UW News

August 17, 2017

Q & A: Sarah Quinn lifts the curtain on the ‘hidden state’

UW News

The general public is often confused about what the government is and does, University of Washington Sarah Quinn writes in a new anthology published by Cambridge University Press.

The general public is often confused about what the government is and does, writes Sarah Quinn, a University of Washington assistant professor of sociology, in a new anthology published by Cambridge University Press.


Given today’s political climate, one might assume that terms like “administrative state” and “deep state” are merely examples of polarized rhetoric.

But the wariness underlying those terms goes back much further, said Sarah Quinn, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Washington.

Try colonial America.

“Some historians will say this is something that defines American culture, going back to before the revolution – that there is a longstanding dislike of centralized power and markets, and that this is what it means to be an American,” she said.

That characterization overlooks the fact that there always have been Americans who liked and wanted a bigger, more active government, Quinn said. What has evolved is the way people talk about the government – shorthanded in academia as “the state” – and how its actions are helpful or “hidden,” well-intentioned, blundering or downright sinister, depending on the speaker’s perspective.

“I used to think that people perceived or didn’t perceive the state, and then decided whether something was good or bad,” said Quinn. “Now we are investigating whether it’s the reverse. People have a pre-existing sense of the government as good or bad, and that moral sense helps determine the kinds of government action they are able to perceive.”

Even before the 2016 election, Quinn and Damon Mayrl of Colby College were researching Americans’ perceptions of government. They co-authored a piece, “Beyond the Hidden American State: Rethinking Government Visibility,” which appears in the book “The Many Hands of the State: Theorizing Political Authority and Social Control,” published earlier this year by Cambridge University Press. Their chapter focuses on two real-life examples of government policies and programs that, through language, were either promoted or veiled to fit a political agenda.

As fear of the “deep state” – by definition, a group that manipulates the government behind the scenes — continues to gain traction in some political constituencies, Quinn said, academics can help shed light on what the state is, or is not, and why people so often misunderstand what the government even does.


How do you define “the state”? Do government leaders see themselves as part of it?

SQ: The most traditional answer is to say that the state, at its core, is an administrative structure, an organization. More radical scholars say the state is one very special way that power moves through society. We’re trying to find a middle ground through ongoing research, recognizing that the state has an organizational core but that its actions have reverberations that we can trace.

As for who likely sees themselves as part of the state, that depends. Most government officials, like members of Congress, do. Where it gets more interesting is among people who work at the state and local level. Here, among faculty and staff at the UW, we work for the government, but we don’t always think of it that way.


Your book chapter details what happened when the City of San Francisco instituted universal health care, and restaurants started adding a “Healthy San Francisco surcharge” to diners’ tabs to, ostensibly, pay employee health care costs. How was that an example of the “hidden state” debate in action?

There are many issues playing out like that. Ever since we wrote the chapter, I’ve obsessively looked at receipts. Businesses have to pay and comply with all sorts regulations, but when it comes to rules about labor and workers, they sometimes treat it differently. After the minimum wage was increased in Seattle, some restaurants started adding a “living wage fee.” Restaurants in San Francisco had done the same thing years ago when the city passed a new health care law. In both cases owners were saying, “The expense we’re passing on to you isn’t something we’re responsible for. This is the government creating this expense for you.” It’s about what they want to call out the government for and what they want to take credit for. In the process, they help highlight some government programs and ignore others.


“The state,” as a term, tends to carry a negative connotation. But is there also a positive one?

SQ: People believe different things, and they fight it out. There are Americans who have always been fighting for more active government; they see it as the representative of the people and the best system we have for taking care of each other and being accountable to one another. There are also people who think it’s a terrifying source of oppression. We’re seeing a lot of those battles playing out now. As researchers, if we’re trying to understand what people see when they look at a structure, we have to realize people are bringing their political beliefs and moral understandings to their perceptions.


How does the concept of the “deep state” or the “administrative state” relate to this?

SQ: One of the ways groups fight for power is in the very definition of what the state is and where it lies. Fights over the “deep state” are battles over how we classify the world. Now you see a ramping up of these classification struggles.

Michael Lewis recently wrote an article in Vanity Fair that looks at what actually happens at the Department of Energy. This administration wants to dismantle the Department of Energy, but it’s actually the department that takes stock of our nuclear weapons. There’s a lack of understanding of what government departments do. Is the Department of Energy a lefty, green, tech space? Is it a colossal structure of industrial development? Is it part of our massive military apparatus? How you classify it has implications for what you do with it.

The adoption of the idea of a “deep state” in the U.S. represents a new and deeply moralized classification of the state, but it is also in many respects a misunderstanding of what that is. The United States is not Turkey, which does have a shadow apparatus like nothing we have here.


Is the way we classify – and argue about – the state a problem that requires a solution?

I’m not saying we’ll all come to the same terms about what the government does, so I don’t think it’s a social problem to be solved, like getting people to wear seat belts.

But the ways we study what the government does really shape what we think the government is. Our next book will include international comparisons. For example, in France and in the United States, railroads were built with a combination of private and government effort. In the U.S., the government gets involved but says it’s mostly the work of private companies; in France, private companies get involved, but the government says to the people, “Don’t worry about it. We’re involved. Everything is fine.” Everywhere, government action has to happen through a combination of government and private effort. How people make sense of it is colored powerfully depending on the lens we use, which can vary widely across nations.

One of the reasons there’s more research coming out about this now, across a variety of fields, is that Americans have long failed to fully grasp what the government really does. Damon and I are trying to contribute to that effort by finding new ways to talk about the state that are specific, tangible and usable, but that don’t erase the state’s complexity as an organization.

A lot of the work in sociology and other disciplines is shining a light on parts of the government in ways that haven’t been properly appreciated. So this is ultimately about clarifying the profound ways that government matters for both everyday life and for economic growth.