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The Deep State

Former longtime Republican congressional staffer Mike Lofgren says in a long essay what many of us have been saying all along, that despite all the posturing about divided government and gridlock and nothing getting done, in reality there is an underlying, unspoken, smoothly operating consensus on some things that result in certain policies that benefit a select few, the oligarchy, getting implemented with little or no discussion. He gives the group behind it a name and calls them the ‘Deep State’.

Yes, there is another government concealed behind the one that is visible at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue, a hybrid entity of public and private institutions ruling the country according to consistent patterns in season and out, connected to, but only intermittently controlled by, the visible state whose leaders we choose. My analysis of this phenomenon is not an exposé of a secret, conspiratorial cabal; the state within a state is hiding mostly in plain sight, and its operators mainly act in the light of day.

Who are the members of the Deep State?

The Deep State does not consist of the entire government. It is a hybrid of national security and law enforcement agencies: the Department of Defense, the Department of State, the Department of Homeland Security, the Central Intelligence Agency and the Justice Department. I also include the Department of the Treasury because of its jurisdiction over financial flows, its enforcement of international sanctions and its organic symbiosis with Wall Street. All these agencies are coordinated by the Executive Office of the President via the National Security Council. Certain key areas of the judiciary belong to the Deep State, such as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, whose actions are mysterious even to most members of Congress. Also included are a handful of vital federal trial courts, such as the Eastern District of Virginia and the Southern District of Manhattan, where sensitive proceedings in national security cases are conducted. The final government component (and possibly last in precedence among the formal branches of government established by the Constitution) is a kind of rump Congress consisting of the congressional leadership and some (but not all) of the members of the defense and intelligence committees. The rest of Congress, normally so fractious and partisan, is mostly only intermittently aware of the Deep State and when required usually submits to a few well-chosen words from the State’s emissaries.

Washington is the most important node of the Deep State that has taken over America, but it is not the only one. Invisible threads of money and ambition connect the town to other nodes. One is Wall Street, which supplies the cash that keeps the political machine quiescent and operating as a diversionary marionette theater. Should the politicians forget their lines and threaten the status quo, Wall Street floods the town with cash and lawyers to help the hired hands remember their own best interests. The executives of the financial giants even have de facto criminal immunity.

What are consequences of this distortion of democracy?

The Deep State’s physical expansion and consolidation around the Beltway would seem to make a mockery of the frequent pronouncement that governance in Washington is dysfunctional and broken. That the secret and unaccountable Deep State floats freely above the gridlock between both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue is the paradox of American government in the 21st century: drone strikes, data mining, secret prisons and Panopticon-like control on the one hand; and on the other, the ordinary, visible parliamentary institutions of self-government declining to the status of a banana republic amid the gradual collapse of public infrastructure.

The Deep State is the big story of our time. It is the red thread that runs through the war on terrorism, the financialization and deindustrialization of the American economy, the rise of a plutocratic social structure and political dysfunction.

There is a lot of interesting stuff in the essay from an insider’s perspective.

What is significant about this essay is that there used to be a time when those who spoke of the existence of an oligarchy or plutocracy and the existence of this insidious coalition formed around their common interests at the expense of the rest of us were considered wild-eyed radicals out of the mainstream of the political conversation. Now some establishment insiders are using the same language and the such language is going mainstream, along with the catchy label of one-percenters to denote the elite of the elite.

Yes, so far this is largely just a language change. But such changes are significant because shifting the language shifts the spectrum of opinions being discussed and are the precursors to real changes.

Comments

  1. colnago80 says

    How does this analysis differ from those who claim that the government is run by the Illuminati, the Bilderbergers, the Masons, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Trilateral Commission, or Skull and Bones?

  2. doublereed says

    Man that essay goes over such a variety of topics, and labels them all the ‘Deep State.’ Some of the topics have almost nothing in common, either. Wall Street, Silicon Valley, Foreign Surveillance, and Campaign Finance (though somehow not DoD contractors)? The use for such a term as ‘Deep State’ doesn’t seem practical. I feel like it’s just referring to ‘bad government stuff.’

    To some extent, his criticism is silly, because obviously we want government to function regardless of gridlock in Congress. That applies to our National Security Sector just as much as it applies to NSF grants and our National Parks.

    Those are pretty minor points though, and his essay is pretty much spot-on:

    The Snowden revelations (the impact of which have been surprisingly strong), the derailed drive for military intervention in Syria and a fractious Congress, whose dysfunction has begun to be a serious inconvenience to the Deep State, show that there is now a deep but as yet inchoate hunger for change. What America lacks is a figure with the serene self-confidence to tell us that the twin idols of national security and corporate power are outworn dogmas that have nothing more to offer us. Thus disenthralled, the people themselves will unravel the Deep State with surprising speed.

  3. doublereed says

    @colnago

    Yea, that’s what I was thinking when I first started reading, but it’s not really a conspiracy thing. It’s just a weird label of ‘Deep State’ that seems vague and uninformative:

    My analysis of this phenomenon is not an exposé of a secret, conspiratorial cabal; the state within a state is hiding mostly in plain sight, and its operators mainly act in the light of day. Nor can this other government be accurately termed an “establishment.” All complex societies have an establishment, a social network committed to its own enrichment and perpetuation. In terms of its scope, financial resources and sheer global reach, the American hybrid state, the Deep State, is in a class by itself. That said, it is neither omniscient nor invincible. The institution is not so much sinister (although it has highly sinister aspects) as it is relentlessly well entrenched. Far from being invincible, its failures, such as those in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, are routine enough that it is only the Deep State’s protectiveness towards its higher-ranking personnel that allows them to escape the consequences of their frequent ineptitude.

  4. doublereed says

    So as you can see, he describes the Deep State as non-sinister (though can be sinister), nonsecret (but very secretive), complex, frequently-incompetent, committed to its own continuation, well-established (but not establishment), unbridled resources and global reach (but not omniscient), etc. etc.

    It’s just super vague. I get what he wants to say, but I don’t think there’s a sensible way to describe it as a single thing. Because it’s not a single thing, realistically.

  5. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    I must admit this does all sound very conspiracy theory. An awful lot to expect us to swallow here.

  6. says

    Saying “distortion of democracy” sort of implies the US was a democracy to begin with. I don’t know about the “deep state” but the US was organized around a group of oligarchs, and constructed so that they, and their policies could remain in power.

  7. doublereed says

    Saying “distortion of democracy” sort of implies the US was a democracy to begin with. I don’t know about the “deep state” but the US was organized around a group of oligarchs, and constructed so that they, and their policies could remain in power.

    Er. Do you have a better example?

  8. brucegee1962 says

    The thing that puzzles me is the suggestion that this “Deep State” idea is somehow a new thing. Surely its roots go clear back to the 1870s and the first oligarchs. As long as there have been corporate money interests, they’ve known how to pull strings in Washington.

    Maybe the bigger issue is how no politician has been willing to buck them since World War II. Teddy Roosevelt did a bit of damage to them, and FDR did considerably more while they were in a weakened state in the Depression. But no president since then has really made it a policy to root out these entrenched interests. I think many of us were hoping Obama might be the one, but he clearly lacks the will, the ability, or both.

  9. wtfwhateverd00d says

    So what does your new knowledge of this Deep State do to inform or enlighten your positions on Federalism vs. States Rights. (Laboratories of Democracy).

    I think much of the ultra partisanship and the power of money, corporations, and lobbying is seen today because representative government doesn’t scale, even with the Internet, to 300,000,000 people.

    If you want a government of the people, by the people, and for the people we should consider making that the easy, default position. Right now the whole system is set up to make centralized power representing the state and the moneyed interests the easy, default position.

    Just because someone can grow to 400 pounds doesn’t mean that’s healthy, good or optimal.

  10. doublereed says

    I think much of the ultra partisanship and the power of money, corporations, and lobbying is seen today because representative government doesn’t scale, even with the Internet, to 300,000,000 people.

    What? It’s clearly because of the influx of money and corporatism. Which is a perfectly fixable problem. There’s nothing to suggest the problem is with representative government.

  11. wtfwhateverd00d says

    I didn’t say the problem was with representative government. (Or I wasn’t clear if that’s the message you read).

    I said the problem was one of scale (population, size of US, centralization of gov’t, expense of election) which leads to representative government being the disfavored position.

    How often do you see one of your Senators at the pub or the livestock auction or the store or the coffee house and how easy is it for you to see her at xer office?

  12. doublereed says

    Ah ok, I see.

    While what you say is true, it’s really only true on the federal level (difference in scale, as you say). State Senators and Representatives are still pretty open and listen to their constituents. The massive corruption of corporate money hasn’t really trickled down to the states yet. And that’s basically the premise of Wolf-PAC.

  13. wtfwhateverd00d says

    Here’s a statement that google found for me from heritage.org, which I understand is a conservative think tank/lobbying group. Still, it’s interesting and shows that back in the day, George Mason understood the problems of having too few representatives for too many people:

    http://www.heritage.org/constitution/#!/articles/1/essays/8/allocation-of-representatives

    In Philadelphia, the Framers spent untold hours discussing the basis of representation for the new government and then fell to haggling over the number of Representatives to be elected from each state for the House of Representatives. A majority of delegations set the initial size of the House at a modest sixty-five Members, defeating James Madison’s wish to have it doubled. They wished to leave Congress the flexibility to set numbers in the future, making sure that Congress would not allow for more than one Representative for every 30,000 persons, a last minute modification of the original floor of 40,000 persons.

    At the ratifying conventions, the Anti-Federalists were extremely exercised over the clause. George Mason, for example, inveighed against the small number of Representatives during the debates at the Virginia ratifying convention. James Madison accurately summarized their objections in The Federalist No. 55:

    [F]irst, that so small a number of representatives will be an unsafe depositary of the public interests; secondly, that they will not possess a proper knowledge of the local circumstances of their numerous constituents; thirdly, that they will be taken from that class of citizens which will sympathize least with the feelings of the mass of the people, and be most likely to aim at a permanent elevation of the few on the depression of the many; fourthly, that defective as the number will be in the first instance, it will be more disproportionate, by the increase of the people, and the obstacles which will prevent a correspondent increase of the representatives.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=United_States_congressional_apportionment

    A table at the wiki shows we’ve gone from 30,000 people per representative in 1789 to 511,000 people per representative in 1993. Even with all the wonderful tech, do you think a representative can adequately understand and represent the needs of thon’s 511,000 constituents?

    At 30,000 people per representative, we would need 11,000 representatives.

    The problem isn’t representative government, the problem is scaling.

  14. wtfwhateverd00d says

    State Senators and Representatives are still pretty open and listen to their constituents. The massive corruption of corporate money hasn’t really trickled down to the states yet.

    I am not sure if that is true or not, and I think if we could break down the Federal gov’t a bit, it would become untrue.

    It mainly does seem true, and one “good” aspect of that is all the idiot things so many state governments do in their “laboratory of democracy” that makes for good blogging and fun talk over coffee.

    But it certainly seems far easier for you or me to change what our state government does, either by running to represent people there, or through petitions and initiatives.

  15. doublereed says

    Oh hahaha, I thought you meant the government structure doesn’t work with that many people. Not that we just need more representatives. Silly me.

    That almost sounds like an extra level of bureaucracy needed. Like we should have Local, State, Region, National. But I guess all the various committees are enough to further break it down.

  16. wtfwhateverd00d says

    Oh hahaha, I thought you meant the government structure doesn’t work with that many people. Not that we just need more representatives. Silly me.

    Well, I think I am saying both given the context of the constitution we have and the technology we have and the species we have evolved as.

    That almost sounds like an extra level of bureaucracy needed. Like we should have Local, State, Region, National. But I guess all the various committees are enough to further break it down.

    That postulates a tradeoff of a representative who is more dependent on you (good) but less powerful overall since ze now has another layer between lim and the levers of power.

    And we can’t have that new layer anyway because (thankfully) we have a Constitution that doesn’t permit such a radical change.

    So I think it is reasonable to say that given who we are, and at the level of technology and culture we are at, that yes, representative government breaks down for very large populations.

    One fix, that of social justice warriors and many progressives, is that we need a government of benevolent dictators: very strong centralized control with regulations written by unseen, unelected committees often composed by political staff and dedicated lawyers, sociologists, scientists, and other ph.ds.

    Another fix, that of the extreme libertarians seems to to be to break all of government down leaving it to individuals, corporations, charity and money.

    The status quo seems to get us nowhere.

    I suggest that a better solution might have been to allow a looser federation of states. Regrettably, it is almost verboten to discuss that now without reference to the Civil War and projecting racist intentions to people that want to discuss it.

    Alvin Toffler once talked about “the coming adhocracy” — I wish our governing structures had some amount of that.

    So yes, I worry our current government structure doesn’t scale to the size and load we have placed on it.

  17. wannabe says

    Re colnago80 @ 1:

    To the extent that the Bilderberg Group runs things, maybe 10 years ago I read a report on one of their “secret” meetings. Everything discussed there had been mentioned as proposed policies in issues of U.S. News and World Report within the previous year.

    Does that supports Mike Lofgren’s thesis? I dunno.

    Of course maybe there were secret meetings at the secret meeting!

  18. bmiller says

    wtfwhateverd00d:

    As someone who likes the idea of smaller, more local government, I should be more sympathetic.

    But corporate money has definitely influecned State government and local government. Look at oil in Louisiana. Or coal-related industries in West Virginia. Or the fact that we dump tons of water on toxic desert soils in California to grow almonds.

    And, given the scale of corporations today, it would be a worse situation.

    Plus, I would argue that as oppressive as the federal government can be, the oppressions and corruptions of local and State government have been appalling and if anything more directly negative on the daily lives of marginalized groups. I am thinking, of course, of Jim Crow in the South. Or the horribly racist suburban governments set up throughout the United States (Sundown Towns).

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