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Infiltrating and Co-Opting the Deep State For the Common Good

Right now, conservatives are playing a losing game against an entrenched liberal aristocracy. Time to fight on their turf.

Conservative political strategy, because it is conservative, tends to be constrained within a set of procedures and possibilities narrowly defined by the limits of the written Constitution. Those possibilities can be summarized in two words: electoral democracy. All three branches of American government depend on elections—the executive and legislative branches directly, the judiciary indirectly (insofar as judges are appointed by the president). Consequently, conscious participation in politics is limited to getting enough votes and hoping that one’s chosen candidates will implement the right policies. 

It is understandable, of course, that conservatives do not tend to extend their political engagement beyond these procedures, which appear to be the “tried and true” methods of doing politics in America. After all, conservatives are interested in conserving. In particular, they are interested in conserving the venerable American Constitution, its rule of law, its procedural norms, and so on. To engage in politics outside these boundaries would be to risk transgressing the limits of traditional American-style politics. 

Unfortunately, this means that conservatives are structurally inclined to lack imagination on matters of strategy and the effective use of power. That word, power, is not a comfortable one for conservatives, who prefer to speak of limited government and the sovereignty of the people—that is the whole point of Constitutional limits and procedures. Nonetheless, if they wish to have a truly permanent and lasting influence—even a conserving influence—on American politics, they ought to consider what are the actual levers of power by which American politics is regulated, even beyond the written limitations of the Constitution. 

Where are the levers of power where the concrete regulation of society takes place? If we ask this question, we will discover that the institutions which control our nation, in the most concrete sense, are in no way limited to the three branches of government described in the Constitution. The written Constitution itself often serves rather infelicitously as no more than a shield, a disguise, concealing what is our actual unwritten constitution.

The institutions that actually control American politics are manifold: financial corporations, banks, news media companies, social media companies, big tech companies, culture industry companies, universities and public schools, etc. To this list, one can add: the administrative state, officially a part of the government, yet not visibly accounted for by the written Constitution. One can also add law enforcement agencies, the military, and other such permanent institutions. All of these institutions are “locations of power,” where the actual and concrete regulation of society takes place, beneath the visible layer of politics that occurs within the official three branches of government. 

Moreover, it is worth noting that the majority of these institutions are controlled by a single liberal elite: an aristocracy with a significant degree of coordination and organizational power, despite its “unofficial” status. Some might call it the “deep state.” There is no “free market” or “marketplace of ideas”: the public square is quite thoroughly penetrated by the influence of this liberal aristocracy.

The amount of power these institutions wield over American society in all its aspects cannot be overstated: even the inner thoughts, the opinions and ideologies of the American people, are subject to the control (or manipulation?) of these powerful institutions. News media and social media are powerful tools of ideological formation and manipulation, where propaganda maintains a ubiquitous presence and an irresistible hold over the minds of thousands. The universities, likewise, are powerful “ideology factories,” where political agendas are enforced and promulgated with remarkable effect.

Financial institutions, moreover, exert a degree of influence over American society that is almost impossible to imagine. Populist conservatives have become increasingly aware that the material conditions of working- and middle-class Americans are characterized by extreme insecurity based on the decisions made in the higher echelons of the financial elite. It was decisions made at this level of society that gutted America’s industrial capacity and outsourced much of it to nations like China, all in order to cut costs and boost profits, thereby creating a lack of meaningful and sustainable employment for Americans. Such decisions continue today to boost profits for the shareholder class without investing in the lives of working men and women, thereby prolonging and continuing their immiseration.

What appears to be a mere economic choice has had consequences far beyond economics—one might call them moral or even political consequences: the decay of family life, the decline in fertility, drug abuse and suicide, the decline of popular trust in the nation’s leaders, etc. It is impossible to look at these effects and ignore the plain truth that the financial institutions which preside over the American economy are political institutions, not mere “private sector” companies.

Indeed, perhaps this is the central lesson that needs to be learned in order to reorient conservative strategy: the public-private distinction, at least in the American neoliberal order, is a fiction designed to detract attention away from the real levers of political power. The fact that huge, often multinational, corporations that control the lives of millions of people are described as “private” is one of the biggest jokes of American capitalism. When the old libertarian right defends the private sector against the encroachments of “big government,” it is in fact defending the actual political powers (a very big government) that govern this country. 

Aristocracy is the name of one of the three classical forms of constitution delineated by many political philosophers. Regardless of whether the aristocratic regime-form is written in a formal Constitution, it describes the actual constitution of American government. We should not be deceived by the multiplicity of “private” institutions listed above: they are effectively united and controlled by a single and fairly well-coordinated aristocracy. A helpful comparison might be made with China (notwithstanding important differences, of course): the Chinese Communist Party is a single elite, an aristocracy, who control practically everything in Chinese society, through a multitude of state-owned or at least state-directed institutions, including economic institutions. 

What does this mean for an effective political strategy? In a way, conservatives already know everything that has been said above: they know all about the pervasive influence of the so-called “deep state.” What is puzzling is that they have often responded with outworn libertarian rhetoric that is politically powerless. Such rhetoric merely attempts to persuade the entrenched powers of the liberal aristocracy that limited government is better, private corporations should not be politicized, and free speech rights should be respected, etc.—all while conservatives themselves confine their own techniques of engagement to established written procedures that do little or nothing to challenge aristocratic power. This is a textbook example of a losing game. The libertarian approach can no longer work: to operate strictly within the limits of the Constitution only cedes the battleground to the institutions and the elite who really wield political power in this country. 

An effective strategy must therefore consider operating outside the visible norms and procedures of the Constitution—either by changing and expanding those norms, or more immediately by occupying the actual institutions (finance, media, academia, etc.) in a coordinated and organized effort to change the dynamics of power. Since the institutions are controlled by a single and unified elite, an opposing strategy must meet them with an equal and opposite force, aimed at occupying the same institutions or building alternative institutions of equal or greater influence. The goal should not be to limit the “deep state” by appealing to Constitutional procedures so much as to infiltrate the deep state and co-opt it for truly conservative ends. The liberal aristocracy must be confronted on the turf which they occupy.

In summary, the only viable approach to politics is one that adopts a forthright vision of the common good, as well as what is contrary to that common good and should therefore be excluded from society. A viable political strategy is therefore one which seeks to implement this vision of the common good by any means consonant with sound ethics and morality. Such an approach must take account of the actual, concrete structures of power in a given regime, with a view to co-opting them for its own purposes. It is counter-productive to confine political activity to the limitations of Constitutional procedures—not because those procedures are totally useless, but because they simply do not encompass the totality of governing structures that actually influence the workings of society. To truly govern for the common good, it is necessary to occupy positions of actual power in the institutions that regulate national activity at the concrete level.

Jonathan Culbreath (@maestrojmc) is a high-school teacher and expecting father who lives with his wife in Southern California. He is an assistant editor at The Josias, an online manual of Catholic Social Teaching.

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