Don’t Fear the Deep State. It’s the Shallow State That Will Destroy Us.

Populists like to blame elites, but from Israel to Britain to the United States their crusade against hardworking civil servants is undermining the foundations of democracy.

Then-British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May, and U.S. President Donald Trump arrive for a working dinner meeting at the NATO summit in Brussels, on May 25, 2017.
Then-British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May, and U.S. President Donald Trump arrive for a working dinner meeting at the NATO summit in Brussels, on May 25, 2017. (MATT DUNHAM/AFP/Getty Images)

“Indeed it has been said,” Winston Churchill told the House of Commons in November 1947, “that democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Churchill might not have paid democracy such high praise in today’s climate.

A wave of populism has swept over many quarters of the world. Disenfranchised publics, on both the right and left, who believe that they’ve been handed a rotten deal are asserting influence. Those who’ve missed out on the benefits of globalization seek to improve their economic prospects. Others are motivated to replace prevailing social norms with ones that better reflect their personal value systems. Their common enemy—to be blamed when high expectations are disappointed—is the reviled “deep state,” that amorphous cadre of public servants and gatekeepers who execute the nation’s business.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the United Kingdom, where Prime Minister Theresa May is contending with the fallout from Parliament’s rejection of her Brexit proposal. Taking to the airwaves just before the fateful Jan. 15 vote, which Her Majesty’s Government lost by a 432 to 202 majority, former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson predicted a public backlash if Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union were to be impeded. “I think that people will feel betrayed,” Johnson warned ominously, “and I think they will feel there’s been a great conspiracy by the deep state of the U.K., the people who really run the country, to overturn the vote in the referendum.”

With London poised to slam the door on Europe this March, Johnson and his fellow Brexiteers seem to be winning their battle. But facing an uncertain future—with continental tourism to the U.K. in a slump, wealthy industrialists jumping ship, and Britain’s leadership in disarray once again—they could lose the greater war. Legitimate as their grievances may be, the world would be wise to heed a different warning: Beware the untethered “shallow state.”

Homo politicus is a unique breed, acutely conscious of its mortality. From the moment they enter the ring, politicians are programmed to wield their mandates—real or perceived—in a race to deliver on their promises before the clock expires. That’s a good thing, of course, because the public deserves attentive representation that follows through on its commitments.

But this condition can have dangerous side effects. Already predisposed toward haste, elected officials fancy themselves as agents of change, raring to shake up the status quo. Their desire to have an impact and distinguish themselves from the crowded field—a prerequisite to winning re-election—will not be served, after all, if they emerge as champions of inertia. This imperative leads them to favor schematic overhauls and discount institutional memory.

These features can be a powerful force for good. U.S. President Harry S. Truman initiated the Marshall Plan in 1947 to assist in postwar European reconstruction. His successor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, shepherded the formation of the U.S. interstate highway network. But democracy can find itself in great peril when the spirit of revolution is married with the spell of populism. Powered by an urge to break indiscriminately with everything that smacks of elitism, the anti-establishment vanguard poses a threat to the welfare of the very people it presumes to elevate.

It’s been a turbulent two years since Donald Trump moved into the White House. Trump has made mincemeat of conventional wisdom, which he considers the tainted invention of sinister bureaucrats who dream of obstructing his agenda. On the international stage, one of Trump’s unprecedented “innovations” has been his ambivalence toward traditional U.S. alliances, many of which have been targets of his signature insults. He’s branded the EU “a foe” and waffled conspicuously in the wake of reports that he might even withdraw the United States from NATO, which he’s famously referred to as “obsolete.” His “ultimate” plan for the Middle East—a virtual nonstarter given the current impasse between Israel and the Palestinians—is more likely to destroy what modest cooperation still exists there.

Trump’s approach has been distinctively abrasive, but his skepticism, truth be told, is by no means original. As much as he clearly despises his immediate predecessor, Trump—with his ambition to “drain the swamp” in Washington—comes as the perfect sequel to the Obama administration and its profound disdain for the foreign-policy specialists of “the Blob.”

The elected classes are generally wary to embrace inherited employees of unknown or hostile provenance. And it’s not difficult to sympathize with their preference for hires who come on board without allegiance to any previous masters. But when those voted into office neuter the professional civil service, they are undermining one of the most critical assets to their success.

The United States is a partner to alliances like NATO because they contribute to the security and prosperity of Americans. It engages in diplomatic forums like the United Nations for the purpose of injecting American values into the discourse and shaping reality in their image. These are not, contrary to what Trump seems to think, simply altruistic endeavors where Washington spends good money without receiving worthy quid pro quo. They are, ironically, the truest definition of “America First”—and brought to you directly by the women and men charged to maintain these arrangements on behalf of the American people, aka the deep state. (A stream of now former cabinet secretaries and senior aides have already given up on explaining this to an impulsive Trump.)

Israel, which goes to the polls on April 9, is another theater where this self-destructive narrative of a bureaucratic coup is prevalent. Some have classified the upcoming vote as a “Seinfeld election”—a ballot about nothing in particular—but they are wrong. The event is being cast as a stand-in referendum on incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s fitness to hold power and, with even longer-term implications, on the role of venerated institutions of the Israeli state.

A cloud hangs over Netanyahu, who faces pending indictment on multiple counts of bribery and breach of trust. His response has been a frontal assault on Israel’s policemedia, and attorney general, pillars of Israel’s democracy whose legitimacy Netanyahu and his allies are now campaigning resolutely to crush. The prime minister’s showdown with law enforcement is sucking up all the air in the room.

Israel’s security predicament has worsened since the United States announced its intent to withdraw from Syria, but one can scarcely tell from the campaign banter. Profound ideological differences have taken a back seat this time around to issues of propriety, (fake) truth, and civility. Netanyahu’s own Likud party has purchased billboard space along the highway to display a photo montage of four prominent journalists with the caption “they won’t decide, you’ll decide,” implying that the media is determined to subvert the public’s will. There’s been a welcome infusion of new talent into the political arena, but animated discussion of possible mergers and acquisitions has focused almost exclusively on the question of whether the proverbial deep state—first and foremost, the judiciary and the commentariat—is exercising its proper function or rather, attempting to overthrow a sitting government.

This situation is not in Israel’s long-term national interest. Netanyahu’s scorched-earth strategy—just like Trump’s—may improve his chances at retaining control, but it chips away at the supporting infrastructure of the democratic state, weakening its integrity. (Israel’s governance framework already tends to give politics an outsized voice in the policy process.) And it exposes the inherent shortsightedness of populism. When populists dissolve the foundations of civil society, they erode the very same defenses that they will yet call upon to protect them from abuses of power in the future.

There is no “deep state” cohort of subversives conspiring to wrest authority from the people’s anointed proxies. What there is, thankfully, is a dedicated group of patriots who have made public service their vocation and who have pledged their capabilities and expertise to ensure stable continuity of government. Their efforts don’t confound the work of duly elected policymakers. They facilitate it.

Nobody appreciated this symbiosis between the political and professional echelons better than Churchill. “Reckless Ministers,” he wrote of the indispensable task performed by Britain’s civil servants, “are protected against themselves, violent Ministers are tamed, timid Ministers are supported and nursed.”

Trump got it backward when he insisted recently that “the buck stops with everybody.” It stops with commanders in chief, who act cowardly when they blame subordinates for their own shortcomings. Members of the shallow state would be wise to seize upon the combined potential of phantom deep staters to provide judicious leadership. Otherwise, democracy will find itself adrift in deep water.

Shalom Lipner is a nonresident senior fellow of the Middle East program at the Atlantic Council. From 1990 to 2016, he served seven consecutive Israeli premiers at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem. Twitter: @ShalomLipner