What people mean when they talk about the “deep state”

I’m not sure there has ever been a better litmus test for where someone fits on the political spectrum than the use of the phrase “deep state.” Republicans of all stripes talk with absolute conviction about the deep state. Democrats hear the phrase and immediately brand an interlocutor as a conspiracy theorist.

What is the “deep state”? This term applies to lifelong bureaucrats who regard themselves as having a privileged role in government operations because their presence (as a government employee, with a salary and a pension) tends to be continuous regardless of whom is in office at any specific time.

In public policy circles, what people currently refer to as the “deep state” used to be referred to as “tunneling,” and it is a fact, not a theory, that this behavior is used strategically by political parties. This is particularly true for Democrats, as Republicans rarely go to work in government (they prefer the private sector, which pays more and suits them better ideologically).

Whenever you have an executive that is about to leave office – whether you are talking about a president, a governor, or a mayor – they will make tons of 11th-hour appointments and hires, stacking departments, boards, and commissions with personal connections and party loyalists to decrease the effectiveness of their successor in altering the public policy they put in place. Sometimes this is not even about parties. In Florida, for example, a departing governor did the same to a new governor from the same party who was more of a populist than establishment figure. The new governor had to go to court to remove the appointees.

The egomania of bureaucrats is a real practical problem when it comes to effective, efficient government. I’ve seen states where the prevailing political priorities of the electorate have changed dramatically, while the prerogatives of political staffers in the legislature has not. Those are the people who do the grunt work of actually writing legislation and doing research into issues before the legislature, and their bias suddenly makes them untrustworthy to lawmakers. It’s a miserable situation.

The government ends up wasting millions of taxpayer dollars on independent consultants to get research it can trust rather than using the staff that taxpayers are likewise funding. It’s like doubling the size of government overnight. Law firms and special interests end up drafting legislation because people aren’t going to pretend that the staffers are going to handle it without bias. Your average politician is not going to read a 200-page bill 20 times to spot the poison pill. They know that staffer has the political machine on speed dial and they are going to outsource that project to someone they know. At some point, you have to wonder what the purpose of the bureaucracy is at all with all this back-and-forth.

The biggest issue comes when bureaucrats – whom no one elected, whom no one outside of government vetted – become a major distraction to real business of government with their antics, which is what conservatives are complaining about now. That’s what the “deep state” refers to.

One might argue that if President Trump did not want these problems, he should have done what other executives do after they are sworn in: fire everybody and replace them with loyalists and the kids of donors fresh out of law school. This is what a transition team would be spending the months between the election and inauguration sorting out.

Now, this is the real problem with having a “deep state.” The need to suddenly bring in hundreds or even thousands of new appointees and public servants prevents outsiders (i.e. people who are not career politicians) from seeking out roles in government. It also discourages good people from going to work in government. Someone like Trump simply will not have enough connections in Washington DC to do something like this. That was considered an asset to voters in his election. But it also made him a prime target for sabotage by cynical people who have survived in DC for their entire career.

A career politician would have had his team investigate anyone worthwhile across government agencies – who they donated money to (or didn’t donate money to), where their spouses work, and so on. They would have had an army of people who could fake expertise in any topic to take their place. That’s how government really works, and it works to protect the “swamp.” Hell, it creates taxpayer-funded work for the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the swamp, either directly through employment or indirectly through consulting and lobbying (i.e. the people picking whom the government employs).

When people talk about the “deep state” being a problem, this is what they are talking about. When people talk about a “coup,” this is what they are talking about – a group of career public employees who think their views on policy matter more than voters’ and who will act in a thousand small ways to undermine change, to transfer power away from the person who earned it.

The Founding Fathers would never have accepted the existence of a permanent federal bureaucracy, and it is pretty much a 20th-century invention. It is antisocial and fundamentally undermines democracy.

2 thoughts on “What people mean when they talk about the “deep state”

  1. The better way for Donald Trump would have been to gradually reduce the bureaucracy by attrition and selective funds removal. His big advantge is that he has no political connections in the system.

    Liked by 1 person

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