The last several months have witnessed recurring revelations about US spying programs. Thanks in great part to leaks by Edward Snowden, Americans have learned that their government is involved in the large-scale surveillance of electronic communication. Foreigners have learned that the US government actively eavesdrops on their national leaders – most notably Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff as well as the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel. Among all the controversy and hand-wringing, many Americans might do well to learn a new term: the Deep State.
The concept of the Deep State is usually reserved for countries like Egypt and Pakistan. It refers to the little-visible but institutionally powerful bureaucracy that wields power behind the scenes. When Egypt’s military abandoned Hosni Mubarak, some people thought it meant that the military state had been defanged. In reality, the Deep State had simply retreated into the background for a while. That became clear when the generals removed the democratically-elected Mohamed Morsi from power. The Deep State was never far from the levers of power, and when the time came it reasserted itself without much difficulty. Similarly, after Pervez Musharraf left office in Pakistan and was replaced by Asif Ali Zardari, most everyone understood that the real power behind the scenes was the Chief of Army Staff, General Ashfaq Kayani.
Put in this light, the Deep State can sound fairly ominous. Think of Turkey’s long history of military coups and it’s easy to see why: the Deep State can lull you into a false sense that the people have more influence than they do in reality. But another term for the Deep State might simply be the ‘professional bureaucracy’. In the world of politics, many of us are used to thinking about governing as the sort of thing that is done by elected officials; in reality, much of public policy is crafted by non-partisan career bureaucrats like the good folks who staff most of the State Department or, for that matter, the FBI or the EPA. If you’re conspiracy-minded, you don’t have a difficult time imagining secret cabals plotting against your interests. How should Americans assess the dangers?
I propose three questions we can ask to keep track of whether or not we should be worried about a Deep State:
(1) Do elections change policy?
It’s one thing for a politician to run on a promise to do something; it’s another thing for that politician to actually deliver on that promise. Sometimes the reasons for the disconnect are pretty pedestrian – everyone promises more services than they’re willing to pay for. That’s not the Deep State at work, it’s Deep Arithmetic and basic politics. The public wants conflicting goals, which is frustrating but not nefarious.
But on other issues, the process isn’t as clear. Did Americans support the bank bailouts? No. Did the banks get bailed out? Yup. Would they get bailed out again? Probably.
Why? Part of the answer is that the process that controls whether or not banks get protected from the downsides of their risky behavior doesn’t happen in broad daylight. Is this run-of-the mill political corruption or is it the Deep State at work? Well, that depends on the answer to the next question.
(2) Can policy pivot from the top?
The difference between the Deep State and the Politically Corrupt State isn’t whether or not politicians act in the best interest of the people; it’s whether or not freely-elected politicians actually have the power to change anything. Countries like North Korea and Venezuela fail the test because they don’t elect their leaders in free elections, while countries like Iran seem to run into more trouble on the question of whether or not their elected leaders are actually in control.
What about in the US? The re-election of President Bush during the Iraq War as well as the re-election of President Obama after the passage of the ACA seem like pretty clear indicators that American elections have consequences.
(3) Is our public conversation fundamentally honest?
When the state can’t thwart public sentiment on an issue – either by ignoring an election or by frustrating the efforts of elected officials – there is a final option: misdirection.
On surveillance, that seems to have been what happened. In the United States, political, economic, and security elites don’t have the option to insulate themselves from the ballot box. But they do have the option to limit its effect by narrowing the scope of public discourse.
Too often, Americans facilitate this through our unwillingness to face a very adult reality: keeping America safe is not pretty, it’s not simple, and it’s not ideologically pure. One of the things we do when we elect a president, unfortunately, is select someone to lie to us.
The White House, for example, has made some remarkable claims about what the President did and did not know about the CIA’s surveillance operations. But because of the culture of secrecy that surrounds security, the veracity of those claims is hard to pin down. Clearly guilty of either lying to the public or failing to oversee the intelligence community, the President will have to answer for neither.
In a world of secrets, that seems to be unavoidable. In a democracy, it’s corrosive.
That tension is fraught with risk, but most of us aren’t willing to face it directly. Rather than talk about how to balance the need for security with the need for transparency, a lot of Americans adopt a naive indignation when the details of what we all know in broad outline are finally filled in. That approach allows us to espouse the sentiment captured by Henry Stimson’s famous remark: “Gentlemen don’t read each other’s mail.”
But Dick Cheney didn’t think like that and Barack Obama doesn’t think like that. And for all their loud protestations, the European governments don’t think like that either. (If Germany doesn’t tap our President’s phones, it’s because it lacks the capacity to do so.) Sophisticated actors move with all the ugly realities at hand while the public too often insists on looking away.
That sort of attitude encourages the type of paternalism our leaders seem so fond of exhibiting. If there’s a Deep State in America, that’s where it comes from. The public’s unwillingness to look in the shadows is what allows people to move in them.
Follow Pedro on Twitter @IamPedroA.
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