Ditching the “Deep State”: The Rise of a New Conspiracy Theory in American Politics

Photo by Nicolas Raymond | CC BY 2.0

Photo by Nicolas Raymond | CC BY 2.0

The stratospheric rise of Mike Lofgren’s “deep state” critique has been matched only by its meteoric fall into the pits of conspiracy theory and caricature. What started off as a potentially interesting analytical framework, which sought to spotlight the U.S. corporate-national security-intelligence apparatus, has quickly devolved into a cartoonish absurdity. This decline was predictable considering that the “deep state” analysis provided by Lofgren was such an expansive, vague concept from the start. The “deep state” framework lacked the nuance of previous versions of “elite theory” developed over the decades, so its adoption by various rightwing partisan stooges and conspiracy theorists doesn’t surprise me. We have now reached the point where the “deep state” rhetoric is no longer useful, and has even become harmful to informed political discourse on American politics.

I will say from the outset that I admire Mike Lofgren, a former Congressman, for drawing attention to the rise of corporate power and the ever-expanding, runaway military state. His book, The Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government, appears to be a genuine, heartfelt effort to fight back against the reactionary forces that control American politics. And his main concerns with the American political system are warranted. He is right to focus on the dangers of the growing national security state, coordinated largely through the NSA and other agencies, and to condemn their assault on citizens’ privacy rights. Lofgren adopts the metaphor of the panopticon to describe the security state, referring to Jeremy Bentham’s conceptual prison design, which was comprised of a circular structure with a central “watchman” tower. The structure is designed so that prisoners cannot tell whether a guard can see them at any given time, despite the central location of the tower, which suggests that the state could be watching you at any moment.51XQywzD50L._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_

The use of the panopticon as a symbol of the modern-day surveillance state is apt. The NSA, while not recording every phone call in the United States, keeps records of these calls, allowing for closer inspections of conversations on a case-by-case basis. Even if the state is not technically recording every word we speak, it always has its eye on the American people, and is ready to intervene at a moment’s notice. Drawing on the panopticon, Lofgren refers to the rise of “militarized authoritarianism” via the growing power of the U.S. intelligence apparatus, and I find it hard to disagree with him.

Lofgren is also right to emphasize other threats to American democracy. He laments the rise of corporate profiteering in the “War on Terror,” calling back to warnings from decades’ past about the U.S. military industrial complex. Corporate and political actors profit from hundreds of billions a year spent on a bloated “national security” state, at the expense of social spending on education, health care, and infrastructural needs. In an era of record inequality, the fixation of U.S. political and economic elites on militarism exacts a huge cost, draining much needed financial resources that could be allocated toward rebuilding the country and providing for the basic needs of the citizenry.

Finally, Lofgren’s concern with the rise of Wall Street power, which has coincided with the financialization of the U.S. economy, is timely and welcome. Financial deregulation is one of the greatest threats to our economy, and the failure of both political parties to limit the power of financial elites is one of the great tragedies of modern times. The American banking system has historically been a parasitic force in the American economy. Wall Street’s speculation on vital goods such as oil, housing, internet stocks, and other goods has fed stock market bubbles, the collapse of which wreak havoc on the economy and American workers, draining their retirement savings, and fueling the rise of unemployment and underemployment. Financialization undermines the economy – which is now largely driven by speculators and characterized by anemic to non-existent economic growth. What profit gains exist are now largely captured by financial and other corporate elites. Meanwhile, the masses of Americans find themselves working longer hours, with increased productivity, for stagnating to declining wages, amidst huge increases in cost-of-living via out-of-control health care and education costs.

Despite the serious and legitimate concerns that Lofgren raises, there are several serious problems with the “deep state” framework. These problems become harder to deny as Lofgren’s work gains prominence among American pundits, intellectuals, and political elites. Lofgren popularized the “deep state” term, referring to “a hybrid of national security and law enforcement agencies, plus key parts of other branches whose roles given them membership. The Department of Defense, the Department of State, the Department of Homeland Security, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Justice Department are all part of the Deep State.” But the “deep state” concept lacked nuance and clarity, making it ripe for adoption by partisan hacks and conspiracy theorists. This is not to attack Lofgren for promoting a conspiracy theory, as he is clear in his book that he is providing an institutional analysis of the threats to American democracy. In fact, I find claims that Lofgren is a conspiracy theorist to be rather bizarre and ill-informed. If anything, his analysis comes off as somewhat tame within the broader intellectual history of elite theory, in that he fails to identify corporate capitalism as the primary threat to the U.S. economy and to the American public. Lofgren is no socialist or Marxist, and his analysis is somewhat pedestrian and conservative in that he eschews traditional efforts at institutional analysis that incorporate Marxian tools for spotlighting systemic repression such as alienated labor, economic determinism, hegemony, and commodity fetishism.

Because of the vague nature of the “deep state,” it has become a Rorschach test for American pundits and citizens alike. It is something upon which they can impute whatever beliefs or values they have. It can mean whatever one wants it to mean. Reactionary partisan hacks like Sean Hannity, Newt Gingrich, Andrew Napolitano, and Sean Spicer freely adopt the term to refer to allegedly pro-Obama elements within the U.S. government and intelligence apparatus. Hannity takes aim at “the liberal media” and “American intelligence agencies,” the latter of which he claims is dominated by a “deep state swamp of Obama holdover DC lifers” who are “hell-bent on destroying Trump.” Of course, Hannity has raised no concern with an emerging deep state swamp of Trump DC lifers populated by plutocratic billionaires, as the president moves to populate the federal bureaucracy with his preferred political supporters and hacks.

We have also seen the rise of conspiratorial rhetoric on “the left” regarding the ominous “deep state.” I’ll refrain from identifying any specific person by name (fratricide is not an endearing trait), but the depth of conspiracy-mongering “deep state” absurdity has clearly afflicted various leftist critics of the American political system. Over the last year, various leftists framed the “deep state” as a secret shadow government, impervious to any controls or regulation by elected officials. It is said to represent a miniature government within the larger government, and it is so nefariously effective that it ensures the American people have zero political influence over American politics. Forget about social movements or protests. They’re pointless. The secret paper-pushers of the “deep state” have already ensured that representation of the masses is a fiction. Don’t even bother with protest or social action – there’s really nothing you can do to promote progressive political change. Furthermore, forget about efforts to stifle U.S. militarism abroad. The “deep state” shadow government secretly pulls the strings of political officials such as Barack Obama, forcing him to escalate wars in Afghanistan and elsewhere, despite growing anti-war sentiment at home.

It should be clear from anyone who studies American history how absurd these claims are. While those on the left have long known that the U.S. political system is captured by corporate power and wealth, to suggest that social movement activism and opposition to the status quo are bound to fail is a horrifically misinformed position, and is contradicted by history itself. The last century of U.S. political activism demonstrates that large numbers of social movements were able to fundamentally transform American culture and politics, as seen in the women’s rights movement, the struggle for civil rights, the rise of modern environmentalism and the struggle against nuclear power, the successes of organized labor activism, the gay and lesbian rights movement, and numerous other progressive uprisings.

Furthermore, to claim that appointed “deep state” bureaucrats hold all the power in Washington, at the expense of elected officials, is equally outlandish. Lofgren doesn’t even try to make this claim in his book, as he refers to “deep state” operatives in the U.S. bureaucracy as largely “order-takers,” serving those who visibly hold power as elected officials or as heads of “national security-related” federal agencies.

Lofgren is right not to frame elected officials as slaves to faceless bureaucrats, and one can see the silliness of such depictions when looking at recent history. For example, looking at the case of the 2009 escalation of the war in Afghanistan, the troop “surge” (which occurred in phases throughout the year) was explicitly supported by Obama when he ran in the 2008 election. Furthermore, anyone closely paying attention to the news at the time could have recognized that the fight between Obama and General Stanley McChrystal (and other elements of U.S. military leadership) was not over whether to expand the war in Afghanistan, but over how quickly to escalate and drawdown the war, and over how many forces would be committed. In other words, the “fight” was over strategy and logistics, not principle or substance. It should be pointed out, by the way, that Obama won this logistical battle with the generals, announcing a smaller infusion of troops than McChrystal wanted, attached to a date (of 2011) in which a drawdown was supposed to begin. This deadline was opposed by the generals (for the story on the surge, see: Peter Baker, “How Obama Came to Plan for ‘Surge’ in Afghanistan,” New York Times, December 5, 2009).

I don’t mean to marginalize concerns that the U.S. is witnessing a creeping authoritarianism, via the growing strength of our institutionalized military-intelligence state. I agree that this is occurring, and is a serious threat to the country. But depictions of U.S. elected leaders as puppets of the bureaucracy – the latter of which retain all the power in U.S. politics – are outlandish caricatures of how the political system really works. Furthermore, we insult the victims of the fully-fledged dictatorships of the world by depicting Americans as suffering under some sort of comparable military dictatorship (remember the “deep state” terminology was originally developed in reference to Turkey). There is simply no equivalent in the United States to the mass torture and mass killings engaged in by brutal dictatorships of history run by Mubarak in Egypt, Assad in Syria, or Erdogan in Turkey, among others. Certainly the U.S. has its own unique and repressive version of a militarized police system, which has long been used to criminalize and suppress minorities and protesters. But to ignore the obvious differences between the U.S. and dictatorships regarding the presence of basic political freedoms to say what one wishes, and to openly disagree with government, is to engage in a distortion of epic proportions.

As an aside, it is also worth pointing out that the U.S. intelligence community is nowhere near as uniform as “deep state” conspiracies claim. Members of the U.S. “security” state have at times sought to pressure elected officials, with harmful effects on democracy. A few recent examples include the hysteria voiced by agencies like the CIA over Russia’s alleged interference in the U.S. election, and in which Democrats have claimed, without presenting evidence, that Vladimir Putin effectively threw the election in favor of Trump. Another example of wheeling and dealing by the intelligence community is the Afghanistan surge. It seems clear, despite Obama’s pro-surge inclinations, that the attacks from McChrystal and the U.S. military did create additional pressure on the Obama administration to escalate war.

Recognizing that the U.S. intelligence community and military apparatus have power in the political process, however, does not mean that these officials always serve state power or imperial interests. One can look no further than the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, which represented a collective middle finger to the Bush administration from the intelligence community, on the issue of whether Iran was developing nuclear weapons. Members of the intelligence community were clearly angry at the egg left on their faces following the embarrassment that was the 2002 NIE, which sugar-coated the Bush administration’s case for war with Iraq. Subsequent historical accounts documented how the intelligence community, particularly analysts at the CIA, were bullied by high-level members of the Bush administration in the pre-war period to “get behind” the president and the war effort. The 2007 NIE represented a comprehensive effort on the part of the intelligence community to pump the breaks on Bush’s imperial war agenda, and it was effective in defusing the case for war. The push against war with Iran was not an isolated incident, either. It should be clear by taking a longer historical view recognizing the many intelligence analysts willing to question U.S. militarism and imperialism by leaking sensitive and classified information to the press. Whether one is talking about “Deep Throat” (Mark Felt) or Daniel Ellsberg in the Nixon era, or anonymous intelligence analysts feeding critical information to news outlets like Knight Ridder prior to the 2003 Iraq war, or more recent whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, the U.S. intelligence community is not all of one mind about U.S. militarism and empire.

As a scholar, I’ve struggled with the rise of “deep state” rhetoric in public discourse. Despite Lofgren raising legitimate points about the perversion of power in America, it’s not clear to me what additional analytical value comes with simply referring to U.S. intelligence agencies and the military apparatus as a “deep state.” Many intellectuals and scholars over the decades have offered a variety of “elite theory” frameworks that incorporate U.S. militarism and go well beyond simply examining the “security” related aspects of American plutocracy. So it’s unclear what additional insights Lofgren and his supporters are contributing. To provide a brief run-down of previous theoretical frameworks, consider the following:

In the 1950s, the sociologist C. Wright Mills warned of a “power elite” comprised of political, business, and military leaders. The American political system was captured, Mills warned, through a hegemonic system in which affluent Americans were socialized – as part of the upper-class – to embrace elitist political and economic beliefs, which later drove their decisions as they ran for, and took over major positions in government. Whereas Mills provided a way to understand how affluent Americans are socialized to embrace elite views (since they themselves are elites), no focus on the hegemonic powers of education, the mass media, and political propaganda appear in any serious way in Lofgren’s book.

In the late 1960s, political scientist Ted Lowi warned that the U.S. political process was dominated by a system of “clientelism,” in which multiple groups of economic elites – representing different industries and sectors of the economy, exercised control over specific aspects of public policy. Lowi’s description of multiple elites and various “subgovernments” driven by specific business groups was much more nuanced than Lofgren’s single “deep state,” which fails to discuss how various industries outside of Wall Street and military profiteers manipulate public policy.

In the early 1980s, the political scientist Charles Lindblom offered a compelling analysis of American power, in which he likened the capitalist marketplace to a prison. U.S. corporations exercised power over communities, much like Kings do over feudal serfs, by exercising ownership over the means of production in the U.S. economy. They command worker loyalty due to their ability to hire and fire Americans and provide basic benefits such as health care or 401k and pension benefits. But corporations also possess the power to destroy people’s lives via capital flight. Simply by threatening to leave a community and move factories abroad in pursuit of higher profits and weaker environmental regulations, corporations hold citizens hostage, and can destroy entire cities and states, in pursuit of ever-greater profits. The marketplace is a prison, Lindblom warned, because these corporations ultimately control the levers of the U.S. economy, and control the life outcomes of American workers.

Most recently, a cottage industry of empirical studies document precisely how business elites maintain control over public policy, utilizing the military state, Congress, the White House, and state and local government officials to pervert policy in favor of the interests of the wealthy. Notable in these studies are various books, including Daniel Butler’s Representing the Advantaged, Nicholas Carnes’ White Collar Government, Martin Gilens’ Affluence and Influence, Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson’s Winner-Take-All-Politics, Rebecca Thorpe’s The American Warfare State, and Martin Gilens’ and Ben Pages’ article, “Testing Theories of American Politics.” All these works provide far richer, nuanced documentation of how business elites manipulate policy outcomes in favor of the top 1 to 20 percent of American income earners.

To put it simply, elite theory has come a long way over the last half-century, and especially since the 2008 economic crash. Because of the explosion in the last decade of studies of elite power, we know more about the American plutocracy than ever before. Considering this new informational environment, Lofgren’s book provides an interesting reflection on the experiences of one man in Congress over the decades, and it is a welcome addition to the discussion of elitism in government. But it is not clear how much his “deep state” framework tells us about U.S. policy than we already knew.

I’ve refrained from referring to the “deep state,” seeing the term as more of a faddish framework for studying political power. The term’s value in political discourse appears to be dwindling, as various pundits caricature the original points offered by Lofgren. The concept has come to mean whatever people want it to mean, independent of any clear-headed analysis of the political power structure. Cliched references to the “deep state” will grow in coming months and years, but I’d suggest it’s time to start looking for a more coherent, informed analyses than what is being offered by various conspiracy theorists on the left and right.

Anthony DiMaggio is Associate Professor of Political Science at Lehigh University. He is the author of Rising Fascism in America: It Can Happen Here (Routledge, 2022), in addition to Rebellion in America (Routledge, 2020), and Unequal America (Routledge, 2021). He can be reached at: anthonydimaggio612@gmail.com. A digital copy of Rebellion in America can be read for free here.