The Deep State: An Emerging Concept in Comparative Politics

29 Pages Posted: 22 Aug 2013 Last revised: 28 Jan 2015

Patrick H. O'Neil

University of Puget Sound

Date Written: January 2015


Over the the past two decades there has emerged a new term in the discussion of authoritarian and illiberal regimes, one known as the deep state. In spite of its increasing use, the utility of this concept is limited by its lack of clarity, often appearing to mean little more than tenacious military rule. This paper is an attempt to delineate the concept of the deep state and assess its value in understanding certain aspects of authoritarian and illiberal politics. I define the deep state as a set of coercive institutions, actors and relationships beyond those formally charged with defense, intelligence and policing. Driven politically by a logic of tutelage and exercising a high degree of autonomy, the deep state justifies itself through the need to defend the nation against purported existential threats. I begin the paper by expanding on the term, discussing which elements are central to the concept of the deep state and which are not. Second, I relate the deep state to a number of other concepts in comparative politics. Third, I briefly consider these elements to address the contexts in which a deep state may emerge. Fourth, I look at cases of deep states in Turkey, Pakistan, and Iran. Finally, I conclude the paper by discussing political transition and the deep state, and how the latter can prove a particular obstacle to democratization.

Keywords: Deep State, Turkey, Iran, Egypt, Pakistan, Military Rule, Democratization, Authoritarianism, Terrorism, Political Violence, Tutelage

Suggested Citation

O'Neil, Patrick H., The Deep State: An Emerging Concept in Comparative Politics (January 2015). Available at SSRN: or

Patrick H. O'Neil (Contact Author)

University of Puget Sound ( email )

1500 N Warner St.
Tacoma, WA 98416
United States

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