The Deep State, the Permanent Campaign, and the Frayed Fabric of American Democracy

A return, for our 44th president, to rules that applied for presidents #1 through #43


Obviously I consider yesterday's Senate developments to be (modestly) good news. The McConnell-era Republican minority had finally over-reached in subjecting Barack Obama to a burden no other president has faced: routine filibuster blockage of his own executive-branch appointees and attempted de-facto nullification of several agencies. The Reid-era Democratic majority finally decided to draw the line. When they stuck together, with their 51+ votes, McConnell and his minority backed down. [Fake ad from Daily Kos.] 

So we have returned, for our 44th president, to some of the rules that applied for presidents #1 through #43. That this counts as a "breakthrough" is really a reminder of how far things have devolved. I refer you to my main theme, laid out in detail in dispatches like these (onetwothree): that America has almost everything working in its favor, except for the increasingly flawed structure of our governing institutions. In that vein, a few more readings for the day:

1) "The Withered Writ," in The American Prospect, by the long-time legal writer (and my good friend) Lincoln Caplan. We all know what the absence of habeas corpus protections has meant in Guantanamo. I'd had no idea, before reading this piece, how sweepingly they have been curtailed for Americans living here in the "homeland." [Update See this Huffpo Live segment on the article and the habeas situation.]

2) The "Deep State," Cont. Two days ago I quoted Mike Lofgren and Mark Bernstein on structural paradoxes of our current politics. In response to Lofgren's description of the military-police-financial-technological "Deep State," here is Joseph Britt of Wisconsin, who like Lofgren previously worked as an aide to a Republican U.S. senator: 

First:  with respect to how the federal government functions, the level of continuity over the last dozen years or so doesn't get nearly enough attention.  In the Bush as in the Obama administration, Executive Branch agencies had little policy autonomy -- except for the security services, DoD and the intelligence agencies, who operated with little oversight even from within the administration in spite of major policy failures.

Republicans in Congress didn't defend the Bush administration so much as they repeated verbatim what they were told to say on national security affairs.  Meanwhile, other federal agencies dealt with a White House hypersensitive about political message discipline by undertaking as few potentially controversial initiatives as possible -- something that hasn't changed all that much under Barack Obama.

Second:  the absolute primacy of the permanent campaign industry in the policy making process gets rather taken for granted by many commentators.   Organized interest groups have traditionally been thought to exercise outsized influence within the two national parties, especially the Democratic Party.  One thing that's changed in recent years is the emergence of the people who do campaigns for a living as a powerful and effectively organized interest group themselves.

It is the pollsters, "strategists," and other campaign operatives, after all,  who are the chief beneficiaries of the continual fundraising that Senators and Congressmen now do.  Not only do these electioneering hands now work on campaign business full-time, but they have also gotten used to a standard of living requiring high and predictable levels of income.

The influence of campaign primacy on policy flows outward from Capitol Hill and the White House, enveloping agencies engaged in work that might offend any monied interest.  The military and intelligence agencies tend not to do work of this kind; their budgets, increased substantially after 9/11, tend therefore to receive little scrutiny, and their senior officials are normally treated with deference.

Is campaign primacy worse than it has ever been?  I'd say it is.  The very transparency celebrated by some in the media (because, among other things, it takes some of the hard work out of political reporting) makes it harder to do politically controversial business out of the view of rent-seeking monied interests.  Advocacy of causes with no potential to support the permanent campaign infrastructure -- from reducing unemployment to preparing for climate change to adhering to regular order on appropriations bills in Congress -- is effectively deterred.  The influence of campaign primacy on tax policy can't be overestimated.

The root cause of the latest crisis in Washington is that, for the party that came up short in the last election, the campaign never ended.  There is nothing but the campaign for Congressional Republicans -- and mostly for Democrats on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue as well, with the difference that they feel they have to at least look as if they want the government to function.

3) "Emails from a Dead Man." This is not exactly about political structure, but it's powerful enough, and closely enough connected to our public values, that I want to mention it. Last month This American Life did an episode on the Iraqis who had helped U.S. troops or officials over the past decade -- and who now, of course, are in mortal danger precisely because of their "collaboration" with us. The ugly record of leaving people stranded has become a too-frequent feature of U.S. military ventures from Vietnam onward -- and the likelihood of this happening is of course one more reason to be cautious about such commitments. After its program, T.A.L. put up a selection of emails from one such stranded Iraqi. Read it and reflect that this is being done in our name.

4) "Fear of the Left." In the earlier installment, Mark Bernstein argued that today's right wing has no self-interested reason to compromise on anything. As far as they're concerned, no situation could be worse than what Barack Obama is already dishing out. One reader agrees:

[This] analysis is exactly right. And indeed, you don't have to think just of race riots as examples fear of left wing violence. There was plenty of it just 40 years ago. You recommended a book recently about the hijacking craze of the late 1960s, early 1970s, well many of those were examples of left wing terrorism. But it wasn't just that, of course. There were all sorts of "liberation front" groups operating at the time, bombing government installations (and DoD funded labs at universities).
I have long felt that it is precisely the lack of credible left wing violence that has empowered the GOP to become increasingly extreme. And while I have no desire to see more left wing violence, I do think we need to acknowledge that its disappearance in our society has essentially removed a restraint on right wing lunacy.

But that said, I have no idea what one does with that bit of insight. Do you?

No. Another reader disagrees:

Without data to corroborate this theory I see no reason to presume the 1832 British situation is playing a part in current American politics. Indeed, I can think of several other models that help us understand the breakdown better, all stemming from changes in the economy and technology that, while reshaping the American experience, also reshape the coalitions in our government. 

As these coalitions weaken and break and as new ones rise in their place, Washington can be expected to function poorly. It will remain dysfunctional until the GOP figures out what to do with the rising Right-wing populist movement (the Tea Party) and until Democrats can reassert a relevant voter base in a time of diminishing Labor/Union power. 

That's all for now.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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