Fort Report: The Deep State
Underneath the dome of our nation’s Capitol hang eight large paintings representing scenes from America’s beginnings. One painting depicts George Washington resigning his commission before the Continental Congress. The painting occupies a pride of place in our Capitol because it shows an extraordinarily profound and historic shift in the understanding of power. Washington won the Revolutionary War. He enjoyed the support of his army. Yet, he was not tempted to use that power for his own glorification. Instead, he returned it to the people.
Power is a tricky thing. It can be absolutely corrupting or used for great good. Exceptional persons throughout history have used it to contribute to civilization. For others, power is a weapon to plunder, crush, and kill. America embraced the noble way at our founding. In our high school civics courses, we learn about our Constitution and three branches of government. In its deepest sense, the Constitution is about the proper positioning of power, the proper control of power, and the proper transfer of power.
Fast forward to this week when a prominent Washington political insider wrote that he prefers the “deep state.” Although not widely known, the term “deep state” refers to a group of career employees of the military, intelligence services, and other agencies of the United States government, who have inordinate, but often hidden, power to influence policy and society. It is posited that the deep state is particularly successful when it comes to halting or slowing implementation of governmental edicts deemed threatening to prudent stability or its own existence. The deep state turns sinister when it operates outside transparency and oversight. This concealed controlling force, unfettered, can create an entirely new, anti-democratic branch of government.
However, I propose that this discussion about the deep state is bigger than the government itself. A broader understanding of the deep state requires insight into the network of institutions that attempt to manage society. Some in the media, academia, and corporations orchestrate self-reinforcing narratives of technocratic, or expert, superiority. Frankly, this is why so many people feel forgotten and are suspicious of what might be called the government-corporate-cultural complex. The notion that elites supersede the decisions of voters and their elected representatives is contrary to our democratic traditions. It is also deeply offensive to the American understanding of the source of proper governance.
On the other hand, maintaining consistency for the sake of order has merit. Retaining career civil servants with strong institutional knowledge and experience is necessary for the uniquely smooth and peaceful transition of power. Those who have committed themselves to a career of government service and risen in the ranks, those in the media who have taken a long view of civic responsibility, those in business who have achieved outcomes and wish to share them for the betterment of society ensure the stability and proper functioning of our nation’s core operating systems during times of disruptive change.
Any analysis of the deep state is complex. A deep state that is mysterious and enigmatic, unidentified, that effectively triumphs over the will of the people marginalizes the voice of Americans. At the same time, political transitions without the backup of those who maintain a continuity of service can be volatile and destabilizing. There lies the tension.
President Eisenhower warned of the military-industrial complex. Perhaps the challenge of today’s government-corporate-cultural complex is broader: a self-affirming closed society that says there is only one way, “our way”—and you have to follow. Just plug into the technocracy and know your place.
It could easily be said that George Washington was an elite of his day. Nevertheless, on Monday, we celebrate Presidents' Day. We celebrate Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and others because they attained their status through selfless service to our country and its founding ideals—to the civic state.