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America's Deep State


Imagine there’s a state-within-the-state: a shadow government that hides in plain sight. You don’t have to imagine it. It’s real.

This isn’t about some vast conspiracy. There’s no Illuminati to be found here. Instead, I’m talking about the vast network of firms and people that act, for lack of a better term, as parasites attached to the American government and, perhaps more importantly, to taxpayers’ wallets.

Most of us have heard of the military-industrial complex. That’s part of the deep state. The DC Beltway media culture? Deep state. Federal agencies and the networks of companies, donors, lobbyists, and other organizations that seek to influence them are part of it, too. In short, the deep state is every person, every organization that is dependent on, in control of, or influential over the publicly-accountable machinery of government. Whereas ordinary citizens get to express our political will through the formal process of voting, those in the deep state have more direct access and control.

A couple years ago, Bill Moyers wrote a pretty good essay on the topic, although I don’t necessarily agree with his whole take on the situation. I recommend giving it a read yourself, but I’ll attempt to summarize why the deep state is problematic. To put it simply, the numerous firms and agencies that comprise or influence the workings of the government end up having disproportionate control over what our government does. This especially comes through in our foreign policy: despite Americans generally opposing more warfare, we’re still getting involved in conflicts around the globe. Drone strikes, mass surveillance of foreign countries (but also of the homeland), and other unsavory intelligence and counter-terrorism operations proceed apace as if Americans have endorsed a policy of perpetual warfare, but most of us haven’t.

We go to war anyway, because there are too many firms and too many well-connected individuals who can’t survive, financially, if we stop making weapons and stop using them. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s because particular people or companies like killing people, either. Instead, it’s merely inertia. Companies that built their business models and people who built their careers on developing and deploying instruments of death have too much invested to simply stop now.

Americans as a whole have done our part to abet this dependency, too. As Moyers points out in his essay, in the aftermath of the 911 attacks, the American people all but gave a blank check to the George W. Bush administration to take out our vengeance on anyone and everyone. Those who stood to profit wasted no time dipping their hands in the till. Indeed, it wasn’t even enough that we’d toppled the Taliban in Afghanistan. The rich opportunity of Iraq was far too tempting to ignore–a relatively well-developed country whose government could be decapitated and culture reformed into a capitalism-loving consumer-driven economy primed to absorb a steady stream of American goods and investment.

The financial angle is impossible to ignore. Money is the lifeblood of the deep state, and it always needs new sources. For those who don’t benefit directly from violent destruction, crushing terrorism and even peaceful dissent is viewed as necessary to ensure continued and growing investment returns for Wall Street. In a somewhat bizarre revelation from last year, Hillary Clinton advisor Neera Tanden apparently made the serious suggestion that, in exchange for “liberating” Libya by bombing them, they be forced to repay us via their oil revenues.

Whether people live or die is beside the point to organizations that are fundamentally amoral. If dead bodies offer more profit than live ones, then dead they shall be. Greed trumps human decency, and every cog in the machine feels far too small to effect real change. The purpose of whistleblowers used to be to detect and expose such excesses–conscientious functionaries and other workers were supposed to blow the lid off of corruption and abuse. Instead, the Obama administration has turned ferreting out and punishing would-be reformers into a science, all in the name of fighting terrorism. “Terrorism” and “national security” are the favorite terms of the deep state–how easily they can shut down discussion. No one wants to be seen as pro-terrorism or anti-national security, after all.

Where I tend to part ways with Moyer’s exploration of the deep state is the extent to which Tea Party stonewalling has damaged its agenda or long-term prospects. Moyer didn’t foresee the rise of Donald Trump. Were he to update his piece today, he might note that the promise of a Trump Presidency represents the ultimate validation of the deep state and a thorough repudiation of the very populism that Trump supposedly champions. I cannot imagine a Trump administration that isn’t packed to the rafters with naked cronyism and sweetheart deals, so long as Trump’s ego is fed every step of the way. It’s here that a careful distinction must be made: the establishment is the formal political order that Donald Trump threatens; in many ways, it is the only thing that stands in the way of the deep state. It is the pretense of a functional democratic system that keeps the deep state from getting absolutely everything they want.

Trump, then, is a herald of the deep state. He is a man who has relied on and taken advantage of government connections and rules to benefit himself and his friends. It helped make him rich and protected him when his economic fortunes turned sour. Far from wanting to destroy the government, he wants more and more influence over it, to expand it to serve the needs of himself and people like him. In that way, he is not altogether different from defense contractors, lobbyists, and other influence peddlers. He only differs in his choice of strategy.

The DC media culture plays its own role, as well, treating political theater as meaningful while ignoring the workings of the deep state as uninteresting or irrelevant. Politicians cheating on their spouses is front-page news, but the way large corporations wield influence over the government at the expense of the people is dismissed as too obvious to bother reporting. But this influence is what undermines the democratic workings of our government–it is what minimizes the voice of the people.

Solutions are hard to come by. Stronger political parties, ironically, would probably do much to curb the influence of the deep state. They could present united fronts to counterbalance the kind of influence that’s overwhelming when directed at an individual politician but more manageable when brought to bear against a unified party. The gradual disintegration of American political parties as centrally-managed organizations was likely not intentional, but it makes for weak opposition to the machinery of the deep state.

The deep state need not even be sinister or hostile in nature. A deep state centered on developing the American workforce and rebuilding our infrastructure, for instance, would be quite positive. But right now, what we have is a tangled web of money and people that profits from war and sees political dissent as bad for business. If money is the problem, then cutting it off would have to be part of the solution, too. This is a problem that developed over decades, and will likely take a long time to correct–as with so many of the problems we face.

Photo by nakashi