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Public Administration in “Post-Democracy” America: Part 3—What Becomes of the “Deep State”

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Erik Devereux
March 17, 2022

This is the third in a series of columns I will write for the PATimes regarding the implications for public administration in the United States from the emerging crisis of American democracy (the first column on the possible increase in official corruption if America becomes an authoritarian state is available here, the second column on public administrators needing to recognize there are absolute standards of conduct is available here.) This column addresses a phenomenon that many reading my words might not believe exists—the “deep state.” Bear with me please, and, for the moment, assume that the phrase actually has a sensible connotation. This column considers what will happen to the “deep state” if the United States continues to slide toward authoritarianism.

I interact with people across the political spectrum who strongly believe in the existence of the “deep state” if that is confined to the domain of national security. That said, it could span many different policy realms. What this specifically refers to is a cadre of long-serving Federal public administrators, protected by the civil service and their security classifications, who influence public policy behind the scenes for decades, regardless of any changes in the national political leadership above them. Furthermore, the deep state is self-perpetuating: most of the hiring that matters is controlled by other public administrators and not by politically appointed agency heads. The deep state also has its own means to inculcate common public policy preferences that will persist for generations. Clearly, such a phenomenon directly violates the cherished separation between politics and administration. Ideally, elected political leaders should have the capacity to change policies even if long-serving public administrators do not support those changes.

We come now to a fundamental contradiction between what may have been happening in the United States with a “deep state” controlling national security policy amidst a generally democratic system and the predilections of an authoritarian system. To put it bluntly, an authoritarian leader would not tolerate a “deep state” and would move aggressively to put such out of business (yes—I’m using that phrase in a manner consistent with The Godfather or Tony Soprano.) The authoritarian will demand absolute command-and-control over all aspects of public policy and seek to act without restrictions.

As I have written in my other columns, I am a pragmatist and, as such, I recognize the pragmatic need to have much more stability in public policy than is likely to be delivered strictly through democracy. We recently have seen—through a series of “knife-edge” presidential elections—how different public priorities can be depending on who wins. In general, this is the consequence of a simple majoritarian system in which becoming the next political leader requires winning just 50.01% of the Electoral College. Just think how different the U.S. national debt might be if there had been a different outcome to the 2000 or 2016 presidential contests! I definitely would prefer less variability in policy outcomes from any individual election. Whipsawing both the domestic and international consumers of U.S. public policy, election after election, strikes me as damaging the overall standing of the country—perhaps even fatally.

There is a necessary balance between consistency and longevity in public administration and the prerogatives of political leaders. If the United States does become more authoritarian, that balance will be severely disrupted. It is a sad fact to me that so many talented and deeply experienced public administrators chose to step away from the field over the past four years. As others have noted in the PATimes, the loss of institutional and tacit knowledge has significantly reduced the ability of the public sector to address the challenges facing our nation and world. An unpleasant fact of life is that future authoritarian leaders would prefer constant turnover and inexperience among public servants to prevent the accumulation of power within the bureaucracy which could counterbalance their desires.

When you back far enough away to get perspective on this, you might see something unexpected: Public administrators, protected by civil service systems, actually constitute another fundamental type of check-and-balance on power within government. It is important and necessary that there is ongoing tension between the short-term objectives of elected officials and the longer-term objectives of the bureaucracy. Instead of the bureaucracy being a drag on the system, it is crucial for the health and sustainability of the system. This is among the other casualties of a drift toward authoritarianism in the United States, and another reason to take action to halt and reverse that drift.

I pondered printing up t-shirts or ballcaps c. 2019 with the saying, “I miss the deep state,” emblazoned on them. I suspect I would have some takers. Let me know—maybe it’s not too late.

Author: Erik Devereux is a consultant to nonprofits and higher education and teaches at Georgetown University. He has a B.S. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Political Science, 1985) and a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin (Government, 1993). He is the author of Methods of Policy Analysis: Creating, Deploying, and Assessing Theories of Change (Amazon Kindle Direct). Email: [email protected]. Twitter: @eadevereux.

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