Kesler on ‘Dikes, Dams, and Pumping Stations’ to Drain the Swamp

Charles R. Kesler, editor of the Claremont Review of Books, joins Seth Leibsohn and Chris Buskirk to discuss the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation and the “reformation” of America’s constitutional government into a progressive administrative state—the “swamp.”

Seth Leibsohn: Welcome back. Tuesday, October 31st, 2017. I am Seth Leibsohn. He is Chris Buskirk. It is both Reformation Day and Halloween. It is also, in addition to that, the Seth and Chris-aversary. This is the one year mark of our first year together on air as co-hosts with this show, so we thought it’s only appropriate to bring on the man who started this all with us.

Professor Charles Kesler from Claremont-McKenna, our professor, currently and formerly, who is also the editor of the Claremont Review of Books, whose new fall issue is fresh out. Professor, teacher, doctor, welcome.

Kesler: Thank you, Seth. Are you properly costumed?

Leibsohn: Yeah, we are. If you could go to our Facebook page for 960 The Patriot or our Twitter feeds, the office threw us a celebration today, and it was a Magnum PI theme celebration. We’ll send you the pictures and complete with chili dogs. The reason we did chili dogs, Charles … Were you a fan of Magnum PI?

Kesler: Of course. Yes.

Leibsohn: That was his favorite food, and as Chris was mentioning that the food for Reformation Day is a sausage, so we just did a quintessence of things here and we had chili dogs. Makes sense, right?

Kesler: That’s coming awfully close to Hawaiian cultural appropriation, though.

Leibsohn: Well, you have those problems-

Chris Buskirk: Asymptotically close.

Leibsohn: Asymptotically close. Yes. Stochastically as well as autochthonously as well, but you have those problems in Claremont. Phoenix, here, we do freedom, Charles. We do freedom. Thank you for coming and joining us. Thank you for all your scholarship and teaching and friendship along the way, and thank you for this new issue of the Claremont Review of Books. Do you want to tell the audience a little bit about it?

Kesler: Oh, you’re very welcome. I just have one more Halloween question. Is anyone dressed as Jeff Flake?

Leibsohn: What would that look like?

Kesler: Well, strangely enough, I was passing through Phoenix a few days ago. Less than 24 hours or I certainly would’ve looked you up, but I was just passing through at the beautiful Fairmont Princess Scottsdale Hotel.

Leibsohn: Oh, Philanthropy Roundtable.

Kesler: Yes. That’s the Philanthropy Roundtable. I asked my Uber driver, “What does it feel like to have lost your senator? Jeff Flake is not running for re-election,” and his response to me was, “Who?”

Leibsohn: Well, you know, it is interesting. He had a 17-

Kesler: He said, “I know McCain, but who is this guy?”

Leibsohn: He had a 17 percent approval rating here. That was part of the problem. His idea was, with the 17 percent approval rating, “Let me write a book, a screed against someone with a 71 percent approval rating.” That was his idea of good politics, right? It doesn’t really work out that way. You don’t have to go to Claremont to figure that out.

Kesler: Well.

Leibsohn: Tell us about this new issue. What do we get? We get a lot on the Reformation, actually, don’t we?

Kesler: Yes. It was 500 years ago that Martin Luther hammered his 95 Theses onto the door of the cathedral and started the Reformation, and so we take this opportunity every 500 years to examine the state of things.

Leibsohn: I’ll be looking forward to the follow-up.

Kesler: Me too. We have two pieces. We have a nice biographical piece on Martin Luther, and we have a piece by the Harvard’s leading Renaissance and Reformation historian, James Hankins, on the legacy of the Reformation, and then two really interesting pieces, one, on Christianity in China, where it’s making an enormous comeback, and the other on Christianity in America, where it’s not.

We have a terrific review of four books, including Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option, about which a lot of people have heard, concerning what to do about how to live as a Christian or really, in a certain way, it’s really almost as any believing religious person in an increasingly secular culture like America’s. Nicely done and I’m proud of all of them. They make a nice four-pack, as it were.

Leibsohn: It’s a great journal, folks. You can go to There’s no I in Claremont. to get the journal. Subscribe to the journal. I, particularly, as always, Charles, liked your essay, your opening essay. You talk about the deconstruction of the administrative state and how tough that seems to be, both at the legislative level and other ways we might imagine the president can do it, however, ephemerally, with the, well, the stroke of a pen and a phone, right?

Kesler: Right. That was a bull’s eye when Steve Bannon said, “The deconstruction of the administrative state is at the top of the agenda or near the top of the president’s agenda,” but the problem is you can’t just deconstruct it. You’ve also got to do some reconstruction of the constitutional state because a lot of damage has been done to that, and it’s not like it’s still standing in great condition.

As you take down the scaffolding of the administrative state, you’re going to have to do significant repairs to the way the constitution is supposed to operate because we really don’t have a constitutional government in the full sense anymore and having had it for 50 or 60 years, if not, longer.

It’s not a matter, as I put it in the piece, of just draining the swamp. It’s keeping it drained and that means you need a series of dams and dikes and pumping stations and so forth, and all of that means you need a working constitution because just getting rid of bad things from our present mode of governance is not going to restore the health of all the good things that we need.

Leibsohn: I want to ask you in a minute about the dikes, dams, and pumping stations, what they might look like, but I wonder if I might … Remember what … I forget who asked. I think some Washington-Post-type journalist, maybe David Broder, somewhere around 1980, who asked the question, “Is the job of the presidency too big for one man,” over Jimmy Carter’s failure, as Ronald Reagan proved it wasn’t.

I’m wondering if the job of deconstructing the administrative state, I’m wondering if the job of governing from a conservative or a Republican party dominance if the job is too big to do it. As you point out, the Democrats did one thing with healthcare. The Republicans couldn’t and struggle with tax reform. Has the problem gotten so big that not even we can take it on?

Kesler: Well, it is big and it’s too big for either party right now, but that’s partly because neither party has its hands around the problem and to do that, you need first to get your mind around the problem.

I think what we need is we need … We do have now, I think, some serious senators like Tom Cotton and others, maybe Mike Lee and others who know something about how the constitution is supposed to work and can work backwards to how it’s working now and figure out what ought to be done, but it’s going to take a major effort because our institutions are not behaving the way they’re supposed to, and the biggest example of this is Congress.

Ed Luce, in the Financial Times, who had a great line, he said, “The Congress is a sausage factory that has forgotten how to make sausages.” There’s a lot of truth to that. As your viewers and hearers and your audience knows, most of our legislation is now done not by Congress passing laws, but by the agencies of the vast bureaucracy passing regulation.

Congress has, in a way, almost forgotten how to pass real laws, laws that are debated, laws that are deliberated. When is the last time you had a major weeks-long deliberation about the construction of a real law? I don’t know. It’s been a very long time.

Obamacare was not constructed that way, nor was the repeal attempted that way, and the tax code has rarely done that way. You may have to go back to the, I don’t know, maybe back to the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act in the 1960s to get major pieces of legislation that were actually, carefully deliberated, thought through in the way it’s supposed to work.

Chris Buskirk: Charles, my impression is that most of the folks in Congress right now, not only have forgotten to legislate, they seem not to know that it’s their job. They seem to view their job a little bit differently.

If you ask them the question, “Do you know it’s your job to legislate?” Of course, they’d say, “Oh, sure, we do,” but they don’t spend any time doing it. They don’t seem to be thinking about it at all. They’re caught into the new cycle. At least, if you judge by the way they act, they seem to think that their job is to respond to the new cycle and then hopefully get a couple of spending bills out now and then.

Kesler: Yes. That’s right. It’s a bit of a mystery why they are so incompetent. The system itself is supposed to educate them in a way and to make them want to defend their own prerogatives and to use their powers, and yet that doesn’t seem to be working the way it used to, I’m afraid.

Leibsohn: Charles, we’re going to a break. Can we hold you over for another segment?

Charles Kesler: Love to. Thank you.

Leibsohn: Okay, great. We’ll go out with Shania Twain. We’ll come back with Charles Kesler. We’ll be right back. (silence)

Thomas Magnum: Both of us wanting to believe in the other, but both demanding proof and that, as they say, is the hell of it.

Leibsohn: Yeah. A little Thomas Magnum, waxing-poetic there. A very interesting private investigator show that tied together a lot of elements, including anti-Communism. Who knew PIs could be anti-Communist? Well, he was. Really, a parade, a welcome-home parade to the Vietnam vets, they never got.

We are delighted to have with us Charles Kesler, professor at Claremont-McKenna College, editor of the Claremont Review of Books. We’ve been talking about, well, the state of the bureaucratic state, the state of the swamp, but also the state of conservatism and what muscularity it’s going to need, what tools it’s going to need to drain the swamp.

Charles, you’re right. A wise system of dikes, dams, and pumping stations. Besides more and better Americanists, conservatists, the conservatives in leadership positions, what would constitute some of these dikes, dams, and pumping stations?

Kesler: Well, I think we need to think about some real reform. It’s been a long time, really, maybe since the 1970s, when we had the last eruption of fairly fundamental reform of the organization of the government, and it was not thought through then as it ought to have been and before that, you have to really go all the way back to the ’40s and the 1930s, so we’re long overdue to figure out what we’ve done to our government and why it is so dysfunctional now.

They’ve still done some things well. The military is still quite good and the other parts of it, even things like disaster relief and so forth one could be proud of, but the basic functions of government are not being carried out with the efficiency and the constitutional fidelity that they used to be.

What do we need? I think we need to look at the civil service system for one thing. It’s almost impossible to fire government employees. There are too many of them. No one knows what they do. No one can get rid of them or improve them.

It’s very, very difficult and it means that the president, with the majority behind him, like President Trump, finds it hard to carry out the will of the majority because leaving aside the others, in his own department, it’s very hard to get his orders carried out. If you look at, say, the Department of Health and Human Services, it has 80,000 employees. What do they do all day?

Leibsohn: I blame Tevi Troy.

Kesler: Well, he did the work of 10.

Leibsohn: Yeah. Yeah. That’s a good point. That’s a good point.

Kesler: Or maybe 100. He was a net plus for sure, but that’s one thing, but we need to look at the basic way that the bureaucracies of government, both the executive ones and the so-called independent ones, are run because they are concentrating too much power in unelected hands and not just power, but powers in the plural.

Legislative power, because they issue regulations. Judicial power, because they have their own system of tribunals in courts, in which people who are accused of violating their regulations are dragged, and then they have their own as it were police forces to help in the execution of their own laws, but all of those powers in the same set of hands, as your audience knows, is the very definition of tyranny, as James Madison said back in the Federalist Papers.

You’re supposed to keep those powers separate or very much separated and not combine them, but the whole theory of our government now calls for the combination and the coordination of powers in a way that is really lawless and dangerous, and we have to come to grips with that and that will take some serious thought and some serious reform.

That’s why I floated the idea of a presidential commission on the conduct of government or on the constitutional governance, whatever you would like to call it, to look at the whole range of these constitutional problems and try to come up with some solutions.

There are some good things happening in the federal government right now. President Trump is rolling back regulation and he is attacking some of the structural problems. His Office of Management and Budget is doing good things, and so I wouldn’t want to get in the way of practical reform going on with the commission, but it may still be that something like a commission or even several might be necessary to help the voters to understand what the problem is.

Buskirk: Charles, one of the theories underlying our constitutional system is that each of the three branches would jealously guard their own powers and prerogatives and particularly, with the elected branches, this was thought to be self-evidently true.

With Congress, they seem to have moved beyond that paradigm in the sense that they are less interested. Of course, they’re interested in being re-elected, right? One of the theses is that in order to be re-elected, a congressman or a senator would necessarily want to protect the prerogatives of his own institution, so that he could be effective and therefore, the voters back home would see him as being effective and re-elect him.

However, they seem to have simplified and streamlined the process and decided all they have to do is be able to vote money to the appropriate groups and leave all the rule-making to the executive branch. How do you change that back to the way it was supposed to be?

Kesler: Well, it’s tough because assuming that human psychology has not changed, congressmen are not behaving … They’re not following the incentives that the constitution was set up to exploit, and they’re not behaving the way congressmen used to behave. The congressmen used to insist on law-making and were very jealous. This was their greatest power was passing a budget and making laws.

They can’t pass a budget anymore and they rarely make laws, and what they call laws like Obamacare itself, they’re thousands-of-page monstrosities that are really just a list of how-to’s or a wish list for administrators to carry out later on, and so there’s no sunshine coming in. The public has no way to really check the performance of their congressmen and in defense of judging them as legislators and it’s very hard, therefore, to keep them responsible to the people.

That is, I think, a large part of “Why do you get the populism that President Trump represents in our politics these days and even to some degree that Bernie Sanders represented?” It’s because the system doesn’t seem to be working as it’s supposed to be working, and so you have to go outside the system, precisely, if you want to preserve it.

Leibsohn: Nicely put, Charles. Charles Kesler, Professor Kesler from the Claremont Review of Books. Thanks for joining and spending some time with us today.

Kesler: Well, Happy Halloween.

Leibsohn: Thank you, sir.

Buskirk: Happy Reformation Day.

Leibsohn: Happy Reformation Day. Happy Chris and Sethaversary. Here, it’s Seth and Chrisaversary. Here’s a little Eddie Rabbitt. Be right back.


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One response to “Kesler on ‘Dikes, Dams, and Pumping Stations’ to Drain the Swamp

  • Just read and listened to this discussion on “Swamp Thing” for not only Halloween appropriate but Reformation- appropriate immersion. So — Fantastic ideas: Congress broken, Administrative State to be torn asunder while repairs made to Constitution. It’s a good beginning!

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