Both the Left and the right have adopted the terminology of the Deep State to describe those hidden structures and relationships that permeate a state’s administrative apparatus and represent a set of semi-permanent structures that sit below the political level. On both sides, the so-called Deep State has come to represent a fundamentally anti-democratic and secretive force operating out of public view and without accountability or transparency. The argument from the left is that the revolving doors of Wall Street, the military and the bureaucracy have created a club of common interests that works towards favourable policies for the wealthy, including low taxes, de-regulation, militarism and regressive social and economic policies that penalize the poor. For the right, the deep state has become a force for endless bloat, overspending, over-regulation and failed global liberal projects of democratization and cosmopolitanism. In particular, the right has focused on the Obama administration’s expansion of healthcare services as a wedge to entrench even more state bureaucracies.
The polarized state of politics in the US means that there is a tendency on both sides to overstate the power, significance and uniformity of the Deep State. In political science the term ‘deep state’ as it is presently used does not have technical or analytical meaning. However, political scientists sometimes made a distinction between 1. the state administrative apparatus; 2. the government, which changes frequently in response to democratic cycles; and 3. the semi-political institutions that are termed a ‘regime’, which melds the political and bureaucratic elements. These three elements (the bureaucracy, the government, and the regime) form a larger, and much more permanent organization termed ‘the state’ which encompasses and supersedes all of these components by embodying a single legal entity from which the authority of all of the other parts flows. The separation of institutional powers among the branches of government, and among the various bureaucracies, is permanently enshrined in the Constitution in order to prevent the abuse of power by any one of these components, all underpinned by the permanence of the rule of law.
The polarized state of politics in the US means that there is a tendency on both sides to overstate the power, significance and uniformity of the deep state.
The fact is, the directly ‘democratic’ components of the state are relatively shallow, since the temporary election of a government on top of a large permanent experienced bureaucratic apparatus cannot, of necessity, institute revolutionary changes in the short term which it is allotted. This transience of the government is by design. Changes are always contingent on the maintenance of popular support., because any program of policies and institutions must be vetted by the people periodically. The permanence of the administration and the transience of government are complementary forces which maintain stability by the periodic checks and balances provided by democratic elections, which provide sufficient flexibility for the state to maintain relevance and responsiveness to the needs and wishes of the people. This is one key way in which a democratic state is distinguished from an authoritarian one, since in an authoritarian state like Pakistan or Turkey (as it is becoming) the Deep State acts wholly independently of the electoral process and has much greater power as a result.
Clearly, something has gone wrong with this careful balance. As Eisenhower knew well, the ‘military-industrial complex’ was not made of and by the state, nor did it arise from state action, but was the main threat to the state. When Eisenhower warned at the conclusion of his term about the creeping power of the ‘military-industrial complex’, he was referring to the entrenchment of relationships among the component parts that had become a semi-permanent structure of interests antithetical to democracy. Similarly, Mike Lofgren refers to the Deep State not as “a secret, conspiratorial cabal” but rather as “hiding mostly in plain sight, and its operators mainly act in the light of day.” As he says “it is not a tight-knit group, and has no clear objective. Rather, it is a sprawling network, stretching across the government and into the private sector.” This complex is composed of a loose network of relationships among ruling elites from the commercial, financial, military, scientific and governmental sectors. In other words, it is both public and private in origin and nature.
So, what is going on? First of all, the transfer of power from one government to the next has fundamentally broken down, not only because of excessive partisanship, but also due to social divisions of interest within the ruling elites, whose ability to maintain a common interest has been compromised.
Second, this set of alliances threatens the state writ large, because it can potentially affect the more permanent institutions without reference to the vetting of the periodic democratic checks of elections. The problem with these relationships is not that they are secret (they aren’t) nor that they are hostile to social, political and economic progress (because they have been and can be progressive) but because they have failed in their most important function: to create and maintain legitimacy. Until recently, this admittedly problematic arrangement could be relied upon to organize and underpin (or at least, not obstruct) peaceful and orderly transitions of government that, if not democratic, at least could be said to command the legitimate support of sufficient numbers of the public to maintain the authority of the state itself.
Finally (and you can probably see where I’m going here) the system has been broken by an inability of the ruling elites to agree on the fundamental direction of the state. The state itself is not broken, nor is the Constitution, nor (yet) is the democratic mechanism for transferring power between regimes.
What could once be a strategy for election, must now be a strategy of grasping for the broken pieces of the state that have been set adrift and unclaimed.
What is broken is the legitimacy of the state, its ability to rally support and meet demands, the most basic functions of statehood. The problem is not that the Deep State is a monolithic and autonomous shadowy force acting against the democratic will, the biggest problem is that the state is being broken apart into its component parts due to the inability of the ruling elite to maintain legitimacy and enable a peaceful transition of power.
What could once be done in public must now increasingly be done behind closed doors. What could once be said openly must now be cloaked in distraction and lies. What could once be a strategy for election, must now be a strategy of grasping for the broken pieces of the state that have been set adrift and unclaimed. The real threat is to the state, in its larger, wider meaning as a social, political and legal community of common interests and values.