The concept of the deep state has a variety of overlapping meanings, and a long heritage within historical and political analyses of famously top-heavy states like Turkey and Egypt, where powerful entrenched bureaucracies have subverted democracy or ignored it altogether. In the current American context, journalists Marc Ambinder and D.B. Grady have used it to designate the far-reaching national security apparatus that was expanded so dramatically after 9/11. In an influential essay published earlier this year (which helps explain why the Obama administration is sliding toward another Middle East war), former congressional aide Mike Lofgren uses it to signify something much larger, “a hybrid entity of public and private institutions ruling the country according to consistent patterns in season and out,” comprising not just the federal bureaucracy and the intelligence agencies, but also the bankers and corporate elites.
If we were voting for or against candidates who were willing to address the power of the deep state, or at least to disclose and discuss it openly, then the midterm elections might mean something. As things stand, American electoral politics looks a lot like the circus staged to keep the kids entertained while the grownups pave over the fields and run the railroad through the middle of town. Can you blame the kids if they’re getting bored of watching the same clowns jamming themselves in and out of the same Volkswagen?
Tom Frank takes Krugman to task in his Sunday Salon column Sunday morning, but I think that Andrew O'Hehir's piece, quoted from above, is more probing. Frank still believes that Obama could have made a difference, or still could, and I just don't. Even Krugman seems to think that the president has powers over policy that I just no longer believe he has. The president isn't impotent, but he only has as much power as the Deep State allows him. That's the main thing that I've learned since 2008. Elected politicians to the federal government mostly don't matter; it's the Deep State that matters; elected politicians in Washington succeed or fail depending on whether they serve or resist the will of the Deep State.
I'm not saying that the Deep State is some conspiratorial cabal; it's rather the 'group think' of insiders who mainly talk among themselves and are contemptuous of the democratic process because it mostly elects venal morons to congress. The key players in the Deep State like power, they understand how power works, and they serve power in order to get more of it for themselves, and so therefore no individual rises to power without first becoming its servant. I talk about that in a piece back in February about Lofgren's essay on the Deep State that my reading O'Hehir this morning reminded me about.
The only politicians now who could make a substantive structural difference on the national level are those that challenge the "Deep State", but no politician can become powerful enough to do that effectively because the Big State, with the cooperation of the establishment media, destroys or makes irrelevant candidates who oppose it. (Howard Dean comes to mind.) At first I thought that Obama would be such a challenger, but it now seems clear to me now that the stuff he said that actually made sense he said because he (and I) didn'tunderstand scope and power of the Deep State. But when it became clear to key players in the Deep State that he was likely to win, he got "educated".
I could imagine some powerful insider having a conversation with Obama in Spring of 2008 in which he flatters him, tells him how smart he is, how great it will be for the country to have its first black president, that the world of Washington insiders is ready to embrace him and his presidency with enthusiasm: You want healthcare reform? Great--go for it--but there are rules you have to learn, and one of them is that you don't challenge the security state or it will chew you up and spit you out, and you will have squandered this remarkable, historic opportunity for black Americans and for accomplishing important things that you care about (so long as they are things that we in the Deep State approve or just don't care about."
Obama's remarkable reversal on the FISA vote in the summer of 2008 was the first sign he had been "educated" about where the real power lies. Hilary voted for the invasion of Iraq in 2003 because she already had been 'educated' during the 90s; she knew that the Deep State wanted that invasion, and it was pointless to oppose it. Obama, who was not in any federal office in 2003, could say sane things about the invasion because he was still naive about how power in Washington works. I think that's what angered and frustrated Hillary and her supporters off so much. Obama could come out as the anti-war candidate in 2008 because he could sanelyoppose the war in 2003 when no one in the Deep State saw him as significant enough to pressure him to support it.
George Bush or Dick Cheney were not the driving force behind the invasion of Iraq; the Deep State was. Bush & Cheney were simply servants of the deep state, willing servants perhaps, but servants nevertheless. That's why Cheney completely reversed himself about invading Iraq. There's that famous quote from 1991 when he worked for the first Bush when he laid out all the reasons why it would be stupid to invade Iraq:
I think that the proposition of going to Baghdad is also fallacious. I think if we we're going to remove Saddam Hussein we would have had to go all the way to Baghdad, we would have to commit a lot of force because I do not believe he would wait in the Presidential Palace for us to arrive. I think we'd have had to hunt him down. And once we'd done that and we'd gotten rid of Saddam Hussein and his government, then we'd have had to put another government in its place. What kind of government? Should it be a Sunni government or Shi'i government or a Kurdish government or Ba'athist regime? Or maybe we want to bring in some of the Islamic fundamentalists? How long would we have had to stay in Baghdad to keep that government in place? What would happen to the government once U.S. forces withdrew? How many casualties should the United States accept in that effort to try to create clarity and stability in a situation that is inherently unstable? I think it is vitally important for a President to know when to use military force. I think it is also very important for him to know when not to commit U.S. military force. And it's my view that the President got it right both times, that it would have been a mistake for us to get bogged down in the quagmire inside Iraq. (At the Washington Institute's Soref Symposium, April 29, 1991)
He could talk sense then because it didn't contradict what the Deep State wanted at that time. Things changed since 1991, but not in Iraq. They changed in Washington where neocon thinking became more influential in shaping insider groupthink. What most Americans wanted was never a factor. The insiders knew that public opinion, at first negative about invading Iraq, could be easily manipulated by fear rhetoric.
It's depressing that this country would even consider giving the Republicans a majority in the Senate, but as O'Hehir points out, it has nothing to do with what people want; it's understood more like the weather. There seems to be little or no human agency involved at all. If there is any such thing as political agency anymore, it lies on the local level.