his language. But that doesn’t keep his comments from being deeply alarming and dangerous.

DeSantis’s remarks are reflective of a recent trend among Republican politicians. Former President Donald Trump called those who worked for him “bad people” during his tenure in office. In 2016, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) described government bureaucrats as “locusts” in a presidential debate.

We don’t have to imagine what would happen if someone took the words of these presidential candidates literally. In August 2022, an armed man tried to attack an FBI office in Cincinnati. During a previous period of heightened anti-government rhetoric, Timothy McVeigh bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people.

Presidents have long run for office (or even served) while pledging to oppose entrenched interests and the federal bureaucracy. This is true of such varied figures as Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton. But the recent comments are a far cry from Reagan’s “the nine most terrifying words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government and I am here to help’” or Clinton’s “The era of big government is over.”

Such comments from an earlier era reflect unease about the expanding power of government — a legitimate issue for a nation to ponder as it elects a president. But the comments of the new generation of Republican politicians personalize this valid debate and characterize public officials themselves as contemptible. In doing so, they increase the likelihood that someone will do physical harm to people who work for the government.

The role of bureaucrats in a democratic system of government is a question I have wrestled with throughout my academic career. Debates over it go back to the 19th Century and have only grown in importance as the size of the country has expanded — and with it the complexity of the problems we face. Do we want our unelected officials to provide expert-based advice to elected political actors, and in doing so influence their choices? Or do we want them to follow the instructions of those who have been elected to serve?

How do those who serve in the federal bureaucracy feel about their roles? It is true that some, whether they are environmentalists who work at EPA or immigration officials at CBP, resent the instructions they are given from above when those orders run counter to the bureaucrats’ own policy preferences. But even at these mission-driven agencies, most officials suck it up and stay within their lane. They understand that their role is to implement policies decided by elected officials — so long as those policies are legal and not outrageously in defiance of established facts. Many officials perform this role not reluctantly, but rather because they see “neutral competence” as part of their job description.There won’t be time for four Trump trials before the 2024 electionTrump says he has blanket immunity. Not so fast.

But what we forget in these debates is that all of the people in these positions, at the end of the day, are people. They entered their careers for a variety of reasons, but for many it was because of a desire to serve the public.

No one — not a presidential candidate, and not even just someone looking to blame the government for his problems — should forget that. The dehumanizing rhetoric coming from presidential candidates lately encourages supporters to think of the government as not composed of their fellow Americans, but rather as a faceless enemy. That’s dangerous.

Stuart Shapiro is the Dean of the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network. Follow him on Twitter @shapiro_stuart.rt.

The Hill, August 14, 2023

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