The tensions that have arisen of late between populism and elites pose grave risks for the United States and, I believe, for western democracies generally. These tensions extend far beyond their more obvious manifestations in international trade, immigration, and race relations. One critically important area in which they arise is the realm of national security. It may provide a measure of insight to view those tensions through the prism of an "imagined order."
A myth system provides social stability.
The idea of an imagined order was developed most recently by the historian Yuval Harari in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (New York: Harper Collins, 2015). In it, Harari describes how myth systems provide stability. They establish an "imagined order" that structures social relationships only because large numbers of people believe in those myths. Taxes, and armies, are raised, and wars are fought, for the Motherland--or Fatherland--because of the widespread, underlying belief in a myth system. The famous Code of Hammurabi established order in ancient Mesopotamia not because it was uniquely brilliant or logical or even fair but because it was popularly seen as reflecting universal and eternal principles of justice. Social order rested on these myths, not on the Law Code per se. An effective, underlying imagined order, Harari writes, makes large-scale cooperation possible.
The National Security State myth.
Myth sustained by all branches of government.
Harari's book caught my attention because in the previous year I had published my own book, on a narrower topic, that was also very much concerned about myth systems in the public sphere. It was called National Security and Double Government. In it, I argued that a convincing myth system prevailed in the United States in national security decision-making. That myth system was effective because it concealed a bifurcated system of government that the United States had drifted into in the realm of national security. The three front pieces of that system were the presidency, Congress, and the courts. I refer to these as the nation's "Madisonian institutions." The American people believed that national security was defined by those institutions, whereas in reality most of the decisions were in fact made by the nation's most powerful elite--a largely concealed managerial directorate, consisting of the several hundred leaders of the military, law enforcement, and intelligence departments and agencies of our government. Those managers, I suggested, operated at an increasing remove from constitutional limits and restraints, moving the nation slowly toward autocracy.
That is my first point: it was an effective myth system that allowed the national security state to operate smoothly in the United States. This was not a "noble lie" on anyone's part; it wasn't a lie at all, let alone some grand, "deep state" conspiracy. The dualist structure stemmed from simple bureaucratic inertia and familiar patterns of organizational behavior. Those patterns were amplified, however, by a set of incentives that have been deeply embedded in the process of national-security decision-making as it evolved since the Truman administration. Through decades of external threats that were both real and inflated, the courts, the Congress, and even the President had every incentive to defer to the expertise and experience of the security state's managers because no judge, senator, or president wanted to risk responsibility for a devastating national security mistake.
The courts, for their part, developed an elaborate jurisprudence of deference. They dismissed case after case without ever reaching the merits, on grounds of ripeness, mootness, the state secrets doctrine, the political question doctrine, or lack of standing. Vast realms of the Constitution thus were unenforced by the courts. The principal restraint on the war power, for example, came to be the military and intelligence agencies' own judgment of the scope of their authority.
Congressional oversight, meanwhile, became, in the word of the 9-11 Commission, "dysfunctional" (1)--more hindsight than oversight. Congress knew little and cared less about a vast array of activities ranging from black site prisons and torture to the tapping of allied leaders' cell phone conversations and mass surveillance. Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) described the process by which Gina Haspel was confirmed to head the CIA, a process in which Haspel herself decided what information the Senate Intelligence Committee was permitted to see about her. Wyden said it was "an insult to the public and an abdication of [the Senate's] constitutional responsibilities... a stark failure of Senate oversight." (2)
Myth systems that do not adequately reflect reality collapse.
The President, also, had every incentive to defer to the security managers' judgment, with the result that even a President who campaigned on "change we can believe in" ended up continuing the earlier administration's policies on drone strikes, troop deployments, mass surveillance, covert action, whistleblower prosecutions, claims of state secrets, and numerous other matters. The result was virtually unfettered delegation. "The CIA gets what it wants,"...