It was “old home evening” at the Schar School on March 30 when Francis (Frank) Fukuyama returned to the site of his early career successes (1996-2000) to provide the annual Harold Gortner Lecture in political science. As such, many friends and former colleagues joined in welcoming Dr. Fukuyama back to where he started his academic career.
The topic of the evening was Vetocracy and the Future of American Administrative State. Dr. Fukuyama began by providing comments on the current state of affairs in the United States, which he defined as being in “political decay” because, while the American political system is a system of checks and balances, we have a fractured Congress and there is more power in a few people now than in the past. According to Dr. Fukuyama, the primary reason for this is changes in American society, including polarization – as exemplified by the red/blue states and the increasing of bandwith in communications – and the rise of interest groups so that they become non-representative of the whole. In the mid-20th century, the two political parties overlapped in ideology, but have become completely different. This has led to “vetocracy,” which he defined as rule by veto.
Dr. Fukuyama identified two specific challenges posed by the current administration. The first concern is about Donald Trump just as a personality – one that gets around “inconvenient rules” and anyone who disagrees is seen as part of a “partisan institution,” including the media and the Bureau of Labor. The second concern is a lack of understanding about how a constitutional democracy works; Dr. Fukuyama asserted that Mr. Trump and his team do not seem to understand that, by design, the President of the United States actually is a fairly weak individual.
Among his other wide-ranging comments during the evening, Dr. Fukuyama noted that President Trump never held a campaign rally outside the states he won, and, along the same lines, he does not seem to consider himself as president of the entire country. Further, he sees the “deconstruction of the administrative state,” which he believes can be traced back to Congress, where legislative mandates typically are either over-detailed or under-detailed. He claims that our administrative state is aging, has too much red tape, and has become quite bureaucratic – and there does not seem to be an appetite for fixing the executive branch.
Dr. Fukuyama also suggested some implications of the current administrative state for the Schar School. While we are in great need of professionalism in the administration of such offices as NASA, the GAO, and the GSA, they also need protections. On the other hand, he wondered out loud about who would want to go into Civil Service in the type of administrative climate under which we now struggle. The evening ended with a round of questions from the audience.
Dr. Fukuyama currently serves as Olivier Nomellini Senior Fellow and Mosbacher Director in the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, Stanford University. The lecture series is named for much-beloved, though now retired, political science professor Harold Gortner, who was responsible for creating our Master of Public Administration program – the first graduate degree offered at George Mason University. The inaugural lecture was given in 2006.