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John Podesta: the Democrat dictator of reason Biden's favourite courtier is the ultimate shapeshifter

An attendant courtier. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

An attendant courtier. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post via Getty Images)


February 13, 2024   6 mins

After John Kerry stepped down from his role as Biden’s climate envoy, another Democratic stalwart was bound to take his place. Enter John Podesta, a consummate Washington insider and veteran of the last three Democratic presidencies. Already an overseer of the $370 billion in spending authorised by the Inflation Reduction Act, the strategist now finds himself at the very intersection of the administration’s foreign and domestic policies.

Yet for someone who’s held so much power for so long, it’s important to remember that Podesta has never been an elected official and has instead relied on his close proximity to the formal holders of authority to sustain his rank. Presidents have come and gone, but Podesta remains, always near the top, dispensing advice on both matters of policy and partisanship. He is, in other words, a modern-day courtier, and the courtier’s pursuit of power is an art that Podesta has all but perfected.

Podesta first emerged on the national scene in the Nineties, as Bill Clinton’s chief of staff. He was instrumental in realising that administration’s “Third Way” project, the central tenet of which was the neoliberal faith in deregulated markets and trade integration with rising industrial powers like China, who took the lion’s share of subsequent world manufacturing growth. Today, he plays a comparable role in executing the President’s economically nationalist “Bidenomics” agenda — the dialectical opposite of neoliberalism. He is, in effect, reversing the liberalising thrust of the Clinton years and positioning the US to compete once again with strategic rivals (like, say, China). It is almost a tacit admission that Podesta helped to create a series of problems in one administration, and has returned to fix them in another.

This seemingly breathless inversion, on the part of Podesta and his party, raises several questions. Is it the result of ruthless political opportunism, or an agile and creative pragmatism — or both? And what does it all say about America’s liberal ruling class, in particular the privileged caste of courtiers within it? The answers, I suspect, may lie in philosopher John Ralston Saul’s notion of the “rational courtier”, which he employed, in his 1992 magnum opus Voltaire’s Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West, to examine the breed of political technocrats who arose in the post-war era and who have since come to enjoy total hegemony over most institutions.

Written at the dawn of the globalised era, Voltaire’s Bastards was a prophetic warning about the excesses not just of the neoliberal economic regime but of the underlying mode of disembodied, instrumental reason that its apparatchiks practised. The result of this marriage of cold reason and raw power was a new incarnation of an old archetype, one who fused the clandestine, self-serving intrigues of an aristocrat at Versailles with all the expertise of a Harvard MBA (or, in Podesta’s case, a Georgetown JD). As Saul wrote: “The modern technocrat and the royal courtier are virtually indistinguishable… Taken together, they form a group, a class, a type, linked by a particular sort of intelligence involving their central talents as systems men… who create and work principally within and through the system of which they are emanations.”

Throughout the past century, such rational courtiers were present in both parties: Saul cites Robert McNamara, Henry Kissinger, and James Baker as examples. They were already far cry from Baldassare Castiglione’s Renaissance ideal, laid out in the Book of the Courtier: a versatile humanist statesman who drew on a broad range of virtues to provide wise counsel and point his prince toward justice. Instead, these figures submerged that ideal “beneath the growing need to prove everything by means of what were coming to be known as facts”, drawing exclusively on the “innate mechanical and logical talents which link our new men of power together”. This was the Book of the Courtier, but authored by Sir Humphrey Appleby.

In this view, loyalty to particular persons, causes or ideologies becomes anachronistic. The courtier can alter his professed allegiances as casually as he changes neckties since his energies are really dedicated to preserving systems and his place within it, a field of rational administration that exists aloof from the plane of politics. Understood this way, Podesta’s seamless shift from one paradigm to another makes sense. Just as the rational courtiers survived (and thrived) in the transition from post-war Keynesianism to neoliberalism, so too will they find niches for themselves in the move toward a new form of economic nationalism. As any rational courtier can say: political movements rise and fall; only power is constant — and reason is the currency of that power.

A big difference today is that, thanks to a process of polarisation along the lines of class and credentials, the Democrats have become the new home of this class. And in very many ways, Podesta and his party’s flexibility on political economy is a positive development. It shows that the courtiers are responsive to changing times and that they might even be as rational as they claim. But as Saul warned in Voltaire’s Bastards, the blind exercise of reason, used as both a means and an end, always carries externalities. Beneath the courtiers’ impressive veneer of technical excellence lies a callous indifference to the social and human dimensions of any great enterprise. Looking closely at Podesta’s trajectory from free trader to neomercantilist can confirm as much.

The trend of financialisation, by which Wall Street would be unshackled from Depression-era regulations, reached its climax with the 1999 repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act. A White House memo dated from 1995 showed Podesta to be one of the more eager proponents, writing: “The argument for reform is that the separation between banking and other financial services… is out of date in a world where banks, securities firms and insurance companies offer similar products and where firms outside the US do not face such restrictions.”

But perhaps more important was the Clinton administration’s support for China’s accession to the World Trade Organization. We can detect Podesta’s hand there too. At an event held in May 2000 to raise support for permanent normal trade relations with China, Podesta was front and centre in declaring that: “We have absolutely nothing to lose.” He assured Americans that “bringing China into the WTO will actually help the cause of human rights in China, by opening China up to new technology, more Internet access, more sources of information”. Podesta spoke then with the boundless confidence of a rational courtier who had reached the pinnacle of power, with the weight of the experts and their conventional wisdom behind him.

It should have been the first sign that hubris had set in and that a reckoning was near. Now, it is clear that on both counts, financialisation and free trade with China, Podesta and nearly all the era’s rational courtiers were dead wrong. In their rush to become more neoliberal than the Republicans, the Democrats enabled what has come to be known as “The China Shock”: the hollowing out of American manufacturing, along with the growth of massive inequality at home and the empowerment of an illiberal Chinese regime that has only grown more brazen in its authoritarian tendencies.

“Podesta and nearly all the era’s rational courtiers were dead wrong.”

And yet, as the current administration now seeks to reverse globalisation and bolster America’s industrial capacities against a resurgent Beijing, it has turned to the very same John Podesta to save the day. Neither his failure to foresee catastrophe as an advisor to Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, nor his embarrassing blunders as the head of Hillary Clinton’s disastrous campaign managed to dull his lustre within the party or to pull him away from the centres of power. The mark of a mandarin whose fate has become one with that of the system he inhabits.

Being such an expert courtier, Podesta knows how to change his tune on policy — but he could not change his tone, arguing for economic nationalism with the same boundless confidence as when he once shilled for neoliberalism. There is thus no hint of acknowledgment or contrition for the gravity of his past mistakes, or for the traumatic social dislocations caused by the China Shock. Neither is there much humility in Podesta’s recent pronouncements as he displays the same reflexive deference to the dictates of expertise, without considering the potential limits of such an exceedingly rational approach to politics. It is no surprise to see that Bidenomics, for all its economic ambition, continues to be a political dud. It also fails at the level of totality: the rational approach that’s been applied to industrial policy has not been applied to immigration and the border, where the logic of economic nationalism has been ignored altogether.

In the sequel to Voltaire’s Bastards, Saul suggests that the antidote to the dictatorship of reason is a return to “equilibrium”, that is the rebalancing of rationality with other positive qualities of the human condition, hewing closer perhaps to the well-rounded Renaissance ideal of Castiglione. But leaders of this kind and calibre are nowhere to be seen in contemporary America. Instead, there is continued polarisation between individuals like Podesta in the liberal ruling class and the antithetical figure in the opposition party, someone like Trump advisor Peter Navarro, who embodies an archetype that might instead be called the “romantic courtier”. Unlike his rational rival, this character cleaves to a premodern understanding of politics and suffers from the opposite defect, namely an excess of loyalty and devotion to his liege, often to the detriment of more practical concerns.

American politics may thus be reduced to a difficult choice: the clever tyranny of Podesta types, or the earnest but erratic government of his romantic counterpart. Until the return of statesmanship in either party, the world’s greatest democracy, like decadent late-Bourbon France or eunuch-ridden Qing China, is effectively condemned to live under the rule of courtiers.


Michael Cuenco is a writer on policy and politics. He is Associate Editor at American Affairs.

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Daniel P
DP
Daniel P
2 months ago

We have another name of the courtiers in the US.

We call them the swamp creatures.

This is the permanent political class that moves from government to industry to think tanks and back again. They never face election but have enormous power and indeed control or manage the actual elected officials.

T Bone
TB
T Bone
2 months ago

Cuenco is conflating “Romantic” with “Idealist.” Romanticism is but one strand of Idealism.  Every functioning society is Idealist.  There has to be a grand idea that “centers” your Constitution and everything outside of that Idealism is to be “marginalized.”  What we’re dealing with now is a Democrat party that’s Ideal is to center the marginalized by marginalizing the center. Racial and gender equity are just a redistribution of “opportunity.”  But that redistribution has to be administered by “administrative experts.” 

Regardless of whether “Equity” is a noble goal, it can’t be administered in an unbiased manner because Administrators are required to discriminate simply to administer.  It’s built into the system.  Until Democrats accept that Equity is an objectively divisive, unfair premise they will bleed working class people.

Jim Veenbaas
JV
Jim Veenbaas
2 months ago

Excellent essay. Thanks for shining a light on the dark corners where rats like Podesta scurry around.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
2 months ago

I read an interesting essay the other day about legislation in Congress and the Senate. Apparently, elected politicians and their staff do not write any legislation – period. And they haven’t for decades. It’s all written by think tanks and lobbyists. They don’t even see it most of the time until the very end. I feel like a chump for not knowing this. I can’t find the link though.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
2 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Yes. The politicians claiming they’ll fight for you not only don’t know you, they likely hate you. They are bought and paid for creatures owned by the donor class.
As Pelosi said about another egregious piece of anonymous legislation, “”We have to pass the bill so you can know what’s in it.” Obviously, she meant we, not you.

Laura Creighton
LC
Laura Creighton
2 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas
Cathy Carron
CC
Cathy Carron
2 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Yes, the ‘Administrative State’ – something Trump would like to strangle.

Howard S.
HS
Howard S.
2 months ago

What a terrific and accurate breakdown of present day America. Right on the money. And the Moneyed Class is running this whole show. Not the people. Which is why, try as they might, the Moneyed Class, its sock puppet news media and its wholly-owned political class cannot shake Donald Trump’s popularity with the American people.

Hugh Bryant
HB
Hugh Bryant
2 months ago
Reply to  Howard S.

It’s baffling that Americans persist in believing that they live in a democracy when it’s quite clearly a plutocracy – and one where everything is for sale to the highest bidder, including the White House, which is currently occupied by tenants of George Soros.

Alex Lekas
AL
Alex Lekas
2 months ago
Reply to  Hugh Bryant

When you realize that tens of millions not only stand ready to vote for Biden again, but also believe he’s doing a good job, it becomes something worse than baffling.

Cathy Carron
CC
Cathy Carron
2 months ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

Wouldn’t you vote for Joe if he paid your student loans – to the tune of BILLIONS? Even though the Supreme Court prevented a total write-off, Joe and his minions have worked overtime finding loopholes. And what about the $8 BILLION he’s given to ‘historical black colleges’ in a very ‘racist’ fashion, hardly an ‘equitable handout’. And these gestures are just the tip of the iceberg. Don’t forget changing the first Democrat primary to South Carolina to please its black constituency; He insists he won in a landslide even though only 4% of Dems voted. Joe has been pandering to various other Dem favored groups at record speed, forsaking better, saner government policies, pandering for votes. And it works. That ‘Joe is not a principled person’ is an understatement.

Michael Cavanaugh
MC
Michael Cavanaugh
2 months ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

The problem goes beyond Biden simply being not-Trump. Matt Taibbi put it in context: “If American Politics made any sense at all, we wouldn’t have two giant political parties of roughly equal size perpetually fighting over the same 5-10 percent swatch of undecided voters, blues versus reds. Instead the parties should be broken down into haves and have-nots – a couple of obnoxious bankers on the Upper East Side running for office against 280 million pissed-off credit card and mortgage customers.” And economic self-interest apart, why the enthusiasm among large numbers, and of equal size, for one candidate who wants to make NATO a pay-for-play protection racket, and for another candidate who brags he will make appointments in violation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act?

Andrew Fisher
AF
Andrew Fisher
2 months ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

They only need to feel that he is marginally better than Trump! Trump of course by his behaviour and speech – it’s totally impossible for him to present any kind of different face – ensures that the margin is as wide as possible!

Andrew Fisher
AF
Andrew Fisher
2 months ago
Reply to  Howard S.

….popular among SOME Americans, not the majority. This is where the usual RW pro Trump argument predictably and drearily misses the mark.Trump lost 3 elections out of 4 for the Republicans.

Alex Carnegie
AC
Alex Carnegie
2 months ago

An interesting take but it misses an important dimension: Podesta as a symbol of the “Revolving Door” that has contributed to policy makers being more concerned with the priorities of those who fund political campaigns than the welfare of the voters. 

Podesta set up one of the leading US lobbying firms with his brother, became Bill Clinton’s Chief of Staff, founded the Center for American Progress, a highly influential liberal think tank, ran Hilary Clinton’s campaign, was co-chairman of the Obama transition team – with its control of useful appointments – and is currently in charge of distributing the $370+ bn Biden package of climate programs. He has also served on various corporate boards. Although he resigned from the lobbying group to join the government, his brother continued to run it until 2017.

I am sure Podesta is far more rational than the flawed Navarro, as claimed, but the latter’s abrasive opposition to China may have been more public spirited than Podesta’s courtier like and multifarious activities.

Alex Lekas
AL
Alex Lekas
2 months ago

It is almost a tacit admission that Podesta helped to create a series of problems in one administration, and has returned to fix them in another.
Almost. For the one thing that no elected official or bureaucrat will ever admit is fault. Ever. Covid should have confirmed that to any doubters, along with the runaway immigration, funding wars without clear goals, and massive debt. Being one of the important people means seeing yourself as a virtual god immune to the ordinary pressures of accountability that the proles face.
Is it the result of ruthless political opportunism, or an agile and creative pragmatism — or both? — It’s neither. This is all about the quest for power and never being held responsible for the results of one’s ideas, which comes from never having to live by those results. It’s like the people who were all for sanctuary cities, until they found themselves living in one and saw what a mess it is.

Marion Dodd
MD
Marion Dodd
2 months ago

‘ Beneath the courtiers’ impressive veneer of technical excellence lies a callous indifference to the social and human dimensions of any great enterprise’
So many of this type around and we all suffer the consequences.
Such an interesting article.

Peter F. Lee
PL
Peter F. Lee
2 months ago
Reply to  Marion Dodd

‘veneer’ a most appropriate word in this context.

Cathy Carron
CC
Cathy Carron
2 months ago

This essay was fascinating. And don’t forget all the often ‘sick’ machinations that were revealed about Podesta’s correspondence with Hillary Clinton and her campaign when his account was hacked and revealed by Wikileaks…..for one, revealing that pundit Donna Brazile had given Hillary Clinton debate questions prior to the CNN debate; that Catholics could be a ‘problem for the Democrats’ etc. Refer to the summary on Wiki re” Podesta emails’. Podesta seemingly continues to stir the ‘dirty tricks’ pot to this day.

Christopher Barclay
CB
Christopher Barclay
2 months ago

Missing from this analysis is a discussion of how characters such as the Clintons and Biden were bought by foreign money and Obama bought by Wall Street.