David Brooks: In praise of Washington insiders

(Andrew Harnik | AP) Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch is sworn in to testify to the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, Nov. 15, 2019, during the second public impeachment hearing of President Donald Trump's efforts to tie U.S. aid for Ukraine to investigations of his political opponents.

Let me tell you a secret. The public buildings of Washington are filled with very good people working hard for low pay and the public good. There are thousands of them and they are very much like the Foreign Service officers that we’ve seen or are expected to see testifying at the impeachment hearings: William Taylor, George Kent, Marie Yovanovitch and Fiona Hill.

These public servants tend to be self-effacing and deeply knowledgeable about some small realm of public policy. They’re generally not all that interested in partisan politics but are deeply committed to the process and substance of good government. Whenever I get to sit in on off-the-record meetings at this or that federal agency, I’m impressed by the quality, professionalism and basic goodness of the people there.

We don’t celebrate these people. Trumpian conservatives say that Washington insiders are unelected bureaucrats, denizens of the swamp, the cesspool or a snake pit. Some progressives call Washington insiders the establishment, the power elite, the privileged structures of the status quo.

Everybody who runs for office wants to be seen as an outsider and condemns the insiders. That is, until weeks like this one when we realize how much we need them.

At this week’s hearings, the civil servant witnesses answering questions inspired a lot more confidence than the elected officials who were asking them. Why are they so impressive? It’s precisely because they are Washington insiders. The witnesses have worked in a long line of institutions — the State Department, the World Bank, the Brookings Institution, the National Security Council.

For all their flaws, these institutions possess what political scientist Hugh Heclo called “sedimented deposits” of inherited knowledge. If you are a Foreign Service officer long enough, you learn to think like a Foreign Service officer. You absorb the skills, practices and moral codes you need to do the work well. When someone breaks the code, you know immediately, and if you are brave enough, like the whistleblower, you move to defend the code.

When public servants enter government, they shed their private interests to serve a public role. A great question of the Trump years is whether our institutions can survive a president who is incapable of thinking outside his own private interest. Donald Trump uses public office as a gold mine to extract personal advantage.

As Yuval Levin writes in his profound forthcoming book, “A Time to Build,” Trump is an example of a person who wasn’t formed by an institution. He is self-created and self-enclosed. He governs as a perpetual outsider, tweeting insults to members of his own Cabinet. At its best, the impeachment process is an attempt to protect our institutions from his inability to obey the rules.

The wider disease here is “outsiderism” itself. For a half-century our culture has celebrated the rebel, not the organization man; the free individual, not the institutionalist. That’s fine and in many cases good, but over the decades this outsider pose has hardened into an immature cynicism: Everybody’s corrupt. No one is to be trusted.

“The populism of this moment in our politics is fundamentally antinomian, mistrustful of authority, and cynical about all claims to integrity,” Levin writes in “A Time to Build.” “Our age combines a populism that insists all of our institutions are rigged against the people with an identity politics that rejects institutional commitments and a celebrity culture that chafes against all structure and constraint.”

All around the world voters are electing comedians, celebrities and outsider performers to high office. All around the world people are responding to demagogues who tell them that our problems are easy to solve if we just get rid of the bad people. Everywhere rule-breakers like Trump, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Nicolás Maduro are in power and corruption is in the air.

People have messed-up theories of how you do social change. On the right many think that you need to elect some authoritarian strongman who will whip everybody into shape. On the left many put their faith in social movements, without explaining how social movements are going to write and pass legislation.

In reality, institutions are the only vehicles for legislative change. That’s because they are the way to wield power safely. They have rules and structures and norms precisely because power is so dangerous when it is wielded by a lone strongman or by a mob.

People have lost faith in institutions for some very good reasons, and the need to reform them is urgent. But the disenchantment is overblown and self-destructive. We don’t pay enough attention to all the planes that take off and land safely. We underestimate the value of experience. As Heclo writes in “On Thinking Institutionally,” “It is when you deal with someone who does not perform in a ‘professional’ manner that you learn to appreciate those who do.”

Watching Taylor and Kent, I had a feeling of going back in time. Why did it feel so strange? It was because I was looking at people who are not self-centered. They’ve dedicated themselves to the organization that formed them, and which they serve.

David Brooks

David Brooks is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.