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Sep 15, 2015

The (Real) Government Will Not Be Televised

The politicians on TV change; the bureaucracy endures, unnoticed.

There are at least two types of government in the United States, as noted most recently by Professor Michael J. Glennon.

The first type is either elected or else appointed by those who are. Its job is to be conspicuous. It wears suits and gets perfect haircuts and manicures. It cuts the ribbons and throws out the first pitches. Every school in the land teaches it in civics and history classes. The first type of government constitutes the usual answer to the question “What is your government like?” Simple: “It’s three branches, with the President at the top of the executive…” Prosaically, Professor Glennon calls this first type of government the Madisonian institutions; in observing a similar phenomenon, the Victorian journalist Walter Bagehot dubbed the analogous parts of his own government the “dignified” institutions.

Dignified – if only. What we really have is more like the “TV State.” Appearing on television was certainly not the role that James Madison envisioned for his institutions. Yet it’s the role that they fulfill today. In a democracy, the members of the TV State will come and go, obedient to democratic impulses and to the drudging imperative that everyone, the Kim Davises of the world most certainly included, must get their fifteen minutes of fame.

The characteristic faults of the TV State are gaffes: they are faults of appearance, and almost never of substance; the mistake occurs if and only if a viewer notices. Accountability is likewise visible, often swift, and often inconsequential, as with so much else about the TV State. It comes by way of the public apology, a familiar act with a well-known script, which is often enough seen, clucked over, and then simply forgotten.

Wittingly or unwittingly – it hardly matters – the TV State serves to legitimize the state as a whole. In particular, it legitimizes the government we don’t see so often.

Names for this other form of government vary, as do authors’ precise conceptions of the beast. Former congressional staffer Mike Lofgren has called it the “Deep State.” Professor Glennon calls it the “Trumanite Network,” in that President Truman was aware of, and presided over, much of this second state’s development, above all in the area of national security. In Victorian England, the journalist Walter Bagehot called it the “efficient state”; he charged – horrors – that in reality it was a republic. Glennon fears that our own second state is rapidly becoming a despotism. Whatever we call it, it’s a government where Things Get Done – and where they are not talked about.

The second government is invisible, unaccountable, and active, each to the highest degree possible. Gaffes do not exist here. Failures only barely exist, and they consist mostly of breaches of security. The most notable recent example of such a Deep-State failure is Mr. Edward Snowden, without whom we might be having a different conversation entirely.

As Glennon has argued, power has moved steadily away from Madisonian democratic institutions, and toward the autocracy of the unseen state: Why, he asks, has Barack Obama changed so little about the George W. Bush administration’s security apparatus? Why did Bush before him confess to a strange powerlessness in office, one that no one else seemed to understand? Why did Truman himself look forward cynically to Dwight Eisenhower taking over – and to the old general’s commands not being carried out? The answer is the Deep State, which dwarfs the TV State both in size and in power, and which plays by its own rules. The president, says Glennon, is “more presider than decider.”

Pushback against the Deep State is characteristically negligible. As Glennon says of the judiciary, “A lawsuit on virtually any national security issue is not even going to be heard on the merits…. They are dismissed as political questions, [for] ripeness, mootness, or lack of standing…. [T]he result is that no one gets a day in court.” The court of public opinion is hardly more active. It can’t be; usually it doesn’t know enough. And even when it does, all the yelling in the world will seldom move the TV State to action. The TV State’s role is no longer to reform, but to repackage.

Glennon disavows the suggestion that the inhabitants of the Deep State are villains; he is no conspiracy theorist. But even if our faceless government has the very best of intentions, we still have a bit of a problem.

Perhaps more purely than the TV State, the Deep State runs according to the dictates of “public choice theory,” according to which government actors are no better and no worse than the rest of us, and their own self-interest explains their actions quite sufficiently. When they are called to account, as occasionally happens, the members of the Deep State know their turf far better than do the members of the TV State. They exaggerate their own importance; they play up both the risks to the public and the great work that their own bureaus are doing; and they are rewarded with more power and new initiatives, at which members of the TV State get to cut ribbons.

If I could add anything to the theory – which is powerful as it stands – I might suggest that a good deal of the Deep State is not invisible. It’s just dead boring. In teaching and learning about this aspect of the Deep State – call it the “Dead-Boring State” – the key problems are rather with generating interest, attaining legibility, and securing comprehension. None are easy.

Why, for example, have zoning regulations proliferated at the local level? Why have rules promulgated by executive agencies come to predominate over Congressional legislation in so many areas? Why do welfare programs proliferate, dozens in number, when a single cash grant to the indigent would be vastly more efficient? The aligned self-interests of faceless bureaucrats and all too visible members of the TV State can perhaps explain nearly all of the Dead-Boring State.

Perhaps. But point to an example of the Dead-Boring State, and people may look at you funny. They’ll wonder why you’re not talking about the TV State or, at best, the more glamorous parts of the Deep State. Yet the Dead-Boring State is where so much actually gets done. To us. The Dead-Boring State probably governs us more than either of the other two. It rarely gets scrutiny; its incentives rarely change, and then not in response to ideology; the perverse incentives remain under one set of elected leaders after another.