Tags: president | deep state | bureaucracy | executive branch

Where Does Bureaucratic Inertia End and 'Deep State' Begin?

Where Does Bureaucratic Inertia End and 'Deep State' Begin?
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Tuesday, 07 August 2018 04:15 PM Current | Bio | Archive

Some people believe that a pernicious "deep state" is preventing President Donald Trump from implementing his policies.

Of course the deep state, if it actually exists, is invisible, since all government is invisible. Woodrow Wilson, a political scientist before he went into politics, noted that, "No man has ever seen a government. I live in the midst of the government of the United States, but I never saw the government of the United States."

We can only see specific people, buildings, documents, and actions. We can see the president. But the president is not the government. We can see the Capital Building, but it is not the government. We can see the Constitution, but the Constitution is not the government.

"The government" is a high level abstraction alluding to all of these things and much more, and to their interactions. Government's invisibility places us at the same disadvantage facing scientists studying unobservable things like the internal structure of atoms. We must look at what we can see, add to personal observations the credible reports of others, and put together an inferential picture of government, just as physicists and chemists put together inferential models of atomic structure.

Of course for blind people, everything is invisible. The problem with having to depend on inferences is neatly captured by the children's poem, "The Blind Men and the Elephant." If we do not test them carefully, inferences can easily lead us to false conclusions.

Since a deep state could not be seen, the belief that one is undermining the Trump administration is an inference. But many of the administration's difficulties can be explained without having to postulate existence of a deep state. Presidents always have to depend on White House staff, cabinet secretaries, and agency administrators to carry out their decisions, and all of these people may have their own ideas about what ought to be done.

President Harry Truman, sitting the oval office right after General Dwight D. Eisenhower had been elected, predicted: "He'll sit here, and he'll say, 'Do this! Do that!' And nothing will happen. Poor Ike — it won't be a bit like the Army. He'll find it very frustrating."

An aide to Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote: "Half of a president's suggestions, which theoretically carry the weight of orders, can be safely forgotten by a Cabinet member. And if the president asks about a suggestion a second time, he can be told that it is being investigated. If he asks a third time, a wise cabinet officer will give him at least part of what he suggests. But only occasionally, except about the most important matters, do presidents ever get around to asking three times."

Roosevelt, Assistant Secretary of the Navy earlier in his career, had already experienced this exasperating administrative inertia. He exclaimed that, "To change something in the navy is like punching a feather bed, you punch it with your right and your left until you are finally exhausted and then you find the damn bed just as it was before you started."

Federal administrative agencies operate largely on the basis of standard operating procedures, organizational habits that are hard to change. To get major progress, a president must sometimes bypass the agencies with initiatives that horrify the experts and career people who staff them. Richard Nixon ignored the State Department when he initiated his highly successful change in U.S. foreign policy, restoring contact with China and then forcing State Department policy wonks to fall into line.

Sometimes, though, administrative inertia can be useful. If, for whatever reason, a president attempts policy changes that would be disastrous, inability to get cooperation from the rest of the government could be a very good thing.

It is hard to tell where normal administrative inertia ends and a deep state begins. Inertia would be leaderless and decentralized, whereas a deep state would have centralized leadership, perhaps a secret committee. But like all government, such a committee would be invisible and we would have to infer its existence.

The existence of normal administrative inertia has been well-documented by political scientists and other observers, whereas the existence of a deep state is thus far purely inferential and probably unnecessary to explain President Trump's difficulties.

Call it what you will, administrative inertia or a deep state, it could save the country.

Paul F. deLespinasse is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Computer Science at Adrian College. He received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1966, and has been a National Merit Scholar, an NDEA Fellow, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and a Fellow in Law and Political Science at the Harvard Law School. His college textbook, "Thinking About Politics: American Government in Associational Perspective," was published 1981 and his most recent book is "The Case of the Racist Choir Conductor: Struggling With America's Original Sin." His columns have appeared in newspapers in Michigan, Oregon, and a number of other states. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.

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Some people believe that a pernicious "deep state" is preventing President Donald Trump from implementing his policies.
president, deep state, bureaucracy, executive branch
Tuesday, 07 August 2018 04:15 PM
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