Democracy alive and well at the Justice Department?

by CarlD

In an earlier post I remarked that one of the ordinary ways democracy works is to enable winners to arrange things to their liking. This is, um, the point of winning.

There are, however, debatable limits to how far parties in power can be allowed to politicize the ordinary functions of government. It’s pretty obvious that you shouldn’t get or not get a driver’s license based on whether you’re a Democrat, Republican, Naderite, Fascist or Communist. The question is whether you can drive straight, not whether you can think straight, pace my earlier thoughts on getting clear. It’s slightly less obvious, but analogous, that you shouldn’t get the job distributing drivers’ licenses on such a basis either.

(By the way, this is obvious only in the context of ‘modern’ formally-organized states based on some kind of abstract popular consent. In ‘traditional’ client-patron systems like feudalism or the Mafia you do, in fact, only get things because of your affiliation with groups and networks. These systems work very well and are by no means completely displaced by formal organization, as the current case illustrates.)

The Department of Motor Vehicles is just one of many agencies of government that perform technical functions according to rules and procedures, regardless of what party is in political power. Politicizing those agencies would – and does, where it happens – entail massive discontinuities and disruptions of ordinary service every election, as the new rulers throw out the old cronies and the new cronies learn on the job. Think of Kenya, Louisiana and Zimbabwe here. Meanwhile, you’d have to offer political (or other) favors in order to get your sewer hooked up or your taxes refunded. (Yes, yes, I know.) As galling as it may be, the very best thing about the horrible bureaucratic impersonality of the modern democratic government is that it’s not ‘who you know’ that should get things done, and eventually does.

This is a principle that the Bush administration has been notoriously unclear on, most visibly in appointments to positions and policy enforcement in the Justice Department (DoJ). I won’t rehearse previous instances, but a new one popped up in the paper today (AP reporting, I will not be quoting) and it’s kinda interesting. It concerns the hiring of new law-school grads for summer internships and ‘Honors Program’ jobs. As the former spouse of a top law graduate, I know how desirable and competitive these things can be as career steps. There’s a lot of incentive to parse the criteria, which are formally supposed to be politically-neutral accomplishments like grades, quality of law school, clerkships, and other experience.

One way to get at this would be to wonder how neutral those neutral criteria are. The privileges of group affiliation get packed down into life chances and institutional access in some pretty complicated and shady ways. Bracketing those questions for now and just looking at the numbers in terms of political affiliation, two examples are given in the article I read. In 2002, 911 (wow) applied for Honors jobs. 100 were identified by the screening committee as liberal, and 80 of those were denied. Out of 46 applicants identified as conservative, only four were denied. In 2006 the numbers were: 602 applicants, 150 liberal, 83 of whom denied; 28 conservative, five of whom denied.

You can eyeball the percentages and come up with the obvious conclusion that makes the story: a far greater proportion of liberal applicants were denied than conservative applicants. It’s possible that this is because liberals tend to be knuckleheads and this is reflected in their resumes, but the story assures us that highly qualified liberal applicants were denied while lesser qualified conservative applicants were accepted. OK, let’s accept that the report’s sources do a better job of assessing credentials than the screening committee. So apparently the effective variable is not the quality of the candidates but their political affiliations. Given that this is a formally depoliticized area of government, it looks really bad.

I’m stuck on the raw numbers, however. I’m not at all confused by the large remainder of applicants who had no discernable political affiliation; this matches nicely with the general apolitical drift of the people I partied with when my ex-wife was in law school. My impression was that a lot of those were essentially conservos in their vague unreflective commitment to laissez-faire individualism and the pursuit of personal wealth, as were the majority of the lawyers I partied with once my ex-wife began her career. Then you had the fringe ideologues on both sides, who made the parties more fun and who are presumably those who screened as liberal or conservative at the DoJ.

My impressions cover only one top-twenty law school and two metropolitan corporate law crowds, demographics that are both skewed conservative for reasons I presume are obvious, but those are the kind of people who are also live candidates for fancy post-grad internships. So why were there from two to six times as many liberals as conservatives among the applicants?

I don’t know. One possibility is interpretation bias in the political screening: it might have taken less ideological purity to be branded a liberal than to be anointed a conservative. Another possibility is in the nature of the ideology: laissez-faire individualists are not much devoted to collective political struggle, while bleeding heart do-gooders are, so the traces of their politics show up differently. Along the same lines, activist liberals may be more attracted to the good they imagine they can do in a government job, while conservatives may disproportionately zero right in on the law firm track to get their careers and earnings moving. Then again, conservatives are more associated with law and order, so I’m a bit surprised they aren’t swarming to the DoJ. Figuring this stuff out would take far more nuanced categories of analysis than ‘liberal’ vs. ‘conservative’.

All of this is background to the point that leapt out at me, which again is just the raw disparity of numbers. Yikes! If I’m a conservative running the screening for entry to the justice pipeline I’ve got to be horrified that the candidate pool is so politically skewed, just as a liberal would be if the positions were reversed. In fact, in these circumstances turning a blind eye to politics in the selection process would produce a dramatic overabundance – 2X to 6X – of liberals in the agency, in effect politicizing it. I would expect any good democratic citizen to be appalled by such a blatant violation of the spirit of the laws, and to take affirmative action to correct it. Fortunately, between the screeners’ frontier justice and the current backlash, this seems to be the process that’s underway here.


4 Comments to “Democracy alive and well at the Justice Department?”

  1. @Carl Thanks for the ping. Of course, refusing to quote AP pieces is equivalent to boycotting the media organization. AP foot, meet AP gun.

  2. Yes, Enkerli, I thought you got that analysis exactly right. The only way I can think what they’re doing makes any sense is if they think they’re in a position to monopolize the provision of authoritative information. Given the recent cutbacks at my local newspaper’s reporting staff and reliance on the AP feed there may be something to that.

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