In this era of partisan divide, there’s one thing Americans agree on across the board: they think that ” a “deep state” of bureaucrats are controlling the nation regardless of who occupies the White House. A poll released late last week from New Jersey’s Monmouth University revealed “a large bipartisan majority who feel that national policy is being manipulated or directed by a ‘Deep State’ of unelected government officials.”

There’s been a lot of talk about the so-called deep state since President Trump took office in January 2017. I wrote about the idea last summer.  Then, as now, I think the issue is more mundane than people think.

defining the deep state in America

The concept of a deep state has its roots in the authoritarian, opaque government of Turkey. But in 2014, former congressional aide Mike Lofgren introduced the term into the American political lexicon when he published his essay, “Anatomy of the Deep State” (and in 2016, a book, The Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government).

Lofgren defined the deep state as “a hybrid association of elements of government and parts of top-level finance and industry that is effectively able to govern the United States without reference to the consent of the governed as expressed through the formal political process.”

That’s a spy-novel level of conspiracy. Do people really buy it?

When asked directly, most people cannot define the deep state. Almost two-thirds of the respondents in the Monmouth poll said they weren’t familiar with the term, while only 13 percent were very familiar with it. When the pollsters said the term meant “a group of unelected government and military officials who secretly manipulate or direct national policy,” 74 percent of the respondents said they believed such a structure definitely or probably exists.

The belief in the existence of the deep state was evenly distributed across Republican, Independent, and Democrat respondents, although Republicans were more likely to say the deep state definitely exists rather than probably exists.

But are they right?

Insubordination vs. inertia

Based on some events early in the Trump administration there are clearly federal employees who disagree with his agenda and want to stop it. But the idea that these civil servants constitute a cabal that runs the government from the shadows is pretty hard to swallow. If you ever wondered why real change is so hard, look at two things: regulations, and bureaucratic inertia.

The heart of the real deep state is the mountains of regulations created by the bureaucracy over the decades, and the rigid way the career bureaucrats enforce them. Every political appointee has arrived in office with grand plans for “transforming” the way their office does business. Within the first month on the job, they quickly learn that there are innumerable regulations, authorized by statute, that prevent them from doing what they want to do. Changing regulations once they’re in place isn’t easy.

These appointees also learn that the unofficial motto of the federal bureaucracy is “I fear change.”

Change is hard. Doing things “the way we’ve always done them” is the easy, and safe, course of action. Sometimes this attitude runs headlong into the president’s desire to change the way the system works.

President Trump wants to “drain the swamp.” But the swamp is full of alligators. And alligators are the perfect analogy for the federal bureaucracy. If you’ve ever spent any time in Florida, you’ll know that alligators are fairly sedentary. They spend most of their time sunning themselves on rocks at the water’s edge, occasionally taking a break for lunch. But they pack a mean bite.

Hold the angry tweets. I’m not saying that federal workers literally sun themselves all day. But they do, for the most part, favor the path of least resistance. And as a contractor, I have personally witnessed the “bureaucratic filibuster,” the purposeful slow-rolling of an initiative in an attempt to delay until leadership changes, often successfully.

So, yes, America. There is a a group of unelected government and military officials who secretly manipulate or direct national policy. But the only agenda they’re directing is the bureaucratic status quo.

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Tom McCuin is a strategic communication consultant and retired Army Reserve Civil Affairs and Public Affairs officer whose career includes serving with the Malaysian Battle Group in Bosnia, two tours in Afghanistan, and three years in the Office of the Chief of Public Affairs in the Pentagon. When he’s not devouring political news, he enjoys sailboat racing and umpiring Little League games (except the ones his son plays in) in Alexandria, Va. Follow him on Twitter at @tommccuin