James Madison believed that constitutional government was a matter of balance. As he put it: “You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”
Today, few people worry about government’s ability to control the governed. But the politicization of government workers, especially at the state and local level, has made it increasingly difficult for the government to control itself.
From the 1830s to the 1950s, the central problem was the patronage system ruled by machine bosses and ward heelers. “To the victor belong the spoils of the enemy,” New York Senator William Marcy said in 1832 — the spoils in this case being government jobs. By prioritizing political connections over merit, the patronage system weakened the quality of government services, as many government workers spent more time on party politics than their nominal jobs.
In response, reformers from the 1880s through the 1950s enacted civil service laws. Their aim was to ensure that public servants were hired, promoted and fired based on talent. By providing new job protections, reformers sought to render public bureaucracies neutral, nonpartisan and professional.
But almost as soon as civil service laws took hold, giving public employees a long-term stake in their jobs, workers began to be recruited into the labor movement. Prior to the 1950s, few government workers were union members. By 1980, 36 percent were unionized — a figure that has remained remarkably stable ever since.