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Shadow Government

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"The President is a cardboard cutout. I am the man, behind the man, behind the man. Operation Paperclip, the Moon Landing, Roswell, the Compton Crack Wars; you work for me. You have always worked for me."

Officially, they don't exist. Unofficially, they will be encountered by anyone overly-curious who works for the government, or who crosses paths with the government. Their goals and purpose are often a mystery, and when they are revealed, it's usually a sign that something really bad is about to happen. They are the Shadow Government.

In simple terms, a Shadow Government is a highly secret organization or faction within the legal government. They often have influence, but the extent of it as well as their purpose varies widely from work to work. Sometimes they will be officially sanctioned by the legitimate government, other times, not so much. Depending on their role, they can overlap with Government Conspiracy. But just as often they may not be a conspiracy at all, but rather a "back-up team" in case of national emergency. This is because Shadow Governments can fall into one or more of three different types. Each one having a different role.

  • Continuity of Government Plan, or COG. They are not a conspiracy, but instead just a group of trained highly placed individuals whose job it is to assume leadership in the event of a major cataclysm that kills most or all the official leaders. If this happens, expect them to overlap with Unexpected Successor. In fact, their legitimacy may be called into question by others, since up to this point, no one has even heard of them. However, they will usually have the military or other important institutions on their side since these groups were usually aware of the plan. They will typically show up in works that deal with some great cataclysm that cripples the official government. They were very popular in nuclear war or Cold War related works. They have seen a return to popularity in recent years due to terrorism-related cases. They are often portrayed as good and benevolent, though sometimes their level of competence can be questionable depending on their qualifications.
  • The Conspirators. Unlike COG they are almost always evil, and will often overlap with Government Conspiracy, even though the legal leaders may not even be aware of their existence. They are made up of individuals that are not in any public position of power, but who nevertheless hold great influence. They will either be plotting to overthrow the government, use their current connections to make their plans, and keep themselves hidden. Or, just as often, they are already controlling the official government from behind the scenes, at which point they can be seen as a super trope of The Man Behind the Man. They may have even gotten one of their members elected to the nation's highest office, or are planning to. Expect the heroes to break their backs and go through a torturous experience trying to expose them without getting killed in the process.
  • The Bureaucratic State, or BS, is made up of non-elected career civil servants who work in the government agencies that are required for the government to function, but are often employed, not elected to their positions. Equally likely to be as malicious as they are indifferent to the elected officials, but are always obstructive. They worship the status quo as a god and will often invoke Insane Troll Logic to show why the reform is not going to work. They are hard to get rid of because those at the level warranting an elected leader's notice have often been employed by the government for decades and can easily maneuver the system and dance circles around a politician who is a supposed master of the art of Rule-Fu. They aren't so much a coup as they are a vanguard against any change to the government.

The Shadow Government (or as some Americans call it, "The Deep State") can be felt throughout the setting in a number of ways. Arc Symbols associated with them can be found everywhere from street-graffiti to printed money. Field agents being The Men in Black types who make objects, people, even entire areas disappear to keep the conspiracy from escaping to the rest of the population. Shadow Governments rarely ever have a single head at the top and are run by The Omniscient Council of Vagueness, Black Cloaks and all. If you see an Eye of Providence, expect there to be a miniature camera imbedded in the eye watching your every move. While it is not unheard of for this trope to be used for a dictatorship, it's much more popular to use them in a democratic society, the democratic process used to put the populace into a false sense of control over their lives.

It needs to be stated that in some countries with parliamentary systems, especially the United Kingdom, the term shadow government often refers to the "shadow cabinet" members of the political opposition who are appointed to their posts so that they can instantly take charge of their assigned departments if or when they get elected to office. This trope DOES NOT apply to them.

Also not to be confused with Shadow Dictator, which is when the official leader of a nation simply doesn't show up in public and prefers to the shadows.

Compare and contrast Benevolent Conspiracy, Black Site, The Conspiracy, The Coup, Elite Agents Above the Law, Government Conspiracy, The Illuminati, The Men in Black, Military Coup, Mystery Cult, No Such Agency, Reptilian Conspiracy, Sinister Spy Agency, Skeleton Government, Unexpected Successor and so on.

No Real Life Examples, Please!, except those pertaining to Type I.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • The Darker than Black series has The Syndicate, the mysterious group that controls Hei and his team, as the one responsible for having true control over most governments, including the United Nations.
  • The Romefeller Foundation and its military wing OZ in Mobile Suit Gundam Wing are of the conspirators type. Headed by aristocrats and royalties who lost power in previous centuries, they seek to subvert democracy and regain control over the world. As the primary financial backer of the United Earth Sphere Alliance, they manipulate its leadership while infiltrating its military, transforming the Alliance into an empire in all but name. When the leaders of the Alliance propose making peace with the repressed space colonies, Oz has their leadership killed off and takes outright control over the government via armed coup.
  • Neon Genesis Evangelion: While not said outright, there is no doubt that SEELE is the real controlling power of the United Nations, and maybe even the world. And that is still not enough power for them.

    Comic Books 
  • In Bomb Queen, it's revealed that the title character was genetically engineered by the Shadow Government as "the ultimate villain"; her turning New Port City into a Wretched Hive was all planned by them as a means of redirecting the nation's corruption into a single, easy-to-manage location. They also created their own Everytown, America that they populated with clones and a heroic counterpart to Bomb Queen — White Knight — to keep it safe, the town itself a prototype for what they plan on doing to the rest of the nation. Unfortunately for them, Bomb Queen was too successful, the villain eventually declaring war on America, assassinating the Shadow Government's officials (after their attempts at killing her fail), corrupting White Knight into a psychopath and nuking the US.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Played with in the 1979 Porridge film. In Slade Prison, the experienced prisoner Fletcher casually comments that the prison is not run by the Governor, but by the gangster criminal Harry Grout, who has hardened allies and minions throughout the prison, and always gets his own way.
    Rudge: Who was that fellow on the landing?
    Fletcher: Harry Grout, he runs this nick.
    Rudge: I thought that was the Governor's job.
    Fletcher: Only officially. Next time you meet him, bow curtsy or lick his boots if that's what he wants, all right?
  • They Live! is about a conspiracy where aliens secretly enslaved the human race (or at least America) and transforming it into a Crapsack World run on Crony-Capitalism, taking positions of power in the government, law enforcement, the media, and other private industries, making humans poor and dependent on them and putting subliminal messages in ads that encourage humans to consume and breed thoughtlessly.
  • Threads discusses Britain's "emergency plans for war" and how, if Central Government falls, power will be dispersed among a network of officials dotted around the country. At this point, the film introduces Clive Sutton, Sheffield's peace-time Chief Executive who is also the city's designated war-time controller, as he learns of the international crisis. As the crisis deepens, he and other officials take refuge in the basement of Sheffield's town hall, but many have only just learned of their emergency role and are unsure of their exact duties. After the nuclear attack, they are trapped under the rubble of the town hall and, after spending several weeks arguing among themselves, die from suffocation.

  • America (The Book): The original hardcover edition came with a parodic pullout poster outlining the separate branches and departments of "The Shadow Government" that all operate in secret beneath the three co-branches of US government.
  • Black Tide Rising: The American federal government's protocol for having a backup network in case of emergency is a major plot point, as it's what allows part of the government to keep existing after the Zombie Apocalypse collapses society, though said collapse is so quick that all that's left is just what remains of the CDC and a handful of military officers holed up in the SAC bunker in Omaha and headed by an Undersecretary of Defense. Nonetheless, it allows for some remaining legal authority to oversee The Remnant of the US military and allow them to officially coordinate with the militia fleet established by the protagonists as they start fighting back against the zombies.
  • In the later Honor Harrington novels, it's revealed that because the Solarian League's poorly written Constitution makes it virtually impossible for the elected government to accomplish anything of substance (among other things, laws cannot be passed without a majority threshold so high it is almost never reached), most day-to-day authority on running things has devolved to the unelected civil service (who can't pass laws, but can implement regulations at will without consulting anyone).
  • The Last Adventure of Constance Verity: There was a "Shadow Ottoman Empire" and it only took Connie ten-minutes for her to destroy it.
  • In Magic, Metahumans, Martians and Mushroom Clouds: An Alternate Cold War, the Majestic-12 conspiracy theory is incorporated as a COG example of this trope, being set up as an emergency backup to the federal government in case of a Decapitation Strike by either the Soviets or alien forces.
  • Star Wars: The Aftermath Trilogy sees Fleet Admiral Gallius Rax assembling a group of high-ranked Imperial officers known as the Shadow Council to secretly reorganize and rule the Empire following its fragmentation after Palpatine's death at Endor. While initially setting up Grand Admiral Rae Sloane as a figurehead, Rax eventually decides to get rid of her and take direct rule himself while planning to use the Council's resources to set up a Final Battle between the Empire and the Rebellion at Jakku and wiping out both sides so that Rax's handpicked members of the Council can retreat to the Unknown Regions and rebuild the Empire there. While Sloane kills Rax before he can carry out the first part of that plan, the relocation part is still carried out, leading to the eventually rise of the First Order.
  • The Novelizations of Yes, Minister (written as Hacker's diaries with commentary from a retired Bernard), go into further detail about the Civil Service as a shadow government, with Bernard attempting to put a positive spin on this by claiming their role is to protect the public (or at least, sections thereof) from the government. He goes on to say that claims the Civil Service is left-wing or right-wing miss the point: it depends entirely on which section of the public they're trying to protect. So the Home Office and Departments of Defence and Industry are right-wing because their "clients" are the police, the military, and big business. But the Departments of Health and Social Security, Education, and Employment are left-wing, because their "clients" are the needy, teachers, and the unemployed. (The Department of Administrative Affairs protects the Civil Service itself, which Bernard claims makes them neutral.)

    Live-Action TV 
  • In Agent X, Vice President Maccabbee picks up on evidence that some members of the American government, including those from the CIA, are building up a shadow government as part of their plans to overthrow President Eckhart with the help of Volker.
  • In American Gods (2017), it's revealed that the American Government is actually being controlled by the New Gods and their power is absolute. In Season One, they offer to drop a nuke on North Korea as a sacrifice to Mr. Wednesday if he joins their pantheon. In Season Two, Mr. World demands use of a Sinister Surveillance system only the president is allowed to use, stating that his authority exceeds the president.
  • Babylon 5: PsiCorps is ostensibly an organization set up by Earth Alliance to be a Mutant Draft Board for telepaths in order to train and manage them while protecting the rights of "mundanes". However, by the time of the series, it's morphed into an octopus of an organization with hands in every pie in EarthDome, including being involved in President William Clark's self-coup of the federal government in the middle of the series.
  • Blindspot: It's revealed that a COG plan is at the core of Shepherd and Sandstorm's entire agenda. Namely in the event of the destruction of the US government, the Truman Protocol will be activated in which the senior members of several Federal organizations (CIA, FBI, DHS, etc.) will form an emergency government and be granted absolute powers to ensure the continuation of the United States. All the cases the team has been investigating exposing corruption have solely been to pave the way up the ranks for individuals Shepherd has judged as honest and dedicated enough to be able to properly fix the country once they're in power. In a twist, the actual members chosen are completely unaware of this fact until an actual emergency situation is put into place, specifically to avoid any of them attempting to activate it prematurely.
  • Jericho (2006) features one of these, based in Columbus, Ohio. Despite their attempts to manage and hold the country together after nuclear terrorist attacks, there is a Succession Crisis and eventually the country splits in two, with the Columbus government facing off against the ruthless Allied States regime in the west.
  • The Mandalorian: Late in Season 3, it's revealed that Moff Gideon is a member of a new incarnation of the Shadow Council (see Literature above for the original version), a group of high-ranking Imperial officials who have been leading the Imperial Remnant in secret, maintaining the facade that it's fragmented into various independent warlords, while quietly rebuilding their forces. They're also working on behalf of Grand Admiral Thrawn, though there's some friction there, as his absence is making some members wonder if they should bother waiting around for him to show up.
  • The titular group in The Pentaverate is a Benevolent Conspiracy that was founded by a group of medical scientists from the 14th century who discovered that the Black Plague was caused by fleas on rats, only to be ignored by the unwashed masses and religious organizations who presumed it to be divine punishment. Since then, The Pentaverate had become the sole power in control of world governments and the media, using their power and authority to prevent long-term catastrophe that threatens humanity... or at least that was their intent.
  • Revolution: The Patriots, as they're called, are a combo special who are the remnants of the pre-Blackout United States civilian and military government, based in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Since the President went missing and was presumed dead during the Blackout, power passed to the Vice President... who was promptly deposed by the Secretary of Defense and his clique of loyalist officers. They spend much of season 2 plotting their return to the mainland through False Flag Operations and Manchurian Agents.
  • The thriller series Salamander deals with such a shadowy elite seeking to capitalise on ethnic and linguistic division, and to take over Belgium.
  • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: Section 31's original incarnation in this series depicts them as a shadowy section of Starfleet Intelligence whom most of Starfleet doesn't know exist, and which has a significant number of highly-placed agents and collaborators including Admiral Ross. In "Extreme Measures", Dr. Bashir discovers that Section 31 even has an agent in the President's Cabinet—in a series where there's already been one attempted coup by a misguided Starfleet admiral.
  • The X-Files has The Syndicate. They are the brains behind the Government Conspiracy that covers up alien activity, although the U.S. government proper has a vested interest in not alerting the public too. The Syndicate's goals however are far more sinister. They are in fact collaborators working with the aliens to help them colonize Earth in exchange for power. It is revealed that they started as a special task force to study alien sightings on Earth. But over a 20-year period, they came to believe that the aliens were unstoppable and that it was better to ally with them than fight them. Fox Mulder's father Bill was the lone member who dissented against this plan. At this point, they broke off from the main federal government and used their connections and influence to keep all alien activity on Earth (and their evil plans) hidden. It was mentioned a couple of times (first in The Movie, The X-Files: Fight the Future) and the second one during the first episode of Season 10/the Miniseries) that the Syndicate has various plans to take over the United States-one that which involves, among other things, an engineered crisis and FEMA using a part of its mandate for crisis management to supersede the government (after taking out the President and some others on the chain of succession).
  • In Yes, Minister (and its Sequel Series Yes, Prime Minister) regardless of who occupies 10 Downing at any given time, the actual business of governing the United Kingdom is done by the Civil Service, represented on the show by Sir Humphrey Appleby, who ably arranges things so that the Civil Service's interests are always maintained while any attempts to change the United Kingdom go nowhere.

    Video Games 
  • Assassin's Creed:
    • Most of the Assassin's Creed games imply that most of the world leaders from the past until the 21st century are either pro-Templars or were Templar members, acting on their behalf. Even when most locations and eras set in the games are under full authoritarian rule under the Templars, their big end goal is to take it one step further and use Ancient Artifacts to undo The Evils of Free Will altogether.
    • In Assassin's Creed: Chronicles, the Eight Tigers are revealed to be the real rulers of the Ming Dynasty in China, acting on behalf of the Templars.
  • The U.S. Government in Destroy All Humans! is revealed to have a top-secret organization within it called "Majestic", which is aware of the presence of Furons, and that humanity has Furon DNA in its genes. They have been experimenting with it to be able to control the government and U.S. citizens, alongside subtly brainwashing the masses with Mind Control burgers and anti-Communist propaganda. Crypto ends up bringing them down by the end of the first game. In the second, we find out they had a branch in Albion, which is pretty much what they had been reduced to after the Blisk undid the rest of the organization.
  • Fallout: The Enclave is the remnant of the US Federal government after the nuclear holocaust that the games are set in, but even before the bombs fell they existed as a shadow government that held the real power, democracy having become a façade in the setting.
  • Ghost Recon: Future Soldier has the Ghosts tangle with Raven's Rock, an ex-Russian black ops unit turned arms smuggling group that has ties with Russian ultranationalists. They're the ones really in charge of Russia after influencing the coup against the legitimate government during the game.
  • In Iron Storm, it is eventually revealed the governments of both the Russo-Mongolian Empire and the United States of Western Europe were under the control of the same set of war profiteers.
  • The Metal Gear series explores this trope in the form of the Philosophers, a group of influential families from the Allied Forces in World War II that would eventually turn to Cipher and the Patriots, controlling the world from behind the shadows.
  • The main antagonists of Shadows Over Loathing are a literal Shadow Government. Not only do Shadow President Margaret and her associates control the local government unbeknownst to the public — it's explicitly stated that as opposed to Coolidge, Margaret is the real president, they also have Power of the Void and Casting a Shadow abilities and their goal is to summon an Eldritch Abomination known only as "The Shadow".
  • In Splinter Cell: Conviction, this is ultimately how Megiddo wants to control the US by using Third Echelon forces under the control of Tom Reed and PMCs working under Black Arrow to stage an assault on Washington D.C. by using an EMP-type weapon to blackout parts of the city so that the President can be killed and have the Vice President succeed her, who happens to be a Megiddo mole while hampering police and emergency services so that they won't be able to rescue her.

  • In Girl Genius the von Mekkahns have been running a shadow government that makes the Wulfenbach-appointed city administration impotent. They and the rest of Mechanicsburg have no interest in being governed by outsiders but they certainly don't mind tricking outsiders into thinking they run things.
  • Skin Horse: The main characters work for an underfunded Fantastical Social Services agency that provides assistance for non-human sapient beings as part of the "official" shadow government. They share a building with the Department of Irradiation, Department of Cryonics, and Department of Jetpack Suppression. However, they later discover that the Anasigma corporation whose CEO was acting as their building security guard is pulling their strings, basically the shadow government for the shadow government.

    Western Animation 

    Real Life 
  • The US Continuity of Operations Plan (COOP) has been a part of US Government operations since Dwight D. Eisenhower provided (via Executive Order) measures to ensure that the US Government would continue to function following a nuclear war. It was first put into operation by the George W. Bush administration when 9/11 went down and involved a rotating staff of 75 to 150 senior officials and other government workers from every federal executive department and other parts of the executive branch in two secure bunkers on the East Coast, with friends, family, and co-workers only being able to reach them through a toll-free number and personal extensions. The administration did not acknowledge the implementation of this plan until March of 2002, and the plan in general has met with criticism, most prominently in the book A More Perfect Constitution where author Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia professor, called out the incompleteness of the plan in general, and in particular objected to the fact that there is no constitutional procedure for replacing US House members in the event of a large-scale disaster potentially killing a good number of them. Sabato stated that the COOP failed outright during 9/11.
  • The United Kingdom has the tradition of the Shadow Cabinet, a reflection of the official Cabinet of the Prime Minister formed by the leading Opposition party, as a COG example. In the event of the current Government losing their majority, the new Government can replace the Cabinet with the Shadow Cabinet with a minimum of fuss so that day-to-day administration can continue. While the Shadow Cabinet has no official authority, the fact that there are senior members of the Opposition keeping themselves informed of concerns impacting the various Ministries allows them to serve as an unofficial sounding board for the actual Ministers.


Video Example(s):


Cognito Inc.

One of six branches of the Shadow Government that rules the world in secret.

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