In Praise of the Deep State

We need more people in politics who not only listen to experts but are more expert at being human beings.

Photo collage by Nora Swearingen. (Airplane detail from “Earth Rabbit,” by Catharine Magel.)

After the deadly winter storm, in how many ways are Texans missing the “deep state” right about now?

Not the bogeyman Deep State that Donald Trump, as president, incessantly complained about and worked to dismantle, but a meaningful deep state of knowledge, expertise, and civil service in government — the deep state exemplified by the likes of Alexander Vindman, Marie Yovanovich, and countless others who have worked anonymously with great dedication in various branches of government. The best and brightest, as described by President John F. Kennedy, as opposed to the sycophants and loyalists demanded by Trump.

After the tragic, largely preventable events in Texas, in which dozens lost their lives and millions of others have suffered from a lack of water and food and from damaged homes due to burst water pipes, it is clear we need a deeper state, and politicians who want to listen to experts rather than ignore or deride them.

How government operates in Texas belies a lack of trust in government — the governor is something of a figurehead, and serving in the legislature is a part-time gig. As the great Texas journalist Molly Ivins put it: “The Texas Legislature consists of 181 people who meet for 140 days every two years. This catastrophe has now occurred 63 times.” Ivins was of course half joking that, given the incompetence and corruption of “The Lege” (as she liked to call it), meeting only every 2 years was likely too frequent. But, joking aside, seeing it takes time to become expert in anything, Texans clearly don’t want their legislators becoming too good at their jobs. They might start seeing a need to regulate things here and there, like maybe the power grid.

In the Atlantic, Adam Serwer writes:

“The crisis in Texas was preceded by more than a decade of Republican control of state government, as politicians focused on culture-war grievances rather than the nuts and bolts of governance. After the near collapse of the power grid exposed its failures, the state’s political leadership attempted to cover for those failures by doubling down on those same grievances.”

Governor Greg Abbott was happy to blame the power outages on solar and wind power and warned that, somehow, the Green New Deal would bring more of the same. Former Governor Rick Perry piped in that Texans think that enduring a few days of blackouts is better than enduring more federal regulation. With these guys, the answer is rote, under any circumstance.

Tim Boyd, mayor of Colorado City, Texas (pop. 4,000), summoned his best helping instincts and helped himself to an angry screed on Facebook about citizens expecting assistance “looking for a damn handout!” In the midst of his tantrum, he turned philosophical and wrote: “Only the strong will survive and the weak will parish [sic]” Apparently, his spellcheck was set to U.S. Evangelical.

Perry was governor in 2011 when similar rolling power blackouts in Texas made it clear that equipment would need to be winterized. As reported by the Texas Tribune and ProPublica:

“As millions of Texans endured days without power and water, experts and news organizations pointed to unheeded warnings in a federal report that examined the 2011 winter storm and offered recommendations for preventing future problems. The report by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation concluded, among other things, that power companies and natural gas producers hadn’t properly readied their facilities for cold weather, including failing to install extra insulation, wind breaks and heaters.”

Are the experts always right? No. Are they always well meaning? Likely not. Are we far better served by them in both the short and the long term? Without a doubt. Experts point the way to a healthier environment, help devise life-saving health care, protect our justice system, gather intelligence critical for national security, and make it possible for consumers to trust the products we buy. Experts allow us to travel safely-even into deep space.

Is an antiquated power grid a problem for Texas alone? No — the infrastructure of the United States is now world famous for being decrepit. The same might be said for one of its political parties.

The word hoax loomed large in a Trump’s limited lexicon as president, but the real hoax was his constant decrying of the Deep State. In his tweets, he would give it weight and substance with those capital letters. What he was really after was freedom to act without the interference of experts of any kind, but especially those in intelligence services and law enforcement.

Why? Well, a criminal fears experts, especially those within government service, the same way a fox fears lights being switched on and a farmer walking out the door. The farmer is a perfect representation of the deep state — he knows everything there is to know about his land and animals and equipment and he must rise before dawn and work long and hard every day and keep a watchful eye on everything within his realm. His very survival is at stake; you could say it’s a national security issue for him.

The Biden Administration has brought those with a great deal of expertise back into public service — Antony Blinken as secretary of state, Dr. Janet Yellen as secretary of the treasury, Lloyd Austin as secretary of defense;, Merrick Garland as attorney general, Linda Thomas-Greenfield as U.S. ambassador to the U.N., and John Kerry in the new role of special presidential envoy for climate. One hopes they have already extended a hand to the likes of Vindman, Yovanovich, and others who stood strong against withering Republican attacks during the first impeachment of Donald Trump. These are the people who should be serving again or receiving medals for service to their country.

It’s worth remarking how deep connotes so many good things in our world — in regards to thought and spirituality and empathy. In baseball a manager hopes to have a deep bench, full of excellent players to swap in as needed. But Republicans, with their instinctive disregard for intelligence and mixing expertise with elites, have managed to twist the sense to something othe — in deep, deep and dark, deeply embedded and other nonsensical QAnon-like conspiratorial connotations.

When Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) decided to slip off to Cancún with his family while the citizens he represents were suffering, and even dying, due to a lack of heat and clean water, one wonders if he was trying to apply the former president’s maneuver of always trumping your own scandalous behavior, just to keep the conversation moving away from the last thing-which for Cruz was his determination to object to the certification of a fair election, which helped lead to the deadly and deeply unpatriotic insurrection at the Capitol.

He is a traitor to his country, but perhaps he wants us to think of him merely as a state-level traitor? One wonders if enough San Franciscans will move to Austin quickly enough to vote him out in 2024.

What would Ivins have had to say about such fellows as Cruz, Boyd, and Perry? Her quip about a U.S. congressman from the Dallas area comes to mind: “If his IQ slips any lower, we’ll have to water him twice a day.” But in the main it is not a question of intelligence for these Republicans; many of these staunch anti-elitists are proud alumni of Ivy League schools. It’s that they are blinded by their ideology and determination to focus on the culture wars rather than govern. As Serwer writes: “Waging the culture war didn’t keep the lights on in Texas, but it might keep ambitious Republican failures in office. If politicians don’t fear being punished for not doing their jobs, they won’t do them.” That doesn’t apply just to Texas, but it does apply almost exclusively to Republicans.

Don’t get me wrong: I’ve always liked Texas. When I was a kid, we used to visit our paternal grandparents in Fort Worth, and like a lot of boys of my era I was a big Dallas Cowboys fan. The best burrito I ever had was from a street vendor in San Antonio — and my wife still adds diced potatoes to hers as a result of my raving about that now mythical burrito. Heck, I’ll go to my grave convinced I won that jalapeno-eating contest in some bar near SMU back in 1977. (That Texan cheated and raised his hand before he swallowed the last one!)

And it is clear that Texas is doing a lot of things right, otherwise so many people and companies would not be relocating there. As was recently reported in the New York Times, Texas has grown by 15% in the last decade.

So, Texans watch as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other Democrats raise funds and come to assist with the hands-on work of mitigating a disaster. A political ploy on the part of AOC? Is she getting back at Cruz for helping instigate the Capitol insurrection that nearly got her killed? Is she trying to help turn Texas blue? Are you a believer in psychological egoism, that everything, even good deeds, is done in self-interest, as a way to increase pleasure? Well, I’d take that any day over a self-interested Ted Cruz slipping off to a Mexican resort during a crisis at home or a Donald Trump spending far more time and energy on his golf game than on a pandemic taking hundreds of thousands of lives in the country he ostensibly was leading. As AOC tweeted after $5 million was raised for Texans: “Charity can’t replace policy, but solidarity is how we’ll face climate change and build a better world.”

Speaking of the deep state, NASA is an independent agency of that “conspiracy” that successfully landed the Perseverance Rover on Mars, and the thing is not only chock full of incredible equipment (wittily named SHERLOC, an ultraviolet spectrometer, and its apparently slightly bumbling but good-natured camera, WATSON), but it also includes a helicopter, the Ingenuity. And remember that this particular part of the dreaded deep state sent probes toward the deepest of space back when Jimmy Carter was president — the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 space probes are more than 43 years into their journeys, in interstellar space, now some 14 billion miles from Earth.

Maybe there is a kind of expertise that we should apply to all politicians: levels of expertise in being a human being. An expertise in humanity that speaks to thoughtfulness and empathy, rather than to personal gain, aggrandizement, and winning the next election.

There is an old saying (often erroneously attributed to Churchill) that conservatives love, the one that says if you are not liberal when young, you do not have a heart, but if you are not conservative when older, you don’t have a brain. The truth, of course, is that if one comes to any knowledge as one ages, the main lesson is how little one knows or even can know; time is limited and the body of knowledge vast. To the conservative’s reactionary mind, curiosity seems antithetical. When your mind dwells in the past, there is no call for learning new things. Intellectual laziness is to be expected if you don’t like the present and cannot envision a future for others.

But the world and life are complex, and good leaders generally defer to people who are experts in their fields: the deep state, as it were, of things.

The smug conservative saying would be more accurate as: “If you are not liberal when young, you have no heart (and may be a sociopath-get that checked out pronto); if you are not conservative when older, congratulations — you appear to have maintained, from childhood, an abiding curiosity about the world. It will no doubt serve you, and others, well.”

Okay, it’s not so simple or easy to remember. But no matter what any politician tries to tell you about “common sense” and the like — simple is simply not the way of the world.

Originally published at https://kirkswearingen.substack.com.

Kirk Swearingen is an independent journalist living in St. Louis. His work has most recently appeared on Salon.