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‘A Triumph of Techniques Over Purpose’*

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There were two extraordinary votes in late September attached to a bill to prevent a federal government shutdown before October 1. In the first, every single GOP member of the United States Senate voted to deny support to Afghan refugees evacuated to the United States during our nation’s recent military withdrawal from that country. Former President Donald Trump had opposed the entire bill arguing, in a now commonplace (for him and his party) lie, that efforts to aid any of those individuals constituted

a major immigration rewrite that allows Biden to bring anyone he wants from Afghanistan for the next year—no vetting, no screening, no security—and fly them to your community with free welfare and government-issued IDs.[1]

        Trump went further, contending that the assisted refugees would bring “horrible assaults and sex crimes” that would “just be the tip of the iceberg of what’s coming if this isn’t shut down.”[2] Despite the fact that these lies attacked basic human rights and international agreements, are normatively evil and had no empirical basis, every member of the Republican Senate caucus apparently embraced them and voted not to support individuals who had, in many cases, risked their lives to support the United States. It is difficult to fathom the sheer vacuity and cruelty of these GOP claims, let alone grapple with the fact of their support by that Party’s purported leaders who knew they were lies, even as they voted for them.    

        A second Senate vote linked to the shutdown-avoidance legislation was equally indicative of the GOP’s current partisan posturing and existential crisis. Republican Senator Roger Marshall of Kansas sought to amend the bill, aimed at keeping the government functioning until early December, to prohibit the use of national funds to implement vaccine requirements to address the COVID-19 pandemic.[3] He proposed that action in the face of the fact that the nation would soon thereafter pass the unthinkable total of 700,000 deaths as a result of that terrible disease. Once again, every GOP senator backed Marshall’s proposal, which failed on a strict party-line vote.

        These efforts offer a snapshot into how the leaders of one of the nation’s two major political parties now believe it is appropriate to behave, and they reveal two key, and by now familiar, characteristics. First, each was predicated purely on received belief or fantasy among targeted supporters. Trump offered no evidence for his daft assertions concerning Afghan refugees because there was none. He, and his fellow GOP leaders who embraced his nonsense, sought instead to appeal principally to a primordial fear of difference among Party acolytes, and secondarily to affective partisanship. Knowing well that they were supporting a wild and immoral lie, GOP senators nonetheless walked in lockstep over a proverbial ethical cliff. Secondly, as I have argued previously, efforts by Trump and the Republican Party to attack public health initiatives to stymie the deadly spread of the virus, framing them as somehow asking too much of individual Americans, have inflicted suffering and death on untold numbers of this nation’s citizens, including countless GOP supporters.  The Republican Senate caucus decision to double down on its Party’s death-dealing stance signals not only its members’ willingness to say and do anything they believe may mobilize GOP voters, but also its collapse into a moral nihilism in which even risking the deaths of innocents can be rationalized as acceptable in the pursuit of power. Together, these two votes provide a lens into what now appears to be an uncontained will to power within the Party, in which any step or stance can be justified by artifice or lie if it can be tortured into an argument that shows it is “working” as a strategy to mobilize potential partisans.

        As I have mulled these GOP actions and Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s simultaneous public lies labeling the need to maintain government as “the Democrats’ problem,” as if his own post and that of his party colleagues did not exist to secure the governance of the nation, I have been reminded of a classic review by Wallace S. Sayre. Sayre was a distinguished public administration scholar long associated with Cornell and Columbia universities who, in that 1948 article, contended that those endeavoring to build a public human resource management system had succumbed to what he dubbed a “triumph of techniques over purpose.”[4] Sayre suggested that the principal implication of his argument was that the “ends and means of the field urgently need[ed] fundamental reexamination.”[5] I argue, by analogy, that the same may be said of the GOP today. As a matter of technique or process, the Party’s leaders are now lost in a morass of deepening cynicism in which their only aim is to establish talking points to “get the Libs” to keep their base aflame. There no longer seems to be any limit on what can be said and done under that banner, however outrageous or fantastical, including attacks on voting rights, freedom of the press and ad hominem lies aimed at all who might disagree with whatever mean-spirited and absurd claims are on offer.

        McConnell’s recent comments concerning a possible national government shutdown and failure to lift the nation’s debt ceiling (thereby imperiling the full faith and credit of the United States and risking worldwide recession or worse) were indicative of this so-called “strategy.” Here is an excerpt from a New York Times story concerning the Kentuckian’s efforts:

He hopes to make Democrats look fiscally irresponsible at the same time that they are also trying to pass a major spending bill that is the centerpiece of President Biden’s agenda. ‘This is a totally Democratic government,’ McConnell said yesterday. ‘They have an obligation to raise the debt ceiling, and they will do it.’ McConnell’s argument conveniently omits a couple of relevant facts: A significant amount of the current debt stems from tax cuts and spending signed by Donald Trump and passed with Republican votes. And Congress needs to increase the debt ceiling even if Biden’s spending program fails.[6]

        These comments suggest that McConnell neither cares about his Party’s responsibility to help to govern the nation, nor his own obligation to the country via his oath of office. For him, as for his Senate colleagues, the question increasingly is not what is in the interest of the country, but what can be perceived to be in the immediate interests of the Republican Party, however inimical to democracy, effective governance or moral responsibility that premise or those paths may be. In Sayre’s terms, the Party has lost its way as it pursues any techniques that might provide it a perceived edge in media reporting, daily polling or the 2022 midterm elections. Put bluntly, the GOP is now about means to power and those it wishes to place in power, unhindered by any concern for democratic ends or accountability requirements.

        As they pursue their lone aim, today’s Republican leaders are employing an array of tactics in sustained efforts to undermine those who might oppose their ends, even as their quest imposes costs and injury on supporters and imperils the governance framework in which their party nominally functions. These include voter and voting suppression, an embrace of Trump’s Big Lie concerning the 2020 election and efforts to reclassify those who attacked this nation’s Capitol building and lawmakers in January as “heroes” instead of the villainous and violent mob they were. There is, as Sayre might say, an urgent and fundamental need for Republican Party leaders to reexamine their party’s ends and to assess the calamitous consequences, too, of their embrace of authoritarian and fascistic politics as means to those ends. Indeed, to the extent one may detect any animating GOP aspiration today, it is to destroy democratic governance in favor of rule by an unfettered white business elite. I say “unfettered” because to the degree the Republicans are arguing anything in policy terms, it is that businesses should be permitted to pollute and discriminate at will and to compensate employees as they might wish and establish such working conditions that conduce to the profit of owners, irrespective of their implications for the health and safety of employees. The Party is not simply arguing about the reach of government, in the name of the “strategies” it has adopted to attain its ends, but also, as McConnell’s sneering comments suggested, it is increasingly willing to delegitimate democratic governance, if doing so will yield power and establish the GOP’s favored class as the nation’s rulers.

        I am skeptical that the Party’s supporters will ever see through the carefully crafted delusion the GOP and its allies have built to secure their fervor. It remains, therefore, for the majority of Americans to demand that Republican leaders rethink their game plan, and to overcome that party’s gerrymandering, persistent lies and voter suppression efforts by sheer force of democratic will. Whether such can occur remains an open question, especially as the GOP works assiduously against it. The Republican Party’s leadership has clearly bet the party’s very soul against that possibility.

*With thanks to Professor Wallace S. Sayre, cited below.

Notes

[1] Wagner, John. “Senate narrowly turns back GOP amendments to curtail assistance to refugees,” The Washington Post, September 30, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/cotton-amendment-defeated/2021/09/30/7fb1a02c-2206-11ec-8200-5e3fd4c49f5e_story.html, Accessed September 30, 2021.

[2] Wagner, John. “Senate narrowly turns back GOP amendments to curtail assistance to refugees.”

[3] Desrochers, Daniel. “Roger Marshall’s attempt to block Biden vaccine rules fails in Senate,” McClatchy D.C. Bureau, September 30, 2021, https://www.mcclatchydc.com/news/politics-government/article254645142.html, Accessed September 30, 2021. 

[4] Sayre, Wallace S. “The Triumph of Techniques Over Purpose,” Public Administration Review, 8(2), Spring 1948, 134-137, p. 135.

[5] Sayre, Wallace S. “The Triumph of Techniques Over Purpose,” p. 135.

[6] Leonhardt, David and Prasad Philbrick. “Congressional Brinkmanship,” The New York Times, September 23, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/23/briefing/government-shutdown-debt-ceiling-brinkmanship.html, Accessed September 23, 2021.  

Publication Date

October 4, 2021

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