The Politics of Nonpartisan Agencies
Spotlights and Oversights at the National Archives
I’m Paul Musgrave, a political scientist and writer. This is Systematic Hatreds, my newsletter about my thoughts regarding politics and the study of politics. The newsletter takes its title from a line in The Education of Henry Adams:
Politics, as a practice, whatever its professions, had always been the systematic organization of hatreds.
In this special edition, we’re talking about the confirmation hearings for Archivist of the United States nominee Colleen Shogan and what they say about oversight and nonpartisanship.
The Politics of Nonpartisan Agencies
On Wednesday, I wrote a preview of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee hearings for Archivist of the United States nominee Colleen Shogan. The hearing itself was fine—ABC called it “unusually contentious”, and for an independent agency it might be, but it’s hard to get a baseline for AOTUS confirmation hearings since they happen about once a decade.
The hearings went mostly as one would have predicted. Republican attacks were designed to make Shogan radical, but she isn’t and their ammunition mostly misfired. Yet the nominee’s answers tended, if anything, to rhetorically retreat from any sense that National Archives and Records Administration has a special role to play or that it matters what the Archivist’s values are.
Republican attacks fall flat
Questioning in congressional hearings alternates between parties. The division was obvious on Wednesday, with Democrats and Republicans mostly asking questions from entirely different universes. That’s not too surprising: the goal of the majority is to build the case for confirmation and minimize chances for surprises (which are bad), while the goal of the minority is to see if there’s political gains to be made through embarrassment or policy concessions. Democrats asked good, solid, and rather dull questions about specific issues related to NARA’s performance: delays in processing records, personnel issues, and so on. Republicans, by contrast, tended to ask about potentially embarrassing topics, mostly plumbing to see if there were any obvious weaknesses.
As occasionally unpleasant as some of the questions could be, they mostly amounted to comparatively little. Like most congressional hearings, many of the interventions had more to do with the press release the members wanted to send than pressing issues for the agency. Senator James Lankford (R-OK) trumpeted in a press release that he used the hearings to advertise that he was dissatisfied with the raid on Mar-a-Lago (something Shogan had nothing to do with), that he had pressed Shogan to say she wouldn’t unilaterally ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (something that was highly unlikely anyway), and that he wanted to have warning labels removed from archival searches involving the Constitution (a point that Shogan responded to calmly and rationally).
The biggest splash came with questions from Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) and Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) regarding an article Shogan published in Perspectives on Politics regarding “Anti-Intellectualism in the Modern Presidency.” As part of the Trumpist line of argument seeking to depict NARA as a craven politicized agency run by radical leftists, Portman and especially Hawley tried to paint Shogan as a rabid Democrat who thinks Republicans are dumb as rocks. As The Hill reported Hawley’s remarks:
You wrote an article saying basically that Republican voters are stupid, that Republican presidents deliberately appeal to anti-intellectualism,” Hawley said. “You roll it all up in this thing called Republican populism, yet you’re trying to present yourself here as a nonpartisan. In fact, you’re an extreme partisan, and your record shows that.”
Political scientists might notice a few things wrong, or at least ironic, here. Perspectives on Politics is an APSA journal founded after the Perestroika movement (not Gorbachev’s). Designed to make political science more accessible and relevant, Perspectives was supposed to bring timely scholarship to major issues. (These days, it’s mostly just another journal, although it has a good book review section.) So it’s nice to see that Perspectives is having an influence on politics, if not, perhaps, the influence its founders would have hoped.
The other thing, of course, is that political scientists, contrary to fever-swamp daydreams, really don’t walk around thinking that Republicans are stupid, and even those who do come up with extremely impenetrable synonyms for that charge. So it’s unlikely that such an article would have survived peer review or that Shogan would have written it in the first place.
And, of course, she didn’t. Shogan’s article is a description of rhetorical tendencies in certain presidencies (Eisenhower, Reagan, and Bush). One sentence is easily taken from its context: “Reagan’s less than impressive intellectual capacities have been widely discussed and analyzed.” In context, however, it’s clearer that Shogan is not particularly passing judgment on Reagan himself (although this is the kind of bad drafting that does reflect widespread dismissal of Reagan) and more recounting what others thought about him:
In 1980, Robert Reich called the Republican presidential win a “triumph of ideas, an intellectual victory.” The great irony of Reich’s statement was that Ronald Reagan ed this “intellectual victory,” a man whom everyone thought personified anti-intellectualism. Reagan’s less than impressive intellectual capacities have been widely discussed and analyzed. Perhaps the most famous comment came from Democratic legend Clark Clifford, who described Reagan as an “amiable dunce.” Haynes Johnson charged that Reagan was neither intellectually curious nor deeply read. Reagan biographer Lou Cannon observed a “growing suspicion that the president has only a passing acquaintance with some of the most important decisions of his administration.” According to news anchor Tom Brokaw, the opinion of Reagan as an intellectual lightweight is part of the “American fabric.” Agreeing with Cannon’s assessment, Brokaw described Reagan as a “gravely under-informed President.” Dinesh D’Souza began his Reagan biography with George Will and Michael Novak rolling their eyes in exasperation after listening to Reagan’s “naïve” musings about Gorbachev and the future of the Soviet Union at a Georgetown cocktail party. Conservatives and liberals alike doubted Reagan’s intellectual abilities. Reagan may not have engaged the world of ideas in a sophisticated way, but there was more to his anti-intellectual political persona than his supposed intellectual deficiencies.
The biggest knock on this paragraph that I can think of is that it doesn’t need to be in the paper at all: establishing that Reagan employed anti-intellectual tendencies in his public rhetoric doesn’t require any of this. But it’s also not hackery, and it certainly doesn’t suggest any hidden agenda of partisan bent. If this is the worst that you can find in a political scientist’s writing, there’s nothing bad to be found.
A choice to emphasize dullness
Throughout the hearing, Shogan appeared initially uncomfortable but increasingly ready to respond. Her strategy was apparently to make NARA as boring and technocratic as possible. Questions about how to make its records more accessible were met with answers about technology. Questions about agency performance were met with the promise of on-the-spot visits to key facilities like the agency’s St. Louis military records processing center. (It’s telling that Hawley spent his time trying to paint Shogan as a radical instead of caring about NARA facilities in his home state and what their performance means for his constituents—being delayed access to military records has tangible consequences!) In sum, Shogan’s approach was to take the dusty, obscure archives approach: NARA is an agency with a crucial but uncontroversial mission.
This, I think, was a missed opportunity. Questions about access and transparency require not just 30,000-foot answers but statements about values and purpose. NARA matters because the integrity of the agency is crucial to preserving the integrity of the historical record, and thus to the accountability that forms the foundation of democratic self-governance. Improving the agency’s performance matters because people’s careers and benefits depend on it. Giving the agency tools to succeed will probably require investment in resources, but that will have a direct benefit to constituents—and anyway the sums involved are not very large.
At the end of the hearing, one did not know more about why Shogan wanted to do the job than at the beginning of it. The vision that was put forward was one of keeping the agency working, and keeping it out of the spotlight. That’s understandable as a description of what the agency would prefer but it also doesn’t speak to the times. NARA didn’t want to be in the spotlight with the Trump records, just like it didn’t want to be at the front lines of historical integrity with the Nixon papers or of democratic accountability with the reclassification of documents in the George W. Bush administration. Yet it found itself there anyway.
What matters is how the agency would be led in those circumstances, and being clear about values and purpose from the beginning—laying down a marker that the day-to-day might be boring, but the exceptional is exceptionally important—would help preserve the agency’s freedom of movement. (It might also give someone like Romney reason to support the nominee in committee, although given Senator Shelley Capito Moore’s statement that she’d support Shogan on the floor her nomination seems more likely.) Shogan doesn’t have to be a radical, but she should show why she is—as she is—more than a caretaker.