Vote all you want. The secret government won’t change.

Wednesday, October 29th, 2014

Vote all you want, but the secret government won’t change:

Ideas: Where does the term “double government” come from?

Glennon: It comes from Walter Bagehot’s famous theory, unveiled in the 1860s. Bagehot was the scholar who presided over the birth of the Economist magazine — they still have a column named after him. Bagehot tried to explain in his book “The English Constitution” how the British government worked. He suggested that there are two sets of institutions. There are the “dignified institutions,” the monarchy and the House of Lords, which people erroneously believed ran the government. But he suggested that there was in reality a second set of institutions, which he referred to as the “efficient institutions,” that actually set governmental policy. And those were the House of Commons, the prime minister, and the British cabinet.

Ideas: What evidence exists for saying America has a double government?

Glennon: I was curious why a president such as Barack Obama would embrace the very same national security and counterterrorism policies that he campaigned eloquently against. Why would that president continue those same policies in case after case after case? I initially wrote it based on my own experience and personal knowledge and conversations with dozens of individuals in the military, law enforcement, and intelligence agencies of our government, as well as, of course, officeholders on Capitol Hill and in the courts. And the documented evidence in the book is substantial — there are 800 footnotes in the book.

Ideas: Why would policy makers hand over the national-security keys to unelected officials?

Glennon: It hasn’t been a conscious decision…. Members of Congress are generalists and need to defer to experts within the national security realm, as elsewhere. They are particularly concerned about being caught out on a limb having made a wrong judgment about national security and tend, therefore, to defer to experts, who tend to exaggerate threats. The courts similarly tend to defer to the expertise of the network that defines national security policy.

The presidency itself is not a top-down institution, as many people in the public believe, headed by a president who gives orders and causes the bureaucracy to click its heels and salute. National security policy actually bubbles up from within the bureaucracy. Many of the more controversial policies, from the mining of Nicaragua’s harbors to the NSA surveillance program, originated within the bureaucracy. John Kerry was not exaggerating when he said that some of those programs are “on autopilot.”

Ideas: Isn’t this just another way of saying that big bureaucracies are difficult to change?

Glennon: It’s much more serious than that. These particular bureaucracies don’t set truck widths or determine railroad freight rates. They make nerve-center security decisions that in a democracy can be irreversible, that can close down the marketplace of ideas, and can result in some very dire consequences.


Ideas: This isn’t how we’re taught to think of the American political system.

Glennon: I think the American people are deluded, as Bagehot explained about the British population, that the institutions that provide the public face actually set American national security policy. They believe that when they vote for a president or member of Congress or succeed in bringing a case before the courts, that policy is going to change. Now, there are many counter-examples in which these branches do affect policy, as Bagehot predicted there would be. But the larger picture is still true — policy by and large in the national security realm is made by the concealed institutions.


  1. Toddy Cat says:

    “I was curious why a president such as Barack Obama would embrace the very same national security and counterterrorism policies that he campaigned eloquently against.”

    The idea that Obama was just another corrupt, lying swine of a corporately-owned politician obviously just doesn’t enter this guy’s head.

  2. Alrenous says:

    Um what?

    Why would policy makers hand over the national-security keys to unelected officials?

    Ha! No, it’s entirely on purpose, precisely because they’re elected. You create an office, and give it your power, then hire your buddies. When you inevitably get ousted your buddies hire you, and you get most if not all your power back, only without what ‘oversight’ voting provides.

  3. Candide III says:

    I understand the Cathedral would like nothing better than finally bust Defense and Security, but is it smart to draw attention to how USG really works? Although, as seen in the comments, most readers of Boston Globe (a prime Cathedral newspaper) will not notice the analogies or believe the idea that the rest of the government also works this way, and the rednecks and rubes don’t read it anyway.

  4. Mike says:

    I’ll have to check out Bagehot — lots of his stuff on

  5. Coyote says:

    We redneck rubes read real news too: “shadow government” is a fatuous new euphemism for an eternal truth — the golden rule has always meant “them that has the gold makes the rules”, and more “rubes” have known this throughout history than all the overeducated idiots dreaming of “social justice”, or that fancy words will fend off the collisions ahead. This puppy is going down like the Titanic, and you best already be in a lifeboat, ready with your paddle to fend off the many swimmers who were unprepared. Thanks, Isegoria, for the many links to the interesting “paddles”.

  6. Candide III says:

    Coyote: more harm than good (to them) is apt to come out of any rube action informed by the level of understanding exemplified by the phrase “them that has the gold makes the rules”. It is totally insufficient. The various European ‘right-wing’ movements are prime examples. You get powerless seething and posturing, shadowboxing with century-old ghosts of the great oligarchs and Jews. Can’t even level up to National Socialism, not only because attempts would get squashed faster than they appeared (actually I’m doubtful whether this would be the case, but that’s a different story) but primarily because the intellectual prowess and organizational capital isn’t there anymore.

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