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The Deep Truth of the Deep State

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Is It Really That Deep?

We have heard a lot in recent years bout this shadowy group known as “The Deep State”.  It brings up images of Hal Holbrook in the movie All the Presidents Men.  It also smacks of something of a conspiracy theory.  Perhaps the best cultural exposition of this is from the television series from the 90s, The X-Files.

Yet, in more recent years it has come to take on a real-life dimension as a part of the Trump movement and his “MAGA” supporters.  They blame “The Deep State” for all sorts of things up to and including Trump’s defeat at the hands of Joe Biden.

This brings us to the primary political use of this term today; to disparage the other side.  For Democrats and leftists, this term connotates the right-wing proclivity for tin foil hat conspiracies, ala little green men appearing.  It is used as an epithet for an ignorant tranche of the public that will fall for anything.  I will set aside the Democratic party conspiracy that the Russians somehow flipped the election from Clinton to Trump in 2016, as that did not rely on a “Deep State” explanation.  As for the Right, they use the term to denigrate any and all opposition to their electoral prospects and particularly that of Donald Trump.  With both sides using this term for political mudslinging, what are we to make of the idea?

The Reality is Rather Banal

The idea of a “deep state” is not particularly new.  It goes back at least as far as the 1956 book The Power Elite by the sociologist C. Wright Mills.  By the 1950s it had become apparent to sociologists, economists, and political scientists that the US society, and economy was dominated by large corporate organizations.  This gave rise to a slew of works focusing upon what that meant for the economy, and the society at large.  Mills’ thesis was that there was a group of leaders of the military, corporations, and politics that were tied together with interwoven interests that rendered the ordinary citizen relatively powerless.

This added to the perspective that large organizations were dominating the world, that was the thesis of James Burnham’s 1941 work The Managerial Revolution.  These were interesting, yet mostly dry academic works that were not at all conspiratorial in tone or in their conclusions.

All of this work was further developed and morphed, by the 1970s, into a broader field of study known as “organizational dynamics”.  The focus being on how people interacted in a group setting.  Again, none of this is about conspiracies or shadowy figures.

One of the insights that this field of study uncovered, is that within any organization there will be groups that work at cross purposes to the stated goals of top management.  This seems like a duh moment for us now, but it was really new when it was rolled out.

This dynamic plays out in any size organization.  I have worked for companies ranging in size from a Fortune 50 corporation to a family-owned corner bar, and I have seen this dynamic at work.  I will offer an example from my work life, one from a larger organization, to illustrate the banality of this dynamic.

In my time in the financial services industry I worked for a sizable mutually owned insurance company, marketing annuities and mutual funds.  The bread-and-butter products for the annuity and mutual fund division was deferred variable annuities.  It is not important to know the intricacies of these products (for more depth pay attention to my Wholesale Rip-off series here, and here).  All you need to know is that they are marketed to a specific type of customer in a particular way.  In the aftermath of the Great Recession of 2007-2009 the variable products became much riskier for the company.  A decision was made at the highest level to increase the effort given to fixed annuities, which were much less risky.

A plan was made to do this, team members were hired specifically for this purpose, and a new target list of customers, rather distinct from our previous customer base, was drawn up.  What this meant is that resources were being directed to this new product line and away from the old product line.  All this was done specifically, and intentionally by top management.

Immediately opposition grew.  Executives in the old product line, got testy about this resource shift.  They resisted this shift, in subtle ways of course.  They were hesitant to give up personnel to the new effort, they did not want marketing money allocated to this and most importantly they were able to get restrictive guidelines in place that made it difficult to get customers to buy the new products.  It was not a shadowy conspiracy, all their reservations were out in the open, and expressed in meetings.  The “slow rolling” was done subtly but was not particularly hidden.  Management was never going to fire the leaders of the old product line for not towing the line, not with the existing line of business, for the moment, being the more profitable area.  In spite of leftist claims, that is simply not how business operates.

So you see here a clear “deep state” dynamic at work.  Nothing shadowy, nothing nefarious.  It was simply the all too human reaction to a changing environment and people trying to protect their “turf”.  A protection driven by simple economic fear.  This same dynamic works in governmental bureaucracies as it does in private business.

In the case of the federal government this is a massive organization populated by workers who will be there for decades, in contrast to elected officials who might be there for 4-8 years (longer for Congresspeople).  The incentive is to build fiefdoms and to protect their turf.  There is nothing tin foil hat wacko about recognizing that. 

Where Does That Leave Us?

The problem with all of this is the uses that both sides have put to this banal organizational dynamic.  The Republicans want to blame it for every failure they experience, even in the absence of proof-like Trump’s electoral defeat in 2020.  The Democrats want to act as if no such dynamic exists, except in the minds of their opponents, and go on taking advantage of the dynamic when it suits them.

The damage of this dynamic when applied to government is that it perpetuates the growth of governmental size and power.  Take for instance, the inability to fire civil servants easily.  In order to take control of the bureaucracy both sides need to continually hire more in order to overwhelm the other with greater numbers.  In the unlikelier event that a president wants to actually reduce government-all aspects of this organizational dynamic fire up to prevent any real change-except more growth, of course.

What organizational dynamics really results in is stasis.  It is the innate desire of most of us to resist change, for that represents the unknown.  The difference between government and private sector stasis is that in the private sector the market exacts a heavy price for stasis.  It’s called bankruptcy.  Governmental stasis results in an increased budget.  Clearly the greater the governmental control over the economy and society, the greater the amount of stasis.  This poses great risks for humanity’s peace and material well-being. 

The point of all this is to recognize that the Trump supporters are not wackos for recognizing an organizational dynamic that they call the Deep State that is resisting the change they want to see.  We should also recognize that the Democrats disparage this Deep State idea because they do not want that type of change.  We will set aside the reality that there is far more bipartisan agreement than either side acknowledges (70% of the federal budget is on auto pilot for example) to focus on the marginal areas (culture war stuff mostly) upon which the two parties compete.

Rational people should really be concerned with the organizational dynamic (Deep State if you prefer) that sees the government only grow.  Returning organizational dynamics to the private sector and letting voluntary cooperation balance off stasis and change will clearly produce better results for the whole of society.

So, do not fall for the idea that the “other guy’s” ideas are deep conspiracy.  Look clear eyed at the world and realize that good and evil are much more banal than that.

Praise Be to God

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