I've seen the word "mandarin" bandied about lately in right-wing editorials with little effort to explain what kind of person becomes a "mandarin" or under which conditions. Can somebody give a definition for this? Is it pejorative? Is it racist?

The Obama years don’t necessarily bring into question the idea of regulation itself but of hyper-regulation. They overdid it, suddenly layering rules across the entire U.S. industrial landscape. The economy gagged.

Against the backdrop this week of Paris in flames and London’s Brexit struggles, our interest isn’t so much in the Obama regulations themselves as in the state of mind that produced so many of them.

Presumably each Obama regulator assumed that individually he or she was doing good. It wouldn’t have occurred to any of them that in the aggregate they and their rules were anesthetizing a fundamentally healthy economy.

This is the mandarin mind-set that has prevailed in the nations of Europe for nearly 70 years and in the European Commission for 25. They built a welfare and regulatory structure piece by incremental piece until the U.K., France, Spain and Italy choked. Germany unilaterally reformed itself in the early 2000s, and grew.

"The Global Swamp", Daniel Henninger for the Wall St. Journal, December 13th 2018


But that political support is brittle. Brussels has missed opportunities to work with Britain to create a settlement that might be more palatable to more European voters. The bloc’s leaders say free internal migration should be all but inviolable, a view growing numbers of voters reject since the 2015 migration crisis. This belief limits options for a trade deal now.

EU mandarins also fixate on adherence to common regulations as a precondition for trade. Those rules are becoming ever more interfering and controversial, and voters everywhere are demanding more local authority. Brussels could have used Brexit talks to develop a new model based not on standardizing rules but on trusting one’s neighbor. Doctrinaire thinking about how to create a functioning single marketplace is blocking the creativity the EU needs to adapt to changing voter demands.

"The Road to a Bad Brexit", editorial board of the Wall St. Journal, December 10th 2018


1 Answer 1


'Mandarin' is simply a (often pejorative) term for "a person who has a very important job in the government, and who is sometimes considered to be too powerful". It usually refers to civil servants rather than elected officials. It is common in British English. There is no hard and fast definition of when someone becomes one.

It derives from a term for a members of oriental imperial governments.

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    I've never heard the term applied to elected officials though (e.g. MPs). It seems to be exclusively used for unelected positions like the civil service or other beurocratic positions.
    – PhillS
    Dec 13, 2018 at 15:57
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    That's a good point. Dec 13, 2018 at 15:58
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    The term also implies (at least to me) that, like the Chinese bureaucrats, the modern-day mandarins are largely isolated from the world outside their bureaucracy.
    – jamesqf
    Dec 13, 2018 at 18:22
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    I agree with @PhillS. The Mandarins were constant, even as Emperors came and went. The whole idea of "mandarins" is that they wield the power formally held by those MPs/Congressmen/Presidents, without having to risk having that power removed in an election. So the unelected functionaries in places like Brussels and Washington are the natural targets for anyone who believes the system needs to be reformed. Frustration that changing the party that holds the majority at Westminster or Capitol Hill seems ineffectual, in turn fuels Brexit (bye Brussels) / Drain The Swamp sentiments. Dec 13, 2018 at 18:36
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    @Mayo, I haven't seen "Deep State" used in my little circle of writing-and-talking... to me it implies all sorts of conspiracy theories and, like the Masons, the Illuminati or the Skulls, impenetrable and unstoppable insiderness that's completely hidden. This isn't really implied, I think, with "mandarin". Dec 13, 2018 at 19:15

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