Every time we approach an election, tempers flare, marriages fray, friendships are strained, lunch groups shrivel up. To what end? Does any of it make any difference at all to the way the country, or the province or even the village is run? Are we just sending a bunch of birds to perch on top of an elephant for the next four years and listen to them argue over who’s driving that elephant? What does one measly vote mean to the intransigent forces of the Deep State?
Today, the Deep State is as a term to mean political partisanship within the bureaucracy. That’s not what it means to me but I have always known there was a Deep State, a slow-moving beast uninspired by the profit motive or any desire to want to do a better job. To the Deep State, nothing was ever broken, so nothing needed fixing.
Mike Lofgren, a long-time Republican aide in Washington, was the first public figure to use the term Deep State on this continent. (The term was actually coined in Turkey during the 1990s, where the military was accused of colluding with drug traffickers and hit men to wage a dirty war against Kurdish insurgents.) Lofgren was referring to a web of entrenched interests in the U.S. government and beyond, that dictate America’s defense decisions, trade policies and spending priorities with little regard for the interests of the American people. In his book of the same name, he painted a dismal picture of the swamp on the Potomac and the revolution he thought it would take to set government back on course.
I worked as a ministerial aide during the 1970s in the Bill Davis government at Queen’s Park. That era is now remembered fondly as a time of healthy consensus building and very mild partisan sparring. But I distinctly remember how difficult and dangerous it was to question the prevailing wisdom of the day. There was a group of policy makers around the premier, some of them elected, some of them appointed and some of them with no connection to government whatsoever. Together they were what George W. Bush would come to call “the deciders.” We called them the Wise Men, for this was the term used to describe Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s inner circle of mandarins in Ottawa. They were virtually all men and they could easily pass today for members of a Deep State.
One of the smartest people I ever knew was the former president of Eaton’s, Robert Butler, who Davis brought in from outside to help make government run more like a business. His buzzword phrase was “management by objectives” and he set up committees in every ministry to get the program going. A lot of us thought this notion was patently ridiculous but we didn’t say anything because it would have been the end of our careers.
Bob met stubborn, quiet and very effective resistance from the civil service. He finally went across Queen’s Park Circle to the legislative building to recruit political support and found none to speak of. I remember him flopping down on the couch in my office at the end of that very frustrating day. He practically shouted at me, “Why won’t these people give me any support?”
I was very young and naïve and thought the truth might help. I said, “None of them answer to the profit motive the way you do. Votes are to them what money is to you. And there isn’t a single vote in what you are trying to do. There just isn’t.”
He didn’t like that answer one little bit. He got up and walked away and never really spoke to me again. He left government shortly after that and returned to corporate life. His management by objectives sank without a trace.
That to me sums up the force we call the Deep State. It has nothing to do with Year Zero, Vault 7, CIA hacking and other fruitcake conspiracy theories. It is simply the age-old fact of institutional inertia, the tendency of a body once in motion to keep itself in motion.
As Upton Sinclair wrote nearly a century ago, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”
Alas, I have no useful solutions or hope to offer. I have handed off the whole problem to my children. It is now up to them to determine whether a civil society will be allowed to endure. I hope they do better than we did.
Dan Needles is a writer and the author of the Wingfield Farm stage plays. He lives on a small farm near Collingwood, Ont. His website is www.danneedles.ca.