Thursday, October 31, 2019

Don't Mess with the Deep State

Mark Tushnet

I take Andy Koppelman's post to be a serious parody. I want to focus on the serious part -- the claim that there is, in some important sense, a "deep state" operating in the United States through high-ranking members of the permanent civil service and the national security bureaucracy. (It's not a "State" with a capital-S, unlike the prior Egyptian and Turkish Deep States, because the U.S. version doesn't -- as far as I know -- have an organized hierarchical structure.)

High-ranking long-term civil servants and national security bureaucrats have unsurprisingly been socialized into a role with two components, a procedural one dictating that they subordinate their personal views about policy to the views held by their political superiors and a substantive one consisting of the value-commitments their political superiors have had over a sustained period. These two components come apart when a disruptive president arrives on the scene. (To take an earlier and today less charged example, recall the comments when Reagan arrived about how difficult it was to change the direction of a battleship.) It should be no surprise to find that there's variation in the degree to which individual high-ranking civil servants and national security bureaucrats act in light of those two role-components. Nor is it surprising that individual calculations of the proper balance might shift as the possibility that the direction they are getting from their political superiors will change soon.

That seems to me what's been happening. Beyond that observation, a few additional comments. (1) I think it's interesting -- and to a person skeptical about the U.S. tradition of military intervention abroad in the name of national security troubling -- that the long-term civil servants and national security bureaucrats who have acted "against" Trump have done so because of his refusal to go along with as full-throated an interventionism as they appear to believe appropriate (and not because, for example, they believe that his relationship with Vladimir Putin is intrinsically troubling). Or, as conspiratorial Marxists used to say, maybe it's no accident that Trump's actions in Syria have amplified the Ukraine affair.

(2) Ordinarily small-d democrats would be hostile to anything like a deep state, for obvious reasons. A specific example is the ideal of civilian control of the military. Sometimes, though, the military -- and a "deep state" of some sort -- might serve a pro-democratic role. Ozal Varol's work on the pro-democratic coup is useful here. And concretely, Turkish president Erdogan's successful defeat of the Deep State there has not turned out well from a democratic point of view. I doubt that there are general criteria for assessing when a "deep state" is pro- or anti-democratic -- which is to say that Trump's invocation of "deep state" ideas and liberal responses to/dismissals of that invocation are both "merely" political claims about the underlying substance of Trump's policies. They are not deep or even superficial observations about proper institutional behavior in a democracy.

(3) Much more narrowly, and related to (1) above, I think it's interesting that, at least to this point, nothing similar to the reaction of the national security bureaucracy has been forthcoming with respect to domestic policy, and in particular from the Department of Justice. (As Koppelman's post suggests, the environmental bureaucracy has been put under control.) For all the celebration of the independence of the Southern District of New York, for example, collateral investigations there to the Mueller investigation appear to have been closed without result (nor, of course, have there been leaks on any significant scale). It would be really interesting were the Durham investigation to produce some minor charges in connection with its nominal subject and some major ones endorsing important aspects of the initial stages of the Mueller investigation. I don't rule out that possibility, because -- as I said at the beginning -- there is a deep state, and maybe (as his supporters regularly say, though not in terms) John Durham is a member of it. (At which point I have perhaps switched into "serious parody" mode.)

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