In recent years, liberals have written much about the forms, distribution, and uses of power in America. Their thought has been dominated by the feeling that too much power—political, social, and economic—is unresponsible, hidden, often simply improper in its methods and purposes. With the ever greater prominence of large public and private bureaucratic structures, the sense has grown that things no longer go on unplanned and haphazard, but are determined by human will. But whose will? Is it the will of the people, or the majority of the people, as is proper in a democracy (however hard it may be to ascertain the will of large numbers of people)? Or are the wills of a comparatively small number of people decisive? There is surely no “power elite” that controls the American system in its entirety. Great interests, each in the charge of a few men, however, seem to do as they please, and often at the expense or to the hurt of the larger public. And always in the background is the brute fact that simply in running their establishments, men controlling business, labor, the armed forces, make decisions and exercise power on a scale usually thought to be appropriate only to men chosen by the people for public office, and held accountable to them.
In Douglass Cater’s Power in Washington we have a book that treats the facts of unresponsible power with great urgency. Mr. Cater is an editor of The Reporter magazine, and the author of a book on the role of the press in American society. He is, in this new book, a quite self-conscious reporter, aware that his access to daily fact is more intimate than that of most political scientists, and aware also that there are “mysteries of the struggle to govern” for a good reporter to penetrate, that power in Washington has many “guises” and turns up in unexpected places, and that the “trappings” of power have an iconological importance that the trained eye can disclose. This is not to say that Cater believes that behind every policy there is a conspiracy, or that all politics is dirt. Nor on the other hand does Cater succumb to the charm of power, despite his incessant exposure to it. His book is, in short, exceptionally pure. It is nevertheless something of a disappointment.
The early pages are the strongest. For Cater, the overwhelming political fact is that our national government is fragmentary or “disintegrate.” “The central problem confronting government today is to make power in Washington more cohesive.” His bias is towards stronger Presidential leadership. His main culprit is obstructionist Congressional committees, dominated by their baronial chairmen, and especially sensitive to local interests or to special interests. But Cater’s concerns are not limited to the formal separation of powers. He stresses the intractability of the giant bureaucracies of the executive branch of government, the evidently unavoidable freedom of action on the part of permanent officials who are supposed to be the servants of Presidential policy. Thus, standing between the will of the majority (as putatively embodied in the President) and its realization are Congressional independence and bureaucratic resistance. And when the popular will cannot operate, the vacuum is filled by the “subgovernments.” By this term, Cater means the alliance of powerful members of the House and Senate with important executive officials and the representatives of private interests for the purpose of dominating specific areas of policy.
Sugar policy, for example, is normally in the hands of the Chairman of the House Agricultural Committee, the director of the Sugar Division in the U. S. Department of Agriculture, and emissaries from the various parts of the sugar industry. This is a case of a tight powerful subgovernment that only rarely is subjected to the check or even scrutiny of superior authority. The presumption is that whenever necessary, the public interest will yield to the interests of the sugar industry, more or less as defined by these industries. Other subgovernments which Cater mentions but does not explore are those controlling oil policy and military defense. In the case of oil, the corporations take advantage of the confusion engendered by the coexistence of many agencies meant to regulate them, and impose their will. In contrast, the subgovernment of defense is “loosely knit” and immense in size, and therefore able to be disciplined now and then, though remaining, in Cater’s opinion, perhaps the most troublesome concentration of power in American life.
Given the fact, then, that many areas of public policy are often under the dominion of private men working with strategically placed public men who often seem to be their confederates or their well-rewarded servants, and that therefore the exercise of much power is irregular and narrow when it should be responsible and general, what is to be done? The bulk of Cater’s book is devoted not to an informed description of the subgovernments, but to a cursory and artificially selective inventory of those shortcomings of the Presidency, Congress, and the parties, which permit the subgovernments to govern. This part of Cater’s work is done much less satisfactorily; perhaps that was inevitable.
Once a critic says that our government should be a more perfect instrument of the general welfare, and less a dispenser of favors to groups strong enough to apply pressure, it is hard to be original in offering proposals for reform. It is equally hard to avoid being ruthlessly thoroughgoing. But Cater tries to be new and gentle. Unlike many American liberals, he does not lust after parliamentary government on the English model, where disciplined national parties and a concentration of powers promote smoother workings for the party in office. He recognizes that we have a federal republic; that the national parties are really alliances of independent state parties; that Senators and Congressmen owe their political lives to these state parties, and to interests in the states, and are therefore in a position to defy the President, on whom they depend for little. He will not condemn the separation of powers or the division of powers. As a reformer, he thinks for himself, all the time taking for granted the continued existence of the basic features of our political system.
The results are predictably slight. “…contrary to Lord Bryce…Presidents ought to be great men.” “There must be wider recognition of what we are trying to accomplish as we run the Presidential candidates over the hurdles.” “Among the multitudinous roles a President must fill, his greatest challenge and greatest power must be a blending of those of poet and preacher.” When Cater comes to think about Congress, he nicely says, “The aim of reform should not be to make Congress more automatically responsive to the Executive, but to make Congress more responsive to itself.” But how much is to be expected from what Cater suggests: strengthening the powers of the elected officers of both houses, weakening the claims of seniority to committee chairmanships, clipping the wings of the House Rules Committee? Chase the barons from one stronghold, they find another. On the question of political parties, Cater can only advise that “A President, as well as others who desire orderly and effective government, ought to give constant thought to ways of vitalizing the party system.” Throughout the book there is too much of this uninstructive sermonizing.
Cater does deserve praise for resisting political Anglophilia, and for his sometimes quite subtle sense of the strengths of those very things that he would like to see reformed. It may be, nevertheless, that the changes Cater, and other liberals, want, will come in ways Cater largely ignores—the end of de facto Negro disfranchisement in the South, and the redrawing of the boundaries of Congressional districts. The political composition of Congress will be profoundly affected by these events; and with it, much of the whole political process. If a Congress with a built-in bias to the left emerged, its cooperation with the President could increase to the point where the separation of powers no longer made government “disintegrate.” And with that, the subgovernments could taste a bit more discipline. However, nothing certain can be said on these matters.
We turn to Jack Raymond’s Power at the Pentagon for what we hope will be a close and severe look at the military establishment, the subgovernment of defense. Mr. Raymond is the reporter on military affairs for The New York Times; and he is a fine reporter. Together with his colleague, John W. Finney, he writes on the insides of American government—the executive bureaucracies and the regulatory commissions and their relations with Congress and private interests. In a quiet way, these two men turn out political journalism as important as any, buried though they too frequently are in the middle pages of The Times. It is therefore terrible to find that Raymond’s book does not crystallize his thoughts on the serious issues he occupies himself with every day. Instead we have a book that is tame enough to have been written by Hanson Baldwin. Without much order or purpose, Raymond “covers” the many facets of military policy, the complexities of the military hierarchy, and the pervasiveness of military considerations in American affairs and of military spending in the American economy. There is very little new in the book. (There is one surprise: the hostility displayed towards Robert McNamara.)
Raymond makes a few dutiful references to President Eisenhower’s farewell comments on the peril of the “military-industrial complex.” Coming from a military man surrounded by industrialists, and yet a man possessed of as much constitutional tact as any president in American history, those few words of Eisenhower’s were as startling as they continue to be haunting. The opportunity to explore thoroughly what the former president meant by them is missed. To be sure, Raymond takes up the intricacies of the TFX affair, and the swirl of interests surrounding the award of contracts to industry and the status and location of bases and military centers in the country. Now and then he approaches the subject of the dangers of a “permanent war economy,” but then backs away, covering his retreat with anecdotes.
There is no doubt that Raymond conveys a sense of the sheer size of the military factor in American life. But for all that his book does not leave a residue of worry. And that is because he leaves untouched the great sociological theme: the tendency of entrenched military establishments to make war more likely. This is an old theme, not a new idea bred by Trotskyist hysteria: and it points to something besides capitalist economic necessities. To borrow from Schumpeter: Created by wars that required it, the military machine makes wars it requires. The pity is that nothing sinister or cruel need be present for this tendency to threaten. A large military class must have wars and the threats of war to live, prosper, secure promotions, exercise influence, experience the delight of demonstrating its capacities. In the most pacific times, once a military tradition is part of the fabric of a society, the leadership must seek for funds, must make a fetish of weapons, must introduce military considerations when none may be relevant. The survival and integrity of a military hierarchy can thus be at cross purposes with the best policies of a nation. It would be impossible to say with any exactness to what degree the American military has developed this sort of social weight. After all, the real world has been and is a perilous place: the military does not have to create trouble. But what of the future? Never mind the melodrama of dynamic militarists attempting to stage a coup, or creating “a state within a state.” The problem is more inertia than dynamism; it is more the daily, usually obscure, mostly secret assertion of military advice and opinion, in the most delicate and fearful area of national policy, yet the one least liable to democratic control, the least accessible to the lay intelligence. Little by little, with good but narrowly professional intentions or simply with ordinary worldly intentions, the military establishment could freeze this country into an unalterable bellicose posture. A book that purports to be about power at the Pentagon must touch on these matters, and Raymond’s book does not.
May 28, 1964