The Birth of the Deep State: A History

Friday, November 15, 2019
By Paul Martin

By Peter C. Earle
ActivistPost.com
NOVEMBER 14, 2019

Every presidential administration finds some degree of internal resistance. That which has confronted the Trump Administration, however, seems to be the most active and aggressive ever. From “Anonymous”, to a record number of leakers, to physically hiding documents from the President, a large and active bureaucratic resistance is at work to stymie many of the Executive branch’s goals. Everything from secret military plans to embarrassing aspects of daily life in White House has been made public.

Indeed, the deep state (as the President and his defenders brand it) has been relentless. Nor is this purely partisan. The same deep state which is dogging Trump also prevented Obama from closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

But where did the American deep state come from? Has it always been there?

In fact, the evolution of the deep state (and this choice of term, “evolution” as opposed to “creation”, will be explained later) is — some might say ironically — found in a nearly 140-year old anti-corruption “reform” measure; one that was explicitly focused upon depoliticizing the civilian component of the United States government.

Let’s first describe what is called the deep state. It is the unelected part of the state that is professionalized to the point that it can be secure in its place and power regardless of political trends. It has the well-earned habit of ignoring political comings and goings, confident in its mastery of its realm. It knows the system better than any elected interloper, and it also knows its interests: survive and flourish even in the midst of upheaval.

A Fertile Soil
In the decades before the Civil War, a minuscule civil service corps was staffed via what would seem perfectly corrupt by today’s standards: the “spoils system.” Positions were doled out to individuals who had actively supported candidates or raised substantial campaign donations contributing to the victory of the newly-incumbent political party. With the defeat of the party in power, previous appointees would leave government employment and be replaced by the favored and distinguished supporters of the new administration. Needless to say, the federal bureaucracy was highly, explicitly politicized; but it was also tiny, bore few powers, and in any event almost completely overturned every four years.

With the onset of the Progressive Era came the movement to introduce “science” to many previously independent or loosely organized endeavors, and the spoils system soon came under attack. The Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act (1883) created a merit-based system of examinations and other requirements, and a salaried class of government employees.

Design flaws
In a massive, highly structured organization — in particular, one in which both the benefits of long-term service and uncommon protection from termination are present, incentives to protect the status quo loom front and center. Despite what we must assume the best intentions of the civil service reform movement were — to professionalize government bureaucracies, remove the inefficiencies associated with positions held for the duration of political cycles and (something else) — three flaws in the design of the reforms would set the stage for the next phase of evolution in the American civil service. One was structural, two were misjudgments.

The structural error was building a provision into the Pendleton Act allowing the President to increase the size of the civilian employment of government at will. While in many such accounts it was in the course of the New Deal or during the Cold War that such growth was exploited, this one was immediately evident: indeed, Grover Cleveland, the successor to Arthur, expanded the civil service from 16,000 to 27,000.

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