The Deep State

By Mike Koetting December 17, 2019

The Deep State has been getting pretty good press for the last several weeks. A passel of career foreign service officers has taken the opportunity to speak up on what they see as violations of the norms of governmental conduct. We also learned that at least two officials in OMB quit in protest over the Ukraine shenanigans. In general, the ongoing guerilla warfare in some agencies since Trump arrived reflect an ongoing commitment to the stated goals of their agencies, as opposed to Trump’s desire to roll back the clock.

Now may be a good time to take a deeper look at the Deep State.

The right wing idea of “The Deep State” posits some overt, coordinated effort by career employees to thwart Donald Trump and anyone else who would make radical change towards its version of reality, or, in the more paranoid version, to bring an end to American democracy. I agree there is a Deep State of career employees that has a momentum of its own. But there is no clandestine conspiracy here. What happens is that career employees who, exercising their own judgement and carrying out their job as defined over time by the history of legislation and the agency in which they serve, become a counterweight to the swings of presidential powers. This is not an active conspiracy, it is simply the friction that accrues from a massive bureaucracy which has, in part, recruited talented people who are motivated by ideas of social welfare and the goals of their agency and who are committed to the rule of law.

Of course, in a sense, that is anti-democratic. In theory we elect a president with the expectation that he (or, someday, she) will enact a series of changes corresponding, however roughly, to the platform on which he or she was elected. But no one elected the career employees. So on what basis are they thwarting the will of the democratically elected president? The answer is simply that the rule of law doesn’t change on a dime. It is a complex series of processes, checks and balances that have accumulated over time. The rule of law provides consistency of purpose along a deeper sense of “the will of the people” than the quadrennial whims of the voters. This is not to say it is blanket resistant to change. Virtually all chief executives create changes; elections make a difference. We can see the damage Donald Trump has wreaked. But the changes are never as much as ideologues of any persuasion would like to see, and certainly not on their schedule.

In recent years, the Deep State has been a particular bete noire of the right wing. When I was growing up—although we didn’t use the term Deep State—we were equally suspicious of the CIA, the FBI, the Foreign Services and many other of the agencies of government, and not above the occasional conspiracy theory. The reality is that the accretion of bureaucratic rules embodies the deeper, longer run consensus about the direction of society. Think of it as the rolling average of the previous 25 years, an average that includes stuff from the original constitution through the most recent executive order. Viewed from this perspective, the Deep State is neither benign nor malicious, nor in any specific sense anti-democratic. It is rather the collective memory of our democracy as it moves through time.

Correspondingly, chafing at the Deep State is often really a complaint about the “average” sentiment of the country. Specifically, I would argue, that the Deep State–in addition to a real respect for process, in all its strengths and weaknesses—incorporates a distinct bias toward a pro-business and a pro-modernization view of the world. These biases arise precisely because, on average, both characterize impulses that are deeply American. For better and for worse.

Despite a consistent skepticism of the interests of business, Americans begrudgingly accept that what is good for business is good for America. It is by no means blind love. But, as much as some Americans complain about business, particularly big business, they seem to be more concerned about excessive interference in business and are happy to vote for people because they, wrongheadedly, pledge to run government like a business. I am not specifically talking about the fact that in many cases agencies get “captured” by the businesses they are supposed to regulate. This absolutely happens and is a serious and ongoing problem. But I am more focused on the overall sentiment that what drives the American economy is business and that, in a close call, the edge goes to those who are “job creators”. To be sure, that attitude often morphs into “agency capture”, but I see the latter as a distinct perversion of the general notion.

Image result for cartoons k street

Monte Wolverton, Washington Monthly

Deep State commitment to modernization is even more diffuse. It is a general attitude—shared by a slight majority of Americans, but a substantial majority of well-educated Americans–that the world gets better as it evolves into a more tolerant, more international, and more change-oriented place to live. This includes accepting changes in the roles of women, advocating racial equality, and other so-called “liberal’ values. And an intermittent commitment to democracy in other countries when it doesn’t run counter to other interests. I whole-heartedly endorse some of these specific attitudes. But the package also includes some that I am concerned about. Rampant modernization brings benefits but also leaves problems in its wake.

Regardless, it is easy to see why this agenda creates problems. Particularly among certain factions in the country. Even if on average true, each one of these attitudes creates significant backlashes and remains contested by factions on every side. And people who oppose those impulses are likely to see a conspiracy working to impose them on the rest of us, especially when the entire bureaucracy doesn’t “jump to” if someone like Donald Trump disrupts the consensus. The idea of conspiracy is a bad reading of the fact that, however compromised and conflicted, democracy does reflect the more lasting will of the majority. Which, of course, is little consolation to those not in the majority either at a given moment, or over a longer period.

Of course, this is a particular version of the conundrum of democracy:  the Deep State expresses a set of values that are simultaneously a plausible reflection of aggregate American values and, at the same time, full of things that large portions of America are opposed to or, perversely, think are not being pursued with sufficient vigor. As such, no single action is supported by everyone, sometimes not even a majority. Nevertheless, it is necessary to make decisions and take actions. The Deep State is what allows government to do that—however imperfectly. Moreover, the underlying rule of law—the checks, balances and processes—as annoying as they can be in any particular situation, are what tethers the Deep State to democracy. As long as it follows more or less the same rules, no matter who is president or who is running Congress, it is likely that the Deep State is reflecting us, the people. Not each one of us, not all the time, but more or less all of us somewhat.

Procedurally, when I was working, the Deep State drove me nuts. And I have deeper, substantive disagreements with some of its agendas and presumptions. These objections are not because a clandestine group has run amok. On the contrary. They are a reflection of the fact that from my perspective there are some fundamentally flawed premises baked into the general American value system.  If I want to change those things, I need to convince more Americans to my points of view. In the meantime, the Deep State is the guarantee that we keep our democracy on a relatively steady course—even in the face of presidents as far apart as Barack Obama and Donald Trump. If we, the people, change the general attitudes of American society, the Deep State will follow. Slowly. But, in truth, we should probably be okay with that.

Author: mkbhhw

Mike Koetting’s career has been in health care policy and administration. But it has always been on the fringes of politics. His first job out of graduate school was conducting an evaluation of the Illinois Medicaid program for the Illinois Legislative Budget Office. In the following 40 years, he has been a health care provider, a researcher, a teacher, a regulator, a consultant and a payor. The biggest part of his career was 24 years as Vice President of Planning for the University of Chicago Medical Center. He retired from there in 2008, but in 2010 was asked to implement the ACA Medicaid expansion in Illinois, which kept him busy for another 5 years.

One thought on “The Deep State”

  1. Thanks for your essay Mike. The 25 year rolling average is a good way to think of it. You didn’t get into the fact that agencies/individuals stop or slow down some of the illegal actions the President orders. I still am waiting for a deeper discussion of how Trump could command the withholding of funds Congress appropriated. I think there is a provision for taking a closer look, but on a tight time frame with some reporting. I don’t want to put the Deep State system to the test of four more years of Trump.


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