Pro forma elections have camouflaged the true state of our political system. Will that change this year?
Each new election year promises change. We will choose a new president and new representatives in Congress; fresh faces will make their appearances in Washington DC, while old ones disappear. But what about the people who stay in power, one election after another, less exposed to the public eye?
The concept of a ‘Deep State’ has been around for a while, but rarely to describe the United States. The term, used in Kemalist Turkey by the political class, referred to an informal grouping of oligarchs, senior military and intelligence operatives and organized crime, who ran the state along anti-democratic lines regardless of who was formally in power.
I define the American Deep State as a hybrid association of elements of government and top-level finance and industry that is able, through campaign financing of elected officials, influence networks and co-option via the promise of lucrative post-government careers, to govern the United States in spite of elections and without reference to the consent of the governed.
These operatives use their proximity to power and ability to offer high-paying jobs to government officials to achieve outcomes foreclosed to ordinary citizens. As professor Martin Gilens of Princeton, who studied the correlation between American popular opinion polls and public policy outcomes, concluded: “[T]he preferences of economic elites have far more independent impact upon policy change than the preferences of average citizens do … ordinary citizens have virtually no influence over what their government does in the United States.”
America’s growing income disparity is not the inevitable result of impersonal forces like globalization or automation. It is the outcome of hundreds of trade, tax and regulatory measures that achieved the preferred outcome – enrichment – of economic elites who contribute to politicians.
Since the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision, big money dominance of politics has gone into overdrive. Over half the money given to presidential candidates in the 2016 campaign comes from just 158 families.
The result is that middle class incomes have continued to stagnate even as America saw its first hundred-billionaire family. Income inequality has reached crisis proportions. Today, hedge fund managers often pay a lower federal tax rate than public school teachers or firemen.
Greed is the prerogative of American elites. Their behavior was described by political scientist Harold Lasswell, who said a society’s leadership class consists of those whose “private motives are displaced onto public objects and rationalized in terms of public interest”.
Consider that in 1992, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney privatized much of our military’s logistics. A decade later, Halliburton, a company he headed from 1995 to 2000, received $39.5bn in logistics contracts to support operations in Iraq, while Cheney, having been elected to the vice presidency, was receiving deferred compensation from his old firm.
A tell-tale sign of the Deep State’s involvement in policy is the use of fear to make Congress compliant. In 2008, Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke helped panic Congress into approving a virtual no-strings bailout of Wall Street by claiming that if it didn’t approve the measure immediately, there would be no economy left. Since he left the Fed, Bernanke has made a profitable career giving speeches, mainly to financial services firms, at around $200,000 a talk.
Likewise, when there are economic incentives for war, fear becomes the Deep State’s weapon of choice. In 2002, the Bush administration (and well-paid operatives in the military-industrial complex) hinted at nuclear mushroom clouds to stampede Congress into authorizing an invasion of Iraq in search of nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. During the last 15 years, elites have tried to keep us on the edge of hysteria about terrorism.
But lately it looks as if they did their job a little too well. People are now so conditioned by fear of threats that many support a political candidate who ignores the euphemisms of the political class and openly appeals to xenophobic fascism rather than a status quo of oligarchy camouflaged by pro forma elections.
The calculus of the Deep State has been upset by Donald Trump, a narcissistic pseudo-populist billionaire, who, ironically, is a symptom of all the pathologies within the Deep State. His followers may be misguided, and Trump is all too ready to offer them scapegoats, but they instinctively sense that there is something deeply wrong with the status quo.
At the other end of the political spectrum, Bernie Sanders has overthrown the current model of elite financing of candidates. Tens of thousands of his energetic followers – Sanders’s average contribution is under $30 – actively seek a return to the New Deal and the Great Society.
The Deep State may yet reassert itself through money and fear, but the 2016 election looks to be the first ballot of a longer-term national referendum on what it has made of our society.