Sinking in the Deep State

Everyone knows the government is broken. The very day that Obama was first elected, back in 2008, key House and Senate Republicans met privately and agreed that their party would oppose anything Obama proposed, and stop it if they could, and then did just that – even if Obama proposed something they had once said was a fine idea. Mitch McConnell, their leader in the Senate, where they were still in the minority, made the mistake of going public, famously saying, in public, that the Republicans in Washington had only one agenda for the next four years – to make Obama a one-term president. That was it – public policy, or the basic ongoing funding of this and that, or paying the nation’s bills, or anything that had to do with foreign affairs, were irrelevant, or only relevant insofar as any position they took on any of those things could further the end of making Obama look like a fool, a fool the American people would never reelect.

McConnell’s honesty was as impressive as his contempt for keeping the government running and the lights on was appalling – but that was how things were going to be. Even if all the polling showed, over and over and over, that the public was in favor of doing this or that, if Obama was for it they’d be against it, and they’d stop it if they could. They could, as least after they won back control of the House in the 2010 midterms. They couldn’t stop the first thing Obama signed into law, the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, or the Affordable Care Act – but then they won back the House and that was that. And no one was surprised. No one had thought it unusual when roomfuls of Republicans and Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh broke out in cheers when we lost the bid to host the 2016 Summer Olympics to the folks down in Rio – because Obama had personally pitched the United States to the Olympic deciders and this showed him up. That was sweet. It would be Rio, not Obama’s Chicago – but then Limbaugh had long been saying that he wanted Obama to fail at everything even if that meant America failed at everything – a position he seemed to think was patriotic. His millions of listeners nodded in agreement.

What followed Obama’s election was inevitable. There was no way to avoid a broken government, given these decisions – better a broken government, where nothing anyone wants ever gets done, than a government run by THAT man. Some of this was racial, but that was only throwing a bit more fuel on the fire. The real divide was that the Republicans had come to see enacting public policy, or abandoning any random policy they had once maintained was wonderful, as a means to gain political power – not to do anything in particular, but simply to have that power. That meant you won. Democrats have always seen the messy and degrading business of gaining political power as a sadly necessary means to enact quite specific public policies, for the common good. Putting useful policy in place means you’ve won, even if you yourself are tossed out of office the next time around. That is not to say that Republicans don’t have firm conservative principles – it’s just that those now seem to be rather malleable. Obama gave them their uniquely American market-based healthcare reform that they had thought up in the first place, that Mitt Romney had put in place in Massachusetts with no problem at all, and they decided they hated it, and they still hate it. Their conservative principles were abandoned for a greater goal, being the winner in the game. But don’t call them hypocrites. They were playing one game. The Democrats were playing another. There is no way they could not be at cross-purposes.

America saw this play out, two parties with two entirely different concepts of why the hell they were in Washington in the first place – but it doesn’t matter now. The government is no longer broken, it’s stopped. Congress finally passed a real budget, the first in many years, which will keep the government running and the lights on for a year or two without much fuss and bother – but it fails to address real issues like goosing the economy a bit more and extending long-term unemployment benefits or anything else. It only keeps the lights on. Congress then passed a bill raising the debt limit, so the nation can pay its bills and not go into default, causing the world’s financial markets to collapse. That also was the very least they could do, grudgingly, and that’s all Congress is going to do, because the midterm elections are this year. The point is to get reelected. There is no other point. Mitch McConnell, and John Boehner in the House, have both said they see no way to get immigration reform done this year, or anything else. There will be fiery speeches back home on the stump, and very serious talk on Meet the Press and Fox News and so on, and lots of fundraising dinners and private meetings, and the work of the country will just have to wait. The already broken government will have to gather dust in the corner for now.

Next year won’t be any better. That’s when the presidential stuff heats up. Chris Christie may find his way out of his scandals with the bridge thing and his Sandy shenanigans, and prove that he’s not a blustering bully in public and thug in private. Scott Walker may find his way out of those email scandals – we’ll be watching. They could run, as could the wonk, Paul Ryan, or the nutty libertarian, Rand Paul, or Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio, even if the base hates Rubio for co-authoring the comprehensive immigration reform bill that passed the Senate, that John Boehner had to kill in the House. Rick Santorum will run again, telling America that sex is the most awful and dirty thing in the world, and a gift from God, unless Mike Huckabee beats him to it. Jeb Bush would be a formidable Republican candidate, but his own mother told him to forget it – while all the while, on the other side, Hillary Clinton smiles like the Cheshire Cat. The business of the nation will fade further into the background. Political junkies will be in heaven. Policy wonks can go camping with the kids.

So, who’s going to run the place? That would be the Deep State, a concept Bill Moyers has just explained by pointing out what isn’t even minimally effective government:

The present objective of congressional Republicans is to render the executive branch powerless – at least until a Republican president is elected (a goal that voter suppression laws in GOP-controlled states are clearly intended to accomplish). President Obama cannot enact his domestic policies and budgets: Because of incessant GOP filibustering, not only could he not fill the large number of vacancies in the federal judiciary, he could not even get his most innocuous presidential appointees into office. Democrats controlling the Senate have responded by weakening the filibuster of nominations, but Republicans are sure to react with other parliamentary delaying tactics. This strategy amounts to congressional nullification of executive branch powers by a party that controls a majority in only one house of Congress.

Yeah, but don’t feel bad for the man in the White House:

Despite this apparent impotence, President Obama can liquidate American citizens without due processes, detain prisoners indefinitely without charge, conduct dragnet surveillance on the American people without judicial warrant and engage in unprecedented – at least since the McCarthy era – witch hunts against federal employees (the so-called “Insider Threat Program”). Within the United States, this power is characterized by massive displays of intimidating force by militarized federal, state and local law enforcement. Abroad, President Obama can start wars at will and engage in virtually any other activity whatsoever without so much as a by-your-leave from Congress, such as arranging the forced landing of a plane carrying a sovereign head of state over foreign territory. Despite the habitual cant of congressional Republicans about executive overreach by Obama, the would-be dictator, we have until recently heard very little from them about these actions – with the minor exception of comments from gadfly Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky. Democrats, save a few mavericks such as Ron Wyden of Oregon, are not unduly troubled, either – even to the extent of permitting seemingly perjured congressional testimony under oath by executive branch officials on the subject of illegal surveillance.

That’s not to say the government is apathetic and dysfunctional:

During the time in 2011 when political warfare over the debt ceiling was beginning to paralyze the business of governance in Washington, the United States government somehow summoned the resources to overthrow Muammar Gadhafi’s regime in Libya, and, when the instability created by that coup spilled over into Mali, provide overt and covert assistance to French intervention there. At a time when there was heated debate about continuing meat inspections and civilian air traffic control because of the budget crisis, our government was somehow able to commit $115 million to keeping a civil war going in Syria and to pay at least £100m to the United Kingdom’s Government Communications Headquarters to buy influence over and access to that country’s intelligence. Since 2007, two bridges carrying interstate highways have collapsed due to inadequate maintenance of infrastructure, one killing thirteen people; during that same period of time, the government has spent $1.7 billion constructing a building in Utah that is the size of seventeen football fields. This mammoth structure is intended to allow the National Security Agency to store a yottabyte of information, the largest numerical designator computer scientists have. A yottabyte is equal to 500 quintillion pages of text. They need that much storage to archive every single electronic trace you make.

Someone is doing something, even if what they do is problematic at times, but Moyers argues it’s not the real government doing these things:

Yes, there is another government concealed behind the one that is visible at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue, a hybrid entity of public and private institutions ruling the country according to consistent patterns in season and out, connected to, but only intermittently controlled by, the visible state whose leaders we choose. My analysis of this phenomenon is not an exposé of a secret, conspiratorial cabal; the state within a state is hiding mostly in plain sight, and its operators mainly act in the light of day. Nor can it be accurately termed an “establishment.” All complex societies have an establishment, a social network committed to its own enrichment and perpetuation. In terms of its scope, financial resources and sheer global reach, the American hybrid state, the Deep State, is in a class by itself.

That’s what Moyers explains in this formidably long analysis of the Deep State, the one we didn’t elect and doesn’t answer to us:

Washington is the most important node of the Deep State that has taken over America, but it is not the only one. Invisible threads of money and ambition connect the town to other nodes. One is Wall Street, which supplies the cash that keeps the political machine quiescent and operating as a diversionary marionette theater. Should the politicians forget their lines and threaten the status quo, Wall Street floods the town with cash and lawyers to help the hired hands remember their own best interests. The executives of the financial giants even have de facto criminal immunity. On March 6, 2013, testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Attorney General Eric Holder stated the following: “I am concerned that the size of some of these institutions becomes so large that it does become difficult for us to prosecute them when we are hit with indications that if you do prosecute, if you do bring a criminal charge, it will have a negative impact on the national economy, perhaps even the world economy.” This, from the chief law enforcement officer of a justice system that has practically abolished the constitutional right to trial for poorer defendants charged with certain crimes. It is not too much to say that Wall Street may be the ultimate owner of the Deep State and its strategies, if for no other reason than that it has the money to reward government operatives with a second career that is lucrative beyond the dreams of avarice – certainly beyond the dreams of a salaried government employee.

If, then, it is not too much to say that Wall Street may be the ultimate owner of the Deep State and its strategies, do we shrug and carry on? Thomas Frank doesn’t think so:

When President Obama declared in December that gross inequality is the “defining challenge of our time,” he was right, and resoundingly so. As is his habit, however, he quickly backed away from the idea at the urging of pollsters and various Democratic grandees.

I can understand the Democrats’ fears about venturing into this territory. It feels like a throwback to an incomprehensible time – to a form of liberalism that few of them understand anymore. Unfortunately, they really have no choice. Watching first the way the bankers steered us into disaster in 2008 and then the way they harvested the fruits of our labored recovery – these spectacles have forced the nation to rediscover social class, and as we dig deeper into the subject we are appalled to learn what has been going on for the last three decades.

Frank suspects he’s not alone in rediscovering the issue of class:

I was born in a comfortable middle-class America of the postwar years, the “affluent society” you hear about sometimes, and the shattering of that social order has been the story of my entire adult life. “Inequality” is an inadequate word for the Big Smashup, but we need some term to describe all the things that have gone to make the lives of the rich so superlative and the lives of people who work so shitty and so precarious. It is visible in the ever-rising cost of healthcare and college, in the deindustrialization of the Midwest and the ballooning of Wall Street, in the power of lobbying, in the dot-com bubble, in the housing bubble, in the commodities bubble. It was made possible by the signal political events of our time: the collapse of the New Deal coalition; the decline of labor; the infernal populism of the New Right; the fall of antitrust and the triumph of deregulation; the rise of Ronald Reagan, and after him Newt Gingrich, and after him George W. Bush, and after him the Tea Party, all of them bringing their pet tax cuts with them to Washington.

The word is a polite one, but “inequality” is what we say when we mean to describe the ruined downtown of your city, or your constant fear that the next round of layoffs will include you, or the impeccable air conditioning of your boss’s McMansion, or the way you had to declare bankruptcy when your child got sick. It is a pleasant-sounding euphemism for the Appalachification of our world. “The defining challenge of our time”? Oh, yes.

Frank then quotes from the Omaha Platform of the Populist Party, written way back in 1892:

The fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few, unprecedented in the history of mankind; and the possessors of those, in turn, despise the republic and endanger liberty. From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed the two great classes – tramps and millionaires.

Yeah, but life is tough, and as your conservative friends say, this is how it should be – the cream rises. Stop whining. Admire these people, and feel the shame you should feel for not being one of them – and liberty, by the way, is not what you think. Liberty is no more than what liberty you can buy. That’s what the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling established, definitively – money is free speech and thus protected – corporations are people too, my friend. You want a voice in how things are run? Get your own multinational corporation. Anyone can do it. Think about it. If you’re so smart, how come you’re not rich?

To Frank, this seems like 1892 again. Neoliberalism – the idea that unregulated free-market capitalism can lead to a good life for everyone at all levels (with Bill Clinton the one who signed into law most of the financial deregulation that screwed things up) – hasn’t worked out. But it was a cool idea. Oh well. Now it’s economic populism again, even if the rank-and-file Democrats have to drag Obama even a tiny little bit in that direction, kicking and screaming all the way. Hillary Clinton will never go there. Someone has to fund her campaign. The owners of the Deep State will.

The next two years should be interesting. How angry are the tens of millions of new tramps created in the last six or seven years, and does it really matter? And what can they do anyway?

They can’t do much, because their champions are kind of useless:

What really defines our time is the simultaneous soaring of inequality and the maddening inability of most progressives (there are exceptions, of course) to talk about it in a way that might actually inspire anyone to get off their ass. Start with the word itself: Like “neoliberalism” – another favorite lefty term for many of these same developments – “inequality” is confusing. It is euphemistic and aloof. It gets easily muddled with other, similar-sounding issues like marriage equality, gender equality and equal housing opportunity. Its tone is also needlessly clinical, giving the whole debate a technical and bloodless air.

Still, to read around on the subject is to get the feeling that certain liberals like it that way. “Needlessly clinical” is exactly their style. The subject, for them, must be positively cloaked in wonkery. They don’t talk much about “class,” like some troublemaker from the ’30s; they talk about “inequality,” which is a delicate and intricate signifier. Oh, it is extremely complex. It requires so many charts.

To our ancestors, though, this same issue was the most basic matter of them all. What we call “inequality” they called “the social question” – the phrase denoted nothing less than the eternal conflict of rich and poor.

This isn’t complicated:

I admit that the issue is complicated in its details, but it’s also – in its basic, brutal thrust – something dead simple: Inequality happened because our leaders set out to make it happen. …

The rich got so goddamn rich, in other words, because the signature policies of the Great Right Turn were designed to make them rich. And, as the world knows, these policies weren’t limited to Republicans; Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama – plus, of course, their resident economists and cabinet members – all more or less endorsed the basic tenets of the free-market faith. They are all implicated.

That’s because they’re all part of what Moyers calls the Deep State, not the broken one everyone thinks was once running things and should shape up and do something useful for a change. Frank says screw the famous economists who say this is so complicated and screw the Deep State:

“Inequality” is the most basic issue of them all, the very reason for liberalism’s existence. It is about who we are and how we live. Virtually every other liberal cause pales by comparison. This is the World War II of political subjects, and if we are going to win it must be a people’s war, not a Combat of the Thirty between the plumèd knights of the Beltway. We owe the economists thanks for making the situation plain, but now matters must of necessity pass into other hands. If the destruction of the middle class is ever to be addressed and solved, the impetus must come from below, not from above. This is a job we have to do ourselves.

Yeah, we should do that job, but with what tools? At Gettysburg, Lincoln spoke of that government of the people and by the people and for the people, which hasn’t exactly perished from this earth, but it’s now broken and has been discarded, at least for the next two years. The Deep State is what we have now, doing just fine without our help, and not particularly concerned with the rest of us at all. And the Deep State has the only tool that matters, money, and lots of it.

Maybe it is time to start a multinational corporation. They say anyone can do it. Maybe it’s time to fund an alternative Deep State, one that takes care of everyone. Yeah, sure…

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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