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The Deep State


The Deep State

There is something ominous-sounding in the no longer true, and it meant that a civil servant
deep state. It implies that beneath constitutionally could not be fired on political whim, but rather with
ordained systems and principles, there is a deeper cause, such as failing to do his job competently or
and more potent power in control of the nation. refusing to obey instructions from the office of the
It implies a unified force deeply embedded in the president.
republic that has its own agenda and the means
to undermine the decisions of elected presidents The intent was to limit the president’s power be-
and members of Congress. Its power derives from cause the expectation of presidential probity had
control of the mechanisms of power and being proven problematic. But there was another reason.
invisible. During and after the Civil War, government laws
and policies had become far more complex with
The deep state is, in fact, a very real thing. It is, more long-lasting effects on society. A presiden-
however, neither a secret nor nearly as glamorous tial term lasted four years; policies could last for
as the concept might indicate. It has been in place generations. If administrators were replaced every
since 1871 and continues to represent the real time a president left office, as previously had been
mechanism beneath the federal government, con- the case, there would be no continuity in govern-
trolling and frequently reshaping elected officials’ ment. New administrators would constantly have
policies. This entity is called the civil service, and to learn the complexities of their jobs, and by the
it was created to limit the power of the president. time they mastered it, they would have to leave.
Government operations had outgrown a presi-
Prior to 1871, the president could select federal dent’s term.
employees. He naturally selected loyalists who
would do his bidding. Occasionally, he also would But a deeper concept was at work here that went
hire people as a political favor to solidify his base. beyond the United States, originating in Europe.
And on occasion, he or one of his staff would sell That idea mandated a separation between the
positions to those who wanted them for a host political state and the administrative state. As the
of reasons, frequently to make money from the po- state acquired more responsibility and its tasks
sitions they were given. became more complex, government administra-
tion had to be taken away from the politicians,
Carl Schurz, a German-born Union Army general, who were unskilled at the job. This was in many
proposed the idea of a nonpolitical civil service. ways the origins of technocracy, a doctrine that
It would be both a meritocracy and a technocracy stated that a government run by experts broadly
– not his words, but his idea. Civil servants would guided by their political masters was the only way
be selected by competitive exams measuring to correct a democratic republic’s shortcomings.
their skills for the job. And the job of civil servants Elected politicians provided direction, while tech-
would be to implement laws passed by Congress nocrats provided expertise, advice and continuity.
in the manner the president wanted them en-
forced. On the surface, this was reasonable. It anticipated
the dramatic growth of the federal government
Previously, all government employees – save and created a structure to cope with its complex-
those from the two other branches of government ity. While this evolution was not included in the
– served at the pleasure of the president. This was Constitution, it was not unconstitutional because

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the president and Congress remained in charge. in practice created a system that could not be
But like all things, it had unexpected consequenc- readily controlled or even understood. Among
es. By stripping the president of the right to fire the independent agencies, even decision-making
those whose performance did not meet his stan- was opaque. Between the entities reporting to the
dards, the solution posed a problem: If a civil president, there was a layer of political appointees,
servant could only be fired for cause and did not which created turbulence between the president
serve at the pleasure of the president, how could and the civil service.
the president be certain that the policies being
followed were legislated and ordered by him? Civil servants do not stage coups – they become
civil servants because the pay is reasonable, job
As the government grew, the solution was to use security is high and benefits are excellent. Many
a class of administrators appointed by the pres- could earn far more in other fields, but they ratio-
ident. These were the Cabinet members, whose nally decide their preference. And many deeply
task it was to understand the president’s will and believe in their mission. The CIA, which has its
verify that civil servants were doing as they were own civil service system, is not manned by mas-
told. In other words, a “super” civil service was sive risk-takers (apart from a handful who actually
created that served at the president’s pleasure do take risks). Taking control of the government
and sought to control a civil service that could not – beyond leaking a few documents – violates the
easily be dismissed for insubordination without a basic principle of government service: bureau-
breathtakingly complex process. cratic caution. For the most part, government
civil service personnel are cautious people who
This super civil service, known as C-List appoin- genuinely believe in their mission – continuing to
tees, was answerable to the president. But be- do tomorrow what they did yesterday. Their form
cause there were thousands of them, they rarely of resistance is built around passive resistance.
met with the president and took their marching Demands for change manifest not in an uprising,
orders via a chain of command. That chain of but in delay, complexity and confusion.
command began with the president and continued
through the ranks of the Cabinet, C-List, and finally, The issue is not that there is a deep government,
civil servants. If you have ever played the game but that the deep government is no secret. It was
“Telephone,” you know how garbled messages can created with the purpose of limiting presidential
become. power, and in part, the will of the people. In sepa-
rating politics from administration, the creation of
In addition, C-List members, who could and would the civil service weakened the political system and
be fired if an opposing party won the election, strengthened the administrative one. That is what
were constantly engaged in maneuvers to secure was quite openly intended.
different jobs, promote reputations, and above all,
avoid blame for failures and gain fame for suc- There is a layer of employees in the turbulent
cesses. boundary who have ambitions far beyond their
jobs. This layer of employees, particularly those
This was further compounded by the rise of approaching retirement, also exists in the inde-
independent agencies like the Federal Reserve, pendent agencies. The former are bright young
the CIA, and countless other autonomous and men and women who wreak havoc with ambition;
semi-autonomous agencies created to protect not the latter are men and women who have spent
only their permanent staff from political pressure their careers struggling to do their jobs against a
but also the entire agency. The desire to limit political system they regard as incapable of under-
political pressure – also known as the power of standing what they do. This is natural given that
the president – was intellectually defensible, but they also have spent their careers making what

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they do mysterious and incomprehensible. As they results – including leaking unverified claims about
age, they become more conservative (in the sense the president to the media – is inappropriate. but
of preserving what is) and see themselves as the Donald Trump gives as much nonsense as he gets.
guardians of ancient verities. They frequently face
a president who believes that the experts are the The point is that the idea that there is a deep state
problem, not the solution. hidden from view that really controls things is
absolutely true, except for the fact that it is not
In many countries, this would involve tanks in the only visible to everyone who looks but is written
streets. In the United States, it means intense and into law. It exists not because of conspiracy, but
creative name-calling, either directly or through because of the desire to shield government from
leaks to The Washington Post (for the second politics. I understand the logic, but the result has
rank) and The New York Times (for the top rank). unexpected and unpleasant consequences. A
I recall the rage in the Department of Labor at discussion of the deep state is possible only by
President Ronald Reagan for firing air traffic really not understanding that the U.S. government
controllers. I noted the anger at President John F. functions as it does because the deep state was
Kennedy’s false news about a missile gap in the actually seen as a good idea.
military-industrial complex and the schadenfreude
at the Bay of Pigs. For someone not wishing to do research on this,
there is a BBC comedy called “Yes Minister,” and
A serious issue arises when an elected president its sequel, “Yes, Prime Minister,” about the bat-
faces a revolt of those who putatively serve him. tle between the elected British government and
Whatever those people may think, they serve the the permanent government of civil servants. It is
president, who is elected according to the Consti- hilarious, and if nothing else, will show you that the
tution. The problem is that not serving at the will British are as insane as the Americans, but much
of the president and failing to respect election more polite.

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Cover image source: U.S. Department of Energy

© 2017 Geopolitical Futures