Editor’s Note: Cedric L. Alexander served some four decades in law enforcement and other aspects of public service leadership. A CNN and MSNBC contributor, his “In Defense of Public Service: How 22 Million Government Workers Will Save Our Republic” will be published in January 2020. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
The depositions began on October 17 and were followed, less than a month later, by the televised public hearings of the House Intelligence Committee. By November 21, the nation had heard, live and in person, from 11 unelected career public servants and one recent Trump-appointee, hotelier Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union.
The testimony followed the allegations of an unelected government whistleblower that the president and other top government officials had pressured foreign nations, primarily Ukraine, to investigate former Vice President and 2020 presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son Hunter. The Trump administration directed these (and other) individuals not to testify, according to The Washington Post. But some, including Sondland — who had secured an appointment as EU ambassador after contributing over $1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee — came forward after subpoena without challenging the writ in court, as others in the administration have.
We don’t yet know what effect the testimony will have on the President or anyone else, including those who stepped up. But what we do know from the impeachment hearings is that the whistleblower and the public servants who have appeared so far did what members of the unelected government do daily: They served the people.
Their public service was to bear witness and report on deeds, words, and events spoken or carried out at the highest levels of elected government, outside of public sight and hearing. For Americans who have lost faith in their government — frustrated by a hyper-partisan era in which left and right often can’t even agree on such elementary tautologies as fact is fact, and truth is truth — the responsiveness of these public servants is a sorely needed reminder: There is another part of government, which is entirely unelected, that continues to function and uphold our democracy.
Fortunately, while the Constitution mentions no “Fourth Branch,” one exists, and it dwarfs the other three in size and immediate importance to daily life.
The members of the fourth branch, which extends beyond the federal government to encompass state, city, and other local polities, all volunteer to serve and are duly appointed or hired. The branch includes all manner of workers and professionals. The members are public servants, civil servants, the employees of the General Services Administration (GSA), the civil service, and a whole cadre of first responders.
Those doing jobs that require specialized skills come into their positions having been educated or trained in some specialized field, ranging, say, from meteorology (for some of those on the professional staff of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) to aspects of law enforcement (like those who graduate from the FBI Academy at Quantico, Virginia, and join the bureau).
Counting federal, state, county, city, and village governments, the Fourth Branch numbered more than 22 million in 2019.
These public servants manage government. They don’t create policy; they implement it. They don’t appropriate funds; they provide the fact-based data and analysis the elected decision-makers use to formulate their appropriations.
Unelected, they are nonpartisan professionals. Their service is to the community, not to any party or lobbyist or special interest, and they are the most direct links that exist between the government and the governed.
This is where the heart of our democracy now resides. For most of us, most of the time, and in most situations, neither the legislative, executive, nor judicial branches function as the government. When you need someone with the power and authority of government to do something for you, you do not call Congress, the President, or a Supreme Court justice.
If you need your plot of farmland protected from somebody’s toxic runoff, or your house and family saved from a raging fire, or your property defended from an intruder, you call an agency of the unelected government at the local, state, or federal level.
You call the local office of the Environmental Protection Agency or Department of Agriculture, which sends out a professionally qualified inspector. You call 911, and the city fire department sends trained firefighters. You call 911, and the police department dispatches sworn law enforcement officers.
Too many of our elected officials denounce this fourth branch as the “Deep State” and accuse it of all manner of outlandish conspiracy. The accusations are believable only in a universe of alternative facts where truth isn’t truth and what you see is not what’s happening. The sole purpose of the accusations is to sow doubt and division for partisan political gain.
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The impeachment proceedings have highlighted the difference between elected partisans and the unelected fourth branch. Those who manage and implement government don’t dispute reality or divide truth. They meet both head-on, as it is, where it is.
In this way, they serve the Constitution, providing for the common defense and promoting the general welfare, sacred missions that are the only legitimate reasons backing our claim to a government of, by, and for the people.