Democracy’s Dark Side

This week, the third in a series on our democracy in 2016, we’re discussing what you can’t change with a vote — at least for now.

Change is the electoral mood for now, with Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump’s victories in New Hampshire in the news. But change was the watchword of Barack Obama, too. What is an uneasy electorate asking for seven years later, and why aren’t they getting it?

Michael Glennon has a theory. He’s a former Senate lawyer who today teaches at Tufts’ Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. In his book, National Security and Double Government, Glennon wants to explain the durability of national habits like the drone war, crackdowns on journalists, widespread surveillance, and secrecy by getting voters to see our government as split in two.


There’s the traditional front — “The Making of the President,” the State of the Union, the Capitol Hill roll call, the marble columns. But beneath that Madisonian world is a secret 20th-century establishment of bureaucrats, experts, contractors, and civil servants who do a lot of deciding themselves, on matters of national security and surveillance, diplomacy, trade, and regulation. And, in a dangerous and complex empire, their indispensable number and their power grows year after year.

Glennon insists that he isn’t speaking about a shadowy secret government, or the Freemasons. Rather, he’s talking about hypertalented, hard-working people who make their homes in the D.C. metro area, and who draft the memos, legal briefs, and war plans that end up deciding our common future.


The dark-matter influence of this group becomes especially clear when it comes to the stubbornness of the security state: from Harry Truman begging the nation to rethink the privileges of the CIA — an agency he founded — one month after John Kennedy was killed in Dallas (above), to George W. Bush being repeatedly left (like his father) “out of the loop” by the intelligence services, and misled about the nature of the post-9/11 program of torturing America’s prisoners. Or finally Barack Obama, who is reported to have declared, on the subject of drones, “the CIA gets what it wants.” This is the long story of the Castro assassinations, the Church Committee (below), and the torture report.

There’s a chaotic, exciting feeling in the air in 2016 — but should we have to hold our applause for the spectacle and take a second look under the hood of the government itself?

Let us know what you think in the comments or on our Facebook page.


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  • Phil

    Great show! I think that Chris and Michael Glennon are right on – change will come from students and a younger generation (not the “lifers”) that are demanding we leave behind business as usual.

  • Potter

    You have done us a great service with this program. It’s hard to allow this to really sink in I must admit and I don’t know what we, the people, can do about it. But first we have to know. Trump, for all his faults, and he has many, is shouting out some truths now. He’s the bull in the china shop.

    I was instantly reminded of Bill Moyers’ program years ago on our “Secret Government” from 1987. He’s still at this issue with his interview with his current Mike Lofgren on the Rise of the ‘Deep State,’ Washington’s Shadow Government… companion pieces, if you will.

    • Pete Crangle

      Great stuff Potter. Thanks for the Moyers material.

      • Potter

        I was just noticing how many, if not all, of the candidates are running away from the Iraq War in this primary season as if we all know what a mistake it was and how disastrous it’s consequences. Yet there has been no accountability. Jeb! is out there with his family including “the Decider”. Dick Cheney sticks his head out every now and then with the nerve to give us his wisdom.

        We used to make people in positions of responsibility have to answer for perceived crimes. We used to hold hearings.But in the case of the Iraq war nothing. And when Obama became president, his decision was to “move on”.

        Thank you Pete!

  • unOpened

    We need more shows like this. The idea of “pervasive civic ignorance” is a belief that’s stated as if it’s a fact. This means the whole question of why people believe it is left unaddressed. There is the old question of whether the news shapes or reflects society and while I don’t know the answer to that what I do know is it definitely determines the range of subjects that a lot of people talk about. Even in the age of the internet television news still retains the power of the “authoritative source” amongst a very large swath of the population. When deep, independent, investigative journalism into issues this episode touched on is missing from that authoritative source it should come as no surprise how easy it is to believe in “pervasive civic ignorance”. I believe that until television does this on a consistent basis we will continue to be subject to the sort of non-stop brainwashing that leads to a belief in pervasive civic ignorance rather than the understanding that it is our BELIEF that it’s true that makes it so and discourages further action.

  • rkean

    Great show up to a point. Certain questions Chris avoids with great difficulty and verbal twists and turns. We needed more discussion of the death of that CIA chief in Greece whose death was blamed on Frank Church and undermined his CIA investigation. CIA made the most of that death and, given the history of CIA assassinations one must ask, who killed him and did the CIA play a role in his death. Notwithstanding Michael Glennon’s passive and hopeless attitude toward changing national security policy, we must rein in the CIA and the NSA, and the Pentagon while we’re at it. As Bill Binney, whistleblower and former high-ranking intelligence official at the NSA, has said, the NSA acronym could now stand for New Stasi Agency, after the feared security department of the German Democratic Republic, so-called. In the USA we, or at least our Senate oversight committees, are supposed to know what our government is doing and our private lives are to be just that- private. Instead we have secretive government agencies that seem to answer to no one and a surveillance apparatus monitoring every move we make. This has to stop, and we can’t expect our young people to do it alone. We need a political revolution that addresses not only income inequality as Bernie insists, but also the national security state. In a democracy any state agency that makes voting next to meaningless has to be scrutinized, or perhaps, as JFK said about the CIA, ‘spintered into a thousand pieces’.