My first day working in Portland City Hall, I became the commissioner’s liaison to one of the largest bureaus in the city, Portland Parks and Recreation. In our curious system, commissioners directly manage bureaus. That meant that I now had a strange new status every time I met with employees from Parks. I didn’t fully understand that status until in an early “get to know you” meeting where I made an offhand comment about one of the many parts of my new assignment I didn’t understand. The next morning in my email, unsolicited, was a long, well written memo that filled the gap on my knowledge. “Oh shit,” I thought, “I really need to think before I speak around those folks.”
During my time in public service, I spent hundreds of hours with city employees from the director to the guy who did garbage pickup on the parks. I quickly realized that, after a career in the private sector, I could understand a huge bureau like it was a small company. Almost everything I knew from before applied. Well, except for one enormous difference, I would always be temporary in the lives of those city workers. Sure enough, at the point where I had really figured out the bureau, I got a new assignment.
We have been hearing a lot about the “deep state.” It is characterized as the evil structure of non-elected bureaucrats whole wield unchecked power thwarting the will of the voter. (Did I get that one right?)
What I discovered is the deep state is actually the reason we have a government at all. Those are the people who get up day after day to maintain all of those things we take for granted: social security checks arriving on time; people on the other end of the line when you dial 911; people who make sure we have water, roads to drive on and parks to play in. The deep state is the glue, at every level of government, that keeps our democracy together.
As an appointee of an elected official, I was just passing through. Many of the folks I worked with had seen 3 … 6 … 10 different elected officials come and go. They had weathered awful politicians who used the bureaucracy to maintain power and stroke ambition. They rejoiced when their new boss actually understood that they mostly existed to serve the public and implement projects that had timelines decades long. The time horizon of a political appointee was no farther than the next election.
Oh sure, the fabled ugly bureaucrat is a real thing. I met them too. The incompetent apparatchik sheltered by public employee union rules is a real thing. During my service we had to get rid of some senior managers who had been in power so long they started to believe they were more important than the public they served. Here’s a secret, when we did take out the dead weight in a bureau, the other people there quietly rejoiced. Just like most of us, the loyal, hardworking souls had no use for the venal or lazy. We were doing them a big favor. Almost daily, I was amazed at the dedication of the people in the deep state and their willingness to put in insanely long hours and sweat the details to serve the public.
This takes me to Trump and his deep state fantasy. The thing about people who chose to do public service is that they have pride in their work, and in the case of federal employees, they are very serious about their oaths to the constitution and protecting the system bequeathed to all of us by our nation’s founders. They too have seen presidents and political appointees come and go. They have experienced committed appointees who haven given up other careers to serve for a time in government. And, as is the case now, they have seen grifters who only showed up to take from government as much as they can on the way out the door.
Trump will never understand that there are people serving government because they believe in our system and to a soul see themselves as custodians of a something special. Trump only serves himself. And, it was inevitable that there would finally be a point where some of those people would rise up, put their lives and careers on the line to protect our government and nation from a man who is more comfortable with dictators than democrats. You can only shit on good people so long before they have had enough.
In the next few days, we are going to finally see testimony about impeachable offenses by the president. Congress is doing what the founders intended when the executive has exceeded its authority or committed illegal acts. Congress is exercising their duty to be a check and balance. Genuine, patriotic servants will be attacked mercilessly by politicians and pundits. Keep in mind when you see these deep state members raise their right hand that they are risking everything to protect our liberal democracy. Those attacking them risk nothing. Oh, they will say privately that they detest Trump but they will not risk their little piece of the power pie to tell the truth.
I fell in love with the deep state because I realized that the real heroes of a functioning democracy are people you will never hear about. They suffer the intents of politicians with a steadfastness that accumulates over years and decades. And … with any luck … it will be those patriots in the deep state who save our teetering democracy.