Paul R. Pillar
Politics, North America
The fictitious idea of a deep state is doing more to politicize the bureaucracy than any real deep state ever did.
Note: this article is part of a symposium included in the March/April 2018 issue of the National Interest.
THE CONCEPT of a deep state neatly describes certain patterns of power in some foreign countries, but it has no purchase in American politics, where it serves only as a handy pejorative. A deep state materializes in various forms where democracy is at best weak. Algeria has le pouvoir, comprising senior military officers and some associated civilians who may have more ultimate say over national policy than does the elected president. Many Middle Eastern countries have a mukhabarat, which instills fears of unchecked power going beyond a formal mission of intelligence or internal security. In Russia the siloviki, including veterans of the KGB or other security components who have entered politics, have been riding high since one of their own, Vladimir Putin, acquired the top job. Such terms most often denote a loosely delineated collection of like-minded officials with ties centered in security services and exercising disproportionate power over the lives of the country’s citizens. The United States has nothing like it.
An attraction of the term “deep state” to those who misapply it to the United States is that the user of the term feels no need to adduce specific evidence that such a phenomenon exists and is actively exerting political influence. After all, the very concept of a deep state involves operating in the dark and out of sight. If there were evidence to see, then the deep state wouldn’t be very deep. The idea of a deep state, in other words, is pretty shallow.