"Deep State" - sound wave styled image of a human eye in Black and White and shaded dimensions

The “Deep State” – Shallow, Entertaining And Hopefully Recovering As Well

by Keith Mines


I was born into an American union with 48 states. We added another two the year after I was born, and with that I thought we were finished. But of late we seem to be adding new states at a dizzying pace.  Here’s some thoughts on the recent acquisitions:

The Deep State

The image of “deep state” bureaucrats who have their own political agenda and resist that of their political masters is a regular crowd pleaser now at Trump rallies and part of a veritable tsunami of tweets.  In one case the victims had been out of service for over 18 months and the assault came with lewd parodies. 

Fox News commentator Jeanine Pirro throws the concept around with total abandon, even calling political appointee Ambassador Gordon Sondland a “deep state bureaucrat” after his testimony in the impeachment hearing.

But anyone who knows the federal bureaucracy knows that even the hint of such impropriety is quite rare.  Federal workers are largely middle-class strivers who value their careers and do their best to execute the business of government within budget and to standard. 

They understand that the vast majority of what they do is non controversial and some that is, forms part of the standard range of difficult policy options that any administration would face.  (Consider, for example, Bill Clinton’s housing of migrants from Haiti in Guantanamo to avoid asylum claims or the mass deportations under President Obama).

There are legitimately some cases when civil servants must walk a fine line between loyalty and prudence.  In one case the President reviewed a letter to a foreign head of state prepared for his signature by NSC staff that outlined a rough action plan for our two countries to get ahead of a shared problem.  At one point he took a sharpie and wrote in the margins “BAD – VERY BAD” in response to a description of the problem. 

The staff was faced with a dilemma.  The letter that was intended to add seriousness and jointness to the issue would now come across as clownish and juvenile, negating the reason for it in the first place.  They took a creative approach and simply transmitted the text of the letter by cable, where it would be placed on letterhead in the Embassy and delivered without the scribble.

In another case envoys were faced with what to do when the President referred to their country of assignment as a “shithole” in a closed meeting.  Most went out with positive reassurances of the value of our relationship.

Were these incidents being disloyal, or cleaning up a mess?  These, frankly, are about as close to a “deep state” as one generally gets.

Stephen Kotkin also reminds us of the many instances in the Mueller report when President Trump attempted to push senior officials to commit acts that would have amounted to obstruction of justice. “It turns out,” he writes, “there really is a ‘deep state’ out to thwart Trump after all, but its operatives are not alleged liberal Trump haters in the FBI but Trump appointees in his administration – and when they secretly manage to thwart him, they shield him from prison.”

The Swampy State:

Another very imprecise phrase that gets the rally goers fired up is “drain the swamp.” The poor swamp.  There are some bad actors in swamps, but wetlands are so rich in bio-diversity that there are laws to protect them.  To bring more precision to the term we might break it down this way:

The Outer Swamp: The outer swamp consists of lobbyists and interest groups that function to channel the direction of government to their hired or in some cases private interests.  It continues to be a rallying cry, and there are always issues to be managed. 

Several Democratic candidates have put forth serious proposals to deal with it, which will take more than a placard at a rally.

But it is part of a very complex web of how government works and unavoidably bumps up against freedom of speech and the legitimate right of citizens to influence policy.

Given the diversity of American society and the complexity of modern issues, putting in place overly tight controls could ultimately harm the very people the rallies pretend to support.  In any scenario to really strike a blow would require the strengthening of the very regulations and judicial processes being dismantled, which are written and enforced by the very government that is under assault.

The Inner Swamp:  The inner swamp is the routine functionaries of government mentioned above.  In traditional Republican rhetoric there is a wink at a “lazy state,” those in government who raid the public coffers without much daily output, and an “expanding state,” the concept that the state will grow as large as it is allowed.

But under President Reagan, who first deployed the concept that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem,” a high functioning bureaucracy was still something to be valued, as he knew that his many aspirations would be DOA without it.

For an administration that came to Washington promising to sort out the swamp President Trump has assembled a very lackluster collection of functionaries.  Many left in the first year when they realized how hard the work of government is; others remain in place but have simply never mastered even the most basic tasks.

There are no real equivalents of Colin Powell, James Baker, or George Schultz in the current line-up, and no parallels to the Clinton-Gore Reinventing Government initiative, (although some good may come out of the administration’s civil service reform that allows for the release of poor performers, that is if it not merely used to politicize the civil service).

The Shallow State:

The result of these erratic and unstructured attacks on government is the emergence of what will ultimately be a shallow state. A lot has gone into the building and sustaining of America’s governing institutions and weakening them will not be a question of a few months or even years.

But there was already in play a trend to weaken our institutions that pre-dates the current administration, as Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson note: “for a generation, the capacity of the United States to harness governmental authority for broad public purposes has been in steep decline, even as the need for effective governance in a complex, interdependent world has grown.”

And Steven Radelet suggests that “pessimism can be self-fulfilling: in countries where people believe the world is getting worse, they may dismantle some of the very institutions that made it better and thereby fulfill the predictions of decline.”

The current administration has taken this trend and fed it steroids.  Structural damage appears to be occurring through a stripping of leadership, lack of strategic direction, and erratic funding.  It is a good bet our institutions will not come out intact.

The Entertaining State:

Another new state was created purely for its entertainment value, rather like the Sylvania of the Marx Brothers“Duck Soup.” Who knew government could be this much fun and the process of governing could produce so many tweets, chants, yells, and yes, raw energy?  It is all part of a process of governing that values entertainment more than results.

Former Hewlett-Packard CEO and presidential candidate Carly Fiorina, herself a victim of the crass entertainment inherent in Trump rallyworld said she was asked what one word she would use to describe Donald Trump.  “He’s an entertainer,” she said.  “I think he’s been a very fine entertainer and manager of his brand and very successful at that.” But she couldn’t credit him with leading.  “Leaders change the order of things for the better.  Leaders understand how they do things matters as much as what they do.  Leaders bind people together. . .Leaders solve problems.”

If we were talking about just something to draw attention to an issue it would be one thing – dancing bears before the signing of an Alaska Wildlife Rescue bill for example.  But it does quickly drift in a darker direction because the entertainment comes with the rancid labeling and deliberate divisiveness.

Author Michael Duffy put it well on Meet the Press December 1

“The way we process information now is that we are self-arming for division because so much of this information is coming to us through our devices and those devices are weaponized to alienate and divide us.  It is a test of Madisonian democracy, which is meant to have the better angels work at every level.  At every turn, we are being fed information that divides rather than brings us together.”

Many of the streams of information emanate from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, a process that has accelerated during the impeachment hearing.  When the person elected to lead government instead uses the government as fodder to entertain the country through divisiveness, we have a problem.

The Functional State:

There is another state that we seem to drift in and out of – the functional state.  Since 1648, coming out of the horror of statelessness during the Thirty Years War, the nation-state has become the basic organizing mechanism of society. 

In exchange for protection and some agreed level of management of public affairs, citizens would give their allegiance and a monopoly on the use of force to the nation-state in which they resided.

Nation-states consist of two distinct components, both political in nature. At a higher level, the “nation” is the result of a political compact that unites the people of a certain territory under a single identity. It is more emotional, “blood and belonging” as Michael Ignatieff puts it.

“The ‘state,’ on the other hand, consists of the institutions that can manage the business of governing within that nation.  It is more bureaucratic––do I have running water, the rule of law, can I open a small business?”

When one side of the equation is weak, the nation-state can break. In 1991 Yugoslavia had good state institutions but no shared sense of nationhood, while the Somalis were a nation with no state. The near breakup of Iraq after 2003 led to strong state institutions in Kurdistan, but the Kurds are now struggling with whether to be part of the Iraqi nation or go their separate way.

Jill Lapore and David Armitage note separately that the United States may have come into the nation-state business backwards, forming a nation from a collection of states whose identity was not ethnicity but a unique method of governing. 

Francis Fukuyama notes that “liberal democracy cannot exist without a national identity that defines what citizens hold in common with one another.” If that identity is our method of governing it would mean that our institutions are even more important to our cohesion as a country, and should be valued, not disparaged.

No critics have any better ideas, ultimately, on how to manage our affairs than to have an agreed sense of nationhood that leads to a properly-sized government that is effective at the tasks the citizenry agrees it should carry out.

The instruments of the state will invariably bump up against political winds, and skilled bureaucrats will have to navigate those political winds, at times finding themselves in the middle, for example, of a struggle between the legislative and executive branches. An example of this are the whistleblowers.

A situation like 2016 where both candidates in a presidential election were under legitimate FBI investigation, was never going to end well for the bureaucracy.  So in addition to a situation where a major political party and its media cheerleaders strike an anti-government chord to foment discord among the American people, the bureaucracy was thrust into a fiercely partisan political fight.

The bureaucracy needs the institutional guardrails to survive these periods, but it would be better if we selected leaders who didn’t try to push past those guardrails in the first place.

The Recovering State

It will take some doing to recover from all this, which is bigger than the current president.

Jon Michals put it this way:

“confident and capable presidents tend to recognize that a healthy, high-quality bureaucracy is a national treasure, a force multiplier that can use its skills, judgment, and hard-earned credibility to help an administration achieve responsible goals as effectively as possible.  It is the insecure presidents, unable to hear honest technocratic feedback, who go to war with the state they nominally lead.”

James Fallows suggests any president will enter office “burdened with campaign instincts, not governing ones, with a team that may lack experience in the tasks at hand; and with a long list of promises to keep to voters.” 

He shares President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s advice: “You do not lead by hitting people over the head.  Any damn fool can do that, but it’s usually called ‘assault’ not ‘leadership.’  I’ll tell you what leadership is.  Its persuasion, and conciliation, and education, and patience.  It’s long, slow, tough work.  That’s the only kind of leadership I know, or believe in, or will practice.”

The civil service will need a bit of Eisenhower by January 2021.  It will have been a long four years.  It would be reckless to make them endure another four.                                                                         

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