Democracy is a blast, no question about it. It is a thrill to imagine that we the people have control over the kind of government under which we live. That control is illustrated by our voting rituals, and people can get pretty pious and passionate about the whole thing. We talk, we debate, we wrangle, and we pronounce. What a machinery is at work, and such expense!
And then again there is reality. This reality is starting to get some public attention. The phrase “deep state” is popping up ever more in public discussions.
What does it mean? It refers to the apparatus of the state that thrives completely outside the democratic system. It is a reference to a kind of permanent ruling class and to a structure of law that is completely impervious to election noise. This is not speculative conspiracy theory. It is just a description of how government works in a nation-state.
We encountered the reality of the deep state in 2013 when the federal government shut down. It sounds dreamy. We are free! But it didn’t actually happen. It’s true that 800,000 employees didn’t show up to work and that’s why you couldn’t get into national monuments and your passports were late in showing up.
But what didn’t shut down? All “essential” operations, including the Fed, the military, the Social Security administration, the tax collections, the regulatory agencies, the surveillance systems, the border patrols, the housing and agricultural subsidies, the whole of law enforcement, and so on — which is to say, the whole apparatus of coercion that rules us day to day.
And that’s under the shutdown! What about normal operations? Voters are asked to select 536 people within the structure of the government: the president and the Congress. But actually the federal government employs 2,723,000 people, which means that we elect about 0.02 percent of the overall number of people who rule us. Kind of makes you think. And that doesn’t include the additional private-sector contractors doing work for the feds.
One estimate of the size of the federal government by Paul Light estimates that the total number is 11 million: 1.8 million civil servants, 870,000 postal workers, 1.4 million military personnel, 4.4 million contractors, and 2.5 million grantees. That reduces the elected portion of the state to 0.004 percent.
But you might say, hey, but these elected guys are in charge of everything else, so where’s the problem? The reality is that they are not. Members of Congress can hire a staff. The president can appoint some 3,000 people. But add them all up and you still only get 0.1 percent of the overall number.
Nonpolitical public employees can’t be fired by law. The spending mandates are in place and untouchable. Politicians don’t have the incentive to cut in any case because there is nothing to be gained by doing so. Finally, on a practical level, it’s not their job. Their job is getting elected and serving their constituents. We all pick our battles, and battling the bureaucracy is not in their job description.
I first came to realize this when living in Alexandria, Virginia. I had many neighbors who were employed in federal agencies. One striking thing about them that surprised me is that none of them cared about politics in the slightest. They didn’t bother to vote and they didn’t read or watch political news. They found the whole thing completely irrelevant to their lives, and they were right to do so. The passing drama of politics didn’t affect their lives in any way. They were the permanent ruling class; the come-and-go managers were just background noise.
And really, it’s not just about the employees and their permanency. What matters is the structure of law and regulations that gives them power. This apparatus of law is very old, going back to the 19th century. As just one example, the law that allows the federal government to operate even when shut down is called the Anti-Deficiency Act. It was passed in 1884.
The Code of Federal Regulations takes up a huge bookshelf, and most all of it consists of laws and regulations passed long before the sitting officeholders existed. This document is the teeth of the state and the thing that empowers the deep state. Employees can come and go. Elected officials can come and go. But the structure of law itself remains no matter what.
What’s remarkable is how incredibly unaware people are of these realities. American politics proceeds as if the whole apparatus of government is reinvented in every election cycle. One group is gone and another comes in, and whatever came before is of no relevance. We hold the sitting president responsible for all things that take place in his tenure, and we do the same for the Congress. It’s an understandable error because that’s the theory of democracy. We get to control the rules under which we live.
In so many ways, the reputation of government depends on the continued public belief that this remains true. We get so distracted with this myth. One side of the tiny group of elected leaders blames the other side for all problems. The rest of us sit around and argue about who is better, this group or that group. We treat it as a sport. Up with Team X! Down with Team Y! But the underlying reality is that the real ruling class and its powers are untouched regardless of the passing political leadership.
Hope springs eternal for some great man or woman to arrive in public office who can gain control of this vast deep state and either abolish it or make it accountable. What would happen if someone actually tried? Well, the way the structure of government is set up, as it turns out, no one is a dictator, nor do we really want one.
I’m not trying to spread despair here but rather be realistic about the issue. It is possible that the deep state can be confounded, but it is not going to happen through conventional measures such as electing the best-talking, best-looking among those who offer themselves up for vote. Rather, it will happen in an indirect way, through technological innovation, noncompliance, and creativity.
Politics is great fun for many people, and I’m not one to put down anyone’s entertainment choices. But let’s at least see it for what it is.
This post originally appeared at Liberty.me.