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The deep state and its varying contexts

In the US, the deep state refers to a group of bureaucrats and corporate elite that perpetuates its grip over the power structure at the cost of the citizens.

The deep state and its varying contexts

Potent: Trump’s statements against the deep state have a resonance in some parts of the US. Reuters



Luv Puri

Journalist And Author

DURING his past and present campaign rallies, former US President Donald Trump has been persistent in his acerbic attack on the deep state, a term loosely used by right-wing politicians and commentators to refer to a group of federal government bureaucrats, along with coastal corporate elite, that perpetuates its grip over the power structure at the cost of ordinary citizens. Outside the US, the term is being repeatedly invoked and described as the ‘invisible hand’ over the polity that goes against the mandate of a popularly elected government in developing countries.

Trump’s statements against the deep state have a particular resonance in some parts of the US, particularly the ‘red’ states. There is a feeling that the so-called cabal of bureaucrats and the financial elite is hurting the political and economic interests of the country. While political polarisation within the US society has been widely dissected with the help of statistics by political scientists, there is a need to closely examine the context of the term in the US and other countries.

In the case of developing countries, the term is mainly employed wherever the military and its various instruments have a historical and contemporary importance. Myanmar, Pakistan, Egypt and Turkey are some examples as the military establishment in each enjoys unbridled powers and this is a consequence of colonial legacy and Cold War dynamics. The US considered the military in Egypt and Turkey as an instrument to check the religious right which could sway the majority, thus impacting US interests in the region. In each of these countries, the military had its red lines; it intervened whenever the popular government breached those lines. In Egypt and Turkey, the military often checked the majoritarian impulses of the ruling elite; in both cases, the military was close to the US. The exception is Turkish President Erdogan, who has been able to tame the military to a large extent and thwart coup attempts by military officials. However, this doesn’t take away the argument that the military remains a potent source of power in Turkey.

In Pakistan and Myanmar, the deep state is referred to as the military establishment which has direct stakes in the political economy. The US and China have historically preferred to engage with the military establishment in Pakistan and Myanmar, respectively, and it is one of the key reasons for the weak governance in both nations. Without accounting for the role of the military, one doesn’t fully understand the polity in these countries.

Some observers have used the term ‘deep state’ in the Indian context. In practice, the last nine years of institutional control of the Modi government prove that the use of any such term doesn’t befit India. Some may argue that there is a need for more independent institutions to ensure that checks and balances are in place, which would ensure greater accountability of the political elite.

Coming back to the US, the use of the term to refer to the power of the federal bureaucrats as well as corporate structures should be understood from the perspective of an ongoing internal transformation. Most of the federal bureaucratic elite, including state department officials and other agencies, are increasingly coming from varied backgrounds, though there is often criticism that the vast proportion still comes from the White majority. Trump’s dog-whistle politics is taking place in the backdrop of the fact that the majority of the country is fast inclining towards a progressive strand of politics. The reorientation of race and gender relations is at the centre of this intense contestation. Biracial partnerships and marriages continue to be on the rise. In broad strokes, African-Americans, Hispanics, biracial and Asian communities now constitute 40 per cent of the US population. William H Frey, a senior fellow with the Metropolitan Policy Program at Washington DC-based think tank Brookings, says, “New data shows that by 2019, the White population share declined nearly nine more percentage points, to 60.1 per cent.” Hispanics made up 18 per cent of the US population in 2019, up from 16 per cent in 2010 and 5 per cent in 1970.

In the past, even in the liberal bastions of the US, a deep-seated anxiety has pervaded about the growing challenge of minority influx and its impact on the overall cultural landscape. Emphasising the Anglo-Protestant roots and their impact on shaping the core identity of the US, a political scientist at Yale University, the late Prof Samuel P Huntington, in his book Who Are We?, had pointed out the challenges of Hispanic migration to the US’s core identity and values. He stated that mass migration to the southwest of the country would erode the national identity due to bilingualism, multiculturalism, devaluation of citizenship and denationalisation of the American elite.

However, such anxieties have done little to prevent the gravitation of the youth from all races towards progressive ideals in contrast to polarisation manifesting within the middle-aged and senior citizen cohort. The progressive ideals, more or less, reflect agreement over the continuing need for an improvement in gender and race relations.

Addressing institutionalised discrimination against African-Americans in the past continues to be at the centre of this debate. At the same time, there is cynicism among the youth about corporate power and inequities of the system that allow a small group of finance professionals — private equity, hedge fund and banking professionals — to take away disproportionate profits and wages. So, the homogenous use of the term ‘deep state’ by the right wing doesn’t explain the complex and structural changes taking place within the US, but it does advance the interrogation of less-discussed aspects of the power structure, even for the progressives.

In order to undertand the import of ‘deep state’ in the context of developing countries, one needs to pay attention to the variance from its use in the US. However, as in the US, it is important to scrutinise the structural and institutional impediments that impact the political and economic health of these populous societies.

#Donald Trump


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