“Conspiracy theories” have a bad press. But sometimes conspiracies are real and sometimes conspiracy theories do account for what they purport to explain. Whether they do or not is an empirical question. Because real world politics is propelled by multiple, heterogeneous causes, and because political actors seldom rise to a genuinely Machiavellian level, the usual criteria for determining what the best explanations are – elegance, simplicity and the like – are of little use. Evidence is all.
If no compelling evidence of a conspiracy surfaces, especially over many years and especially too if the purported conspiracy would have had to involve vast numbers of people, that’s an excellent reason to think that there was no conspiracy. This is why it is more plausible than not, after almost five decades, to believe that Lee Harvey Oswald killed JFK on his own. Only a decade has passed since 9/11 but the fact that no evidence of a conspiracy of the kind “truthers” argue for has yet to emerge is decisive in that case too, especially in light of the manifest incompetence of everyone connected with the alleged plot.
Thanks to the resurgence of what Richard Hofstadter called “the paranoid style” in American politics, conspiracy theories based on little or no evidence have multiplied alarmingly in recent years. Many of them are manifestly implausible. For example, the idea that Barack Obama is a secret Muslim is plainly false because it would explain nothing. Obama has done as much to harm the historically Muslim world as any American president, including George W. Bush, so he would, at the very least, have to be a “self-hating” secret Muslim, an idea that runs counter to the paranoid drift of those who level the charge. It would make slightly more sense to claim that Obama is a secret al-Qaeda operative, inasmuch as his policies are good for bringing recruits into the al-Qaeda fold. But those policies are continuations of George Bush’s, and no one is paranoid enough to deem that hapless but villainous soul a double agent.
On the other hand, the idea that Obama is a secret Republican would explain a great deal. His capitulations and displays of spinelessness, along with his lack of principled conviction, helped bring Republicans to power in the House of Representatives and in many state houses and legislatures. Moreover, the policies he pursues have been, if anything, to the right of those favored by “moderate Republicans” back in the days before that species went extinct. But then, of course, it wouldn’t just be Barack Obama who is a secret Republican. The same could be said for almost the entire Democratic Party at the national level at least since Bill Clinton set the party on its rightward drifting course.
The claim that they are all Republicans, secret or not, expresses a certain truth, notwithstanding the fact that it is literally false. We know it is false not because it doesn’t make sense of what we observe, but because all the evidence points the other way.
What this shows is not just that conspiracy theories can be true in a sense, even when they are wrong; it also shows that party identifications no longer indicate what democratic theory, in all its many varieties, maintains they should.
The seeds were sown long ago and they took root and thrived as the Cold War wore on. But it was not until the consolidation of the so-called Reagan Revolution that real democracy all but disappeared from our political life. We still have competitive elections, and probably always will. But from that point on, competing parties – the two, semi-official ones — no longer operated in the way that justifying theories of democratic institutions claim they should.
They ceased to be vehicles through which the people or their representatives, aiming at a common good, engage in public deliberation and collective decision-making. Instead, they became marketing agencies, bought and paid for by corporate interests, selling legislators eager to do their paymasters’ bidding to different (though fluid and sometimes intersecting) constituencies, and to a “moderate” middle, comprising less than 20% of a depoliticized and acquiescent electorate.
As marketers, Republicans and Democrats tailor their respective messages to different blocs of voters. Republicans tailor theirs to their hardcore base, voters bereft of informed and considered judgment but full of passionate intensity. Democrats tailor theirs to the apolitical middle. This is why the celebrated “enthusiasm gap” of 2010 developed, but it may be a winning strategy in the presidential election this time around, given the field of Republican candidates. Could there be a conspiracy among Republicans to play into Obama’s hands by fielding only dolts? Not likely, of course; but that conspiracy theory too would explain a great deal.
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In 2008, the financiers and corporate moguls who own both the Democratic and Republican Parties threw their weight behind Barack Obama. No doubt, most of them would have preferred a Republican; hard as they have tried, Democrats have yet to win over the hearts and minds of our most nefarious “economic royalists.” But the movers and shakers of our corrupted system, many of them, at least had the wits to realize that popular disgust with the criminality and incompetence of the Bush administration made Republicans more difficult than Democrats to sell even to an acquiescent electorate.
But that doesn’t explain why Obama got more Wall Street and corporate support than Hillary Clinton. To answer that question, another conspiracy theory suggests itself – one that is more plausible than any of the ones suggested so far, though of course it too is literally false.
It was no secret, except perhaps to his most ardent and deluded supporters, that Obama was vetted and deemed fit to carry corporate America’s banner. But Hillary Clinton was heir to a family tradition of doing precisely that, and she made no bones about her intentions. Why not her?
Were our titans of finance and industry more clever than they actually are, and better able to collude, they might have reasoned as follows: “Hillary Clinton is the devil we know. We can count on her. But she is even less charismatic than her husband, and he still elicits more enmity than admiration. On the other hand, Barack Obama is a Rorschach figure upon whom voters eager for “change” – in other words, eager to be rid of us — can pin their hopes. Moreover, his appeal to the 18 to 25 demographic, and to people of color, is evident. Therefore he can do what she cannot — disillusion an entire generation along with everyone else who can be rallied to his cause. Now, what we need to fatten our purses and generally to have our way is a quiescent and therefore acquiescent citizenry. This Obama is uniquely able to deliver, since nothing fosters quiescence better than disillusionment and cynicism. Therefore, let us make him our man.”
Until last month, it looked like these imaginary conspirators were on to something, that their reasoning was sound. Then the world changed.
The events last winter and spring in Wisconsin, Ohio, Maine and elsewhere, important as they were, were only a prelude to what has developed over the past four weeks as indignation again took hold of an awakened citizenry, this time in the belly of the capitalist beast – at Zuccotti Park, within spitting distance of Wall Street. From there it has spread to countless cities throughout the United States. At last, we in the Land of the Free – can one say those words these days without irony? – have done what our brothers and sisters in north Africa and southern Europe and elsewhere, victims of the system in place, have been doing for months – renewing the struggle for equality and justice.
Try as Obama Democrats and their colleagues in the liberal commentariat might, the Occupy movement is not about to go away, and while it may interact constructively with the Democratic Party from time to time, it is not going to allow itself to be coopted by it. Occupy Wall Street has yet to name the Obama administration an enemy; maybe it never will. But its dynamic is at odds with the politics Obama, along with all his predecessors for more than three decades, has pursued.
And so Obama, who has failed every constituency that supported him in 2008, has also failed the constituency that sustains him and that he cares about most, the tiny fraction of the top 1% who plotted (not literally, of course) to make him the champion of their interests. Yes, Obama has worked tirelessly in their behalf — beyond all expectations. But when it came to promoting acquiescence he turned out to be a bust.
To be sure, the conspirators got what they thought they wanted. Obama did disillusion multitudes, just as they expected he would. But he did this by being “bipartisan” to a fault, and since his electoral competition was nothing if not obstinate, that meant ceding everything to them. Meanwhile, the Republicans had decided that the way forward for them was to bring Obama down, and that the way to do that was to win back Wall Street and corporate America by offering them everything they could dream of and more, enlightened self-interest be damned. And so it was, in one of those world-changing ironies of history, that Obama, the “change” president, helped make the prevailing situation so intolerable that the long overdue fight back finally came.
What the consequences will be is still unclear and is likely to remain so for a while. All we can say for now is that politics, the real thing, is back, and that neither Wall Street and corporate America nor our decrepit political class will ever quite be the same.
To be sure, the capitalism that brought about our present sorry state is not about to give way to anything radically better any time soon; and, thanks to Mitt Romney or someone even more risible, Obama probably will win a second term. But the alliance between corporate America and the American government that has deformed our democracy so profoundly is now shaken. It may well be in its final days.
If Occupy Wall Street continues on its present track, as it shows every sign of doing, the short-term changes it brings can only be for the good. As for what happens beyond the short term, all we know for sure is that the future is open and the possibilities endless. In Greece, where they’ve been fighting back against even more rapacious banks than the ones afflicting our 99% for longer than we have, a general strike is now underway! Who would have thought it possible? Wall Street conspirators beware!
Andrew Levine‘s most recent book is “In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People” (Prometheus).