I know I’ve said this before, but you can get a pretty decent overview of how government works by watching the BBC sitcom Yes, Minister. The series is premised on the conflict between the naïve, attention-seeking British Cabinet minister James Hacker and the cynical, experienced civil servant Sir Humphrey Appleby. Most episodes follow this formula:
- Hacker comes up with some well-meaning but often-ill-considered policy reform to fix a problem.
- Sir Humphrey uses cunning, bureaucratic jargon, and his connections in the Civil Service to prevent any changes being made to government policy.
- Sir Humphrey explains to Hacker why things are better off staying as they are.
Because it was a sitcom, Hacker sometimes wins—usually by using Sir Humphrey’s own tactics against him. But the basic dynamic is what’s key here: the approval-seeking politician who wants to change everything vs. the entrenched bureaucracy that wants to keep things as they are until they can retire and collect a pension.
The thing is, it’s possible to cast either side’s motivations as good or bad: the politicians could be called heroes trying to do the work of the people, or attention-craving narcissists trying to get famous. The bureaucrats could be called lazy do-nothings stubbornly resisting change, or intelligent and competent administrators unwilling to bow to the fashions of the moment.
This is the same dynamic that’s at work when you hear people talk about the “Deep State”. It gets dismissed as a conspiracy theory, but that’s largely because of the terminology: “Deep State” sounds a lot more sinister and intimidating than the more accurate label, “the permanent bureaucracy”. The former makes you think of shadowy figures in Deus Ex-style Illuminati conference rooms holding secret meetings. The latter evokes some balding pencil-pushers.
We citizens tend to think of “government” as the politicians we elect every couple of years. But they are only the tip of the iceberg—the real government consists of people working in various agencies to carry out policy. These people are, for the most part, not politicians at all, but simply technicians trying to keep the machine of bureaucracy running. And they don’t run for office.
Technically, these people work for the politicians. But that’s only in a nominal sense—in practice, someone who has decades of experience working at a Federal agency knows a lot more about the nitty-gritty details of governance than a newly-elected politician.
Canny politicians know how to work the system to their advantage. For example, in the book Angler, Barton Gellman describes how then-Vice-President Dick Cheney contacted a relatively low-ranking official in the Department of the Interior in order to implement a change to government environmental policy.
Cheney had worked in government since 1969, and had a thorough knowledge of who did what, and which strings to pull in order to advance his agenda. Love him or hate him, he was an excellent example of someone who thoroughly understood the bureaucracy.
But most politicians aren’t like Cheney. For one thing, he started out as a congressman from uncompetitive and tiny Wyoming, and didn’t have to spend a lot of time campaigning. Other politicians don’t have that luxury. They rely on other people to handle the bureaucracy for them. Besides, many of the politicians are in it because they love crowds and applause and power and prestige. The bit where you iron out the policy details is boring.
This creates a disconnect: the people nominally in charge of governing are on a track that’s entirely separate from those who actually handle the day-to-day business of implementing government policies. So it’s true: there are people in government who ignore what the elected officials say, and keep doing what they’ve been doing. Whether you think these people are heroes or villains depends largely on your opinion of the government’s overall performance over the long-term—say, the last half-decade.