ENDURING APPEAL

Conspiracy theories about a small, secretive cabal of people – variously referred to as "bankers", "financiers", or "industrialists", which are code words for Jews, Jews, and Jews, respectively – have incredible staying power. Even the most rudimentary public opinion data go back no more than a century, but phenomena like the Anti-Masonic Party or the Know-Nothing movement (based on theories that the Pope was scheming to run the U.S. through an influx of Irishmen and Italians) show that the idea that someone is secretly Running the World is not new in American politics. This idea appeals broadly, too, from simple minded people who boil all of politics down to a Wizard pulling levers behind a curtain to highly educated people who spin elaborate webs of conspiracy centered around an individual (the Koch Brothers, George Soros, the Pope, etc.) or group (i.e., Jews).

Recently I had a conversation with someone highly intelligent who postulated that the difference between presidential candidate Obama and President Obama is so dramatic that the following theory seemed plausible: every new president is summoned to a secret meeting with the (Illuminati / Bilderberg Group / Trilateral Commission / New World Order / Swiss bankers / etc.) who explain to him a dozen topics that are off limits and give him a list things he can't do. Over the years I have heard many people muse about this, many of them logical, astute political observers, in an effort to explain the extraordinarily narrow ideological and functional range in which American politics operate.

Why? Why is this such a popular idea? On the most basic level, conspiracies are popular because people like to believe that the world is more exciting and complex than it really is – sort of an anti-Occam's Razor. It's disappointing to think that most social, economic, and political phenomena have very mundane explanations. But there's an additional explanation that we too often overlook in the U.S. since the uncoupling of income, class, and politics: policy outcomes are remarkably similar (and serve the interests of the same constituents) regardless of who holds political power.

Take, for example, two pieces of health care legislation passed seven years apart. Medicare Part D (2003) came from a Republican Congress and was signed by a Republican president. Obama's health care reform bill came from two chambers with large Democratic majorities. Yet the two pieces of legislation are essentially identical – they are convoluted schemes for taking hundreds of billions of tax dollars and funneling them into the waiting, open palms of private insurance companies and pharmaceutical manufacturers. Part D was a baldly political effort to kiss the asses of the elderly while Obama's bill was a half-hearted effort to follow through with a campaign promise, one that ended up unrecognizable by the time it passed. They look remarkably similar, of course, because the same lobbyists wrote both bills.

While there are meaningful differences between our major parties, the old saying is that there's really only one party in America and it's called Big Business. There is no secret conspiracy or grand explanation, just the grinding, banal reality that our political system and elections are largely theater (Presidential elections are important! For…judicial appointments, I guess!) while the most crucial issues are met with either elite consensus or more likely are off the table altogether.

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47 Responses to “ENDURING APPEAL”

  1. SaminMpls Says:

    There's a story that Hank Paulsen was at a dinner party in '07 where he was asked about the possibility of President John Edwards. Paulsen replied that Edwards had no shot because he was running as a populist and that only Obama had any shot to beat Hillary.

    Then there were the jokes about Obama's 2012 fundraising efforts on Wall Street and the very unsettled matter of DOJ indictments.

    Bill Hicks made the 12 industrialist scumbags joke about Clinton in 1993. I think it is completely obvious that Obama was set up to succeed by Tom Daschle and a few other powerful Democrats in 2004. They formed a faction to challenge the Clintonistas for control of the party's center-right wing and won.

    Michelle Obama said it herself in the campaign documentary when she told a room full of volunteers that her family was still "normal" and grounded in reality

  2. mclaren Says:

    Against the "politics is mostly theater" assertion, we come up smack against the 2000 presidential election.

    Does anyone believe that Al Gore would have invaded Iraq if he had been appointed president by the Supreme Court in 2000?

  3. Matthew Says:

    Yeah, I believe that this theory is true in many ways, but to say that there is in real terms absolutely no difference between a republican president and a democratic one seems to me to be at least an oversimplification and potentially a dangerous one.

  4. cromartie Says:

    If you give the current set of batshit crazy Republicans, led by apparently Michelle Bachman, control of the levers of power, they will invoke all manner of batshit crazy on the rest of the country in preparation for the second coming of whatever deity that will condemn all of us liberal sinners.

    Other than that, I suppose on some level the machine grinds on, but I'll at least continue to support the party that uses lube to do the grinding if that's ok with you.

  5. Radical Scientist Says:

    I think that particular brand of conspiracy theory is sort of an Occam's Razor misfire–it's easier to believe that there is a single group that has meetings and decides to keep things as they are than it is to understand that it's the result of a larger number of powerful people pushing in the same general direction of their own accord.

    In some ways, the world's rich and powerful could save themselves a lot of hassle by just forming a secret cabal; then they wouldn't have to independently lobby, donate and fund think tanks to argue their taxes should be low, they could just have their shadowy spokesperson issue a demand once, and then get back to their golf games. The fact that it's not true doesn't keep it from being the better story, and we're all suckers for that.

  6. Andrew C Says:

    Well I believe there are conspiracies. Hundreds of thousands of them and most not as effective as the participants would wish.

    The sum total of all these conspiracies is pretty close to what you would get with a single, well-organised conspiracy, but it because they are distributed, it is very difficult to combat and impossible to prosecute.

  7. Doctor Couth Says:

    @McLaren: with VP Neocon Joe Lieberman? I'd say it's better than 50-50 Al Gore would have invaded Iraq. PNAC is a group of assholes in the shadows but it's not just a conspiracy theory.

  8. Tim H. Says:

    People like to simplify a situation to something more easily grasped, if not too accurate. A distorted image of a trilateral commission stands in for the thousands of people in the investor class, whole ethnic groups are get a reputation courtesy of flamboyant individuals in the group, examples are everywhere.

  9. A Says:

    Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
    Some people like conspiracy theories for the same reason that people work puzzles or read mystery novels. Because they are entertaining.

  10. jazzbumpa Says:

    Ed – You start out as if you are about to debunk conspiracy theories, then at the end slip in " there's really only one party in America and it's called Big Business. " I don't disagree, but you have simply brought another conspiracy (call it the Koch Bros. for short) in through the back door.

    There has been a great arc in American poitics – especially foreign policy – since WWII, and it hasn't much mattered who was in the Wjite House. For all his warning about the military industrial complex, it was Ike who got us started in Viet Nam.

    OTOH, I do not for a second believe that Prez-in-exile Gore woud have invaded Iraq. Afghanistan – sure. But the Iraq misadventure was so insane, it could only have come from a Rethug, and possibly only from the Cheney administration.

    OTOOH, Obama has continued many of the worst of Cheney's policies, including Iraq.

    OTOOOH, sometimes you get to a point where there simply are no good decisions.

    That is where Cheney left us.

    WASF,
    JzB

  11. anotherbozo Says:

    Reminds me: where is the miniseries about lobbying, the Hollywood blockbuster about K Street? Why can't this theme have enough dramatic juice–say over one select, critical piece of legislation–to interest Joe and Jane Naive? Showing the revolving door between gummint and professional lobbyists, starring, say George Clooney and Julianne Moore as topnotch…

    You'd need corporate sponsors, you say? Even on HBO or SHO? Talk about a water-cooler subject…

  12. anotherbozo Says:

    P.S. "Casino Jack" was too much about Abramoff's excesses; the corruption of the system itself got lost in one man's pathology…

  13. FastEddie Says:

    Yes, the US is a corporately controlled behemoth that serves its masters. Elections are won by money so is it any wonder that the folks with the money control the politicians?

    But – elections, etc still do make a differnce – only it is a matter of degrees. A Republican health care bill would not have covered everyone ( because of racism ). Republicans would not have included the Auto Industry in TARP ( because of racism AND anti-unionism ) .

    Yes, it is a huge struggle and very difficult to fight against the military-industrial-financial complex, and even victories are only small ones ( universal coverage instead of single payer, for example ). But even those small victories mean a LOT to the people that they help.

    We have to keep pushing left, or else we end up with fascism. We can't fight to get what we want ( at least not in the short term ) – we have to keep fighting so that maybe in 10 or 20 years we can get to where we should be.

    It is frustrating – but we really don't have any choice until we get enough people to understand and get out and vote againt the corporations.

  14. HoosierPoli Says:

    FastEddie gets it.

    Also, my thinking is that conspiracy theories come from the same part of the brain that STILL believes that God causes earthquakes; that is, the tendency to attribute conscious direction and intention to chaotic and unpredictable phenomena.

  15. JohnR Says:

    *ahem*
    [hands over large, impressive envelope]
    You're a Wizard, Har- , I mean Ed! Sorry it took so long to get here. Never could figure out how to work these PGS thingies..

  16. Keifus Says:

    Well, there's ample evidence that America supports a class system, with a minority of power elites situated (with some inertia) on the top of it, with some pull in policy planning and information dissemination. It's crazy to think that it's a conspiracy in the sense that they're a robed council of twelve pulling strings from secret caves, but it's not crazy to think that the network is loosely defined, somewhat large, and overlaps with the lower classes to some degree.

    Hierarchy is a property of human systems, in other words–it's descriptive, emergent. Its rough shape is similar, but details can vary, and while it is potent in its tendency to narrow at the top, it is limited in how proactive and decisive it can really be.

    Do "financiers" and "industrialists" describe the upper class in America today? Maybe it's not the worst generalization. Today's powerful banking industry deserves all manner of scorn, independently of what other groups previous generations of bigots linked it to. Hell, I think that's one thing that separates a conspiracy theorist from an analyst: the inability to identify and process false syllogisms.

  17. Graham Says:

    So there is a conspiracy – but it is an open one, committed right in front of our noses by corporations and their lobbyists.

    I've often wondered if, when a new President/Prime Minister sits at his desk on that first morning, an unctious public servant quietly hands them a file telling them they might want to look at that before doing anything rash. Contained in that file are photographs of every unfortunate and unsavoury moment in their lives, a list of every dodgy internet site they ever visited, every spiteful or stupid remark they ever made etc etc.

    After blanching, they shut up and do what they're told for the rest of their term.

    Just a thought.

  18. AL Says:

    For anyone who might be interested in another example to accompany Ed's post from today, Glenn Greenwald wrote a column the other day pointing out that the greatest political myth is the claim that "there is very little bipartisanship": http://www.salon.com/news/opinion/glenn_greenwald/2011/05/23/bipartisanship/index.html

  19. FlanSolo Says:

    You're argument that all policy must gain the blessing of big business has some credence, but you should know better than to make the mistake of putting Part D and Health Reform in the same category. The former was unpaid for political gambit to secure senior support for the GOP (while also serving as a boon to pharma) and Health Reform is a paid for expansion of health insurance to the poor, which also serves as a boon to the health industry.

    It's true that other countries have managed universal coverage more cheaply through more socialistic programs (and indeed, these are programs I would like here), but to a call a bill that will expand health insurance coverage to over 30 million people a "half hearted follow-through of a campaign promise" is to ignore the real benefit this bill will have, even if it is one that also grows the market for the medical industry.

  20. Matt Says:

    I consider the conspiracy theorists to be hopeless optimists – after all, barring a few extra-paranoid varieties, they all believe that *somebody* is in control. As a corollary, that means that *somebody* is making sure we don't all manage to blow ourselves up – after all, what good is taking over the world if there's nothing left?

    Relevant quote (from 'Cube'):

    This may be hard for you to understand, but there is no conspiracy. Nobody is in charge. It's a headless blunder operating under the illusion of a master plan. Can you grasp that? Big Brother is not watching you.

    It's far more disturbing to realize there's *nobody* at the controls, even as our species wields the power to destroy the world and drives the climate into bigger and bigger oscillations…

  21. Bob Says:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7MRykTpw1RQ
    Bill Hicks explains it all. Of course as brilliant as Bill was he believed the Kennedy assasination was a conspiracy of epic proportions. Still this – like his take on the TX School Book Despository exhibit – is funny as all hell.

  22. Strangepork Says:

    On the most basic level, conspiracies are popular because people like to believe that the world is more exciting and complex than it really is – sort of an anti-Occam's Razor.

    …Occam's Rogaine?

  23. Da Moose Says:

    Growing up in and now working within the "machine" here in DC I can tell you that the machine has an energy unto itself, not controlled by any single entity or group. Basically, there are two kinds of people here in DC: those who realize that, because the machine is not controlled by any one illuminati type group, the direction the machine takes can be influenced by certain people or groups at certain times. The other group of people is the "victims" of the machine, the ones who allow their DC careers to be directed by the momentum of the machine. This dynamic makes for a deep and stark conundrum within the governance practices of the country. The slime in the first group take advantage of the naïve goodwill intentions of those in the second group to enact policies that allow the first group to maintain their grip on power.

  24. ladiesbane Says:

    One of my recurring gripes in life is that people who have attained a high degree of education in one area think they know as much about every other topic. This inflated self-assessment temporarily collapses when, say, a prosecuting attorney realizes he needs his hand held through the process of refinancing his mortgage, preparing his taxes, etc., but it pops right back up when the crisis subsides. Part of it is the egalitarian idea that no one knows better than I do what is best. (Doctors always get a huge laugh out of that one.) Then there is age: the older we get, the more sure we are that anything we know is important, and anything we don't know shouldn't be so "unnecessarily" complicated. It may be complicated for good reason, but waaaah.

    Most people really don't have a grip on how government works, or insurance, or big business, or lots of other things that affect us and over which we have very little control. This frustrates them, and makes them flirt with conspiracy theories, religious extremism, the flat tax, age-related conservativism, Lyndon LaRouche, etc., as a way to impose a comforting filter on the chaos. Ignorance makes us fearful. Learn as much as you can, do your best, and then leave the matter. But don't assume you know what the hell is going on outside of the area of your own expertise.

  25. Southern Beale Says:

    Well, here's a conspiracy theory for you: Remember the Tucson shootings that killed six people and seriously wounded Rep. Gabriel Giffords back in January? Just an evul librul hoax! Cooked up by that crafty Obama!

    Seriously! There's a website and a newsletter and everything!!!! And yes, the purveyor of this putrid piece of tinfoil hat nuttery actually came on my site to ask me to "address the content" of his theory.

    Sorry there are some rabbit holes even I won't go down …

  26. Southern Beale Says:

    Conspiracy nutters do seem to have a few things in common: all got started on their path to the dark side with a Kennedy assassination theory, they all seem to be of the "Constitutionalist/Tenther" flavor, they seem to be interested in other hoaxes like free energy alchemy, and too many of them come from Tennessee.

  27. Heywood J. Says:

    "….our political system and elections are largely theater….while the most crucial issues are met with either elite consensus or more likely are off the table altogether."

    Aren't those seemingly banal acknowledgements themselves tacit admission that there *is* a conspiracy, even if it is just a conspiracy toward stupidity and mediocrity in order to retain control and wealth. It doesn't have to be a secretive cabal in a smoke-filled room — it's right in front of us, the same people making the rounds on the same shows, manufacturing consent, and 'murkins flipping over to Dancing with the Stars or some such mindless shit, and wondering why they're broke and doomed.

    It takes some concerted, deliberate effort to take a powerful, dynamic nation, and turn it into a grubbing Third World satrapy with the income disparity of a banana republic. It's not a coincidence, and it's not just laziness. It's the rich and powerful using the PR tools and techniques at their disposal to ensure their continuity.

    An easy example, of which there are many — why is Matt Taibbi the *only* major American journalist covering Wall Street thievery in any appreciable depth, while hundreds of j-school turds are simultaneously chasing after Schwarzenegger's maid? It may be a conspiracy of dunces, but it's still a conspiracy, to inflate stupidity while studiously ignoring issues of real import. That takes energy, effort, dedication, to be that awful at something; it doesn't happen by chance.

  28. Heywood J. Says:

    SB:

    JFK is certainly the Rosetta Stone for most conspiracists, but even people who believe that Oswald (an individual who, prior to that successful mission, seemed incapable of finding his own ass with both hands and a flashlight) was the lone gunman have to acknowledge that the gov't has done everything humanly possible to cultivate the perception of conspiracy. There are still documents waiting to be unsealed in 2017, 54 years after the shooting. Nope, no reason at all to suspect any conspiracy there.

  29. Southern Beale Says:

    @Heywood J.:

    Yes of course, the key to any good conspiracy theory is that there's a grain of truth to it. I'm no 9/11 Truther by any stretch of the imagination but you gotta admit there are some weird ass coincidences where that event is concerned. Of course, nothing is weirder than the fact that the New York state lottery winner on 9/11/02 was … 9-1-1

    Sometimes weird shit happens, I guess. Unless …. {adjusts tinfoil hat …}

  30. Monkey Business Says:

    @Heywood: I never understood the purpose of the flashlight in that analogy. I mean, if he's trying to find his ass in the dark, it makes sense. Otherwise, it just seems superfluous.

  31. acer Says:

    @acer:
    Something very odd happened that day in Dallas. The lone gunman thesis simply doesn't hold up. And I don't own any gold.

    Taibbi has a rare ability to explain concepts like derivatives, which are designed to seem deeply inscrutable to anyone outside the bubble, in a way that's exciting and infuriating. You don't need a conspiracy to make the rest of the mediocre, treadmill-bound journalists stick to the low-hanging fruit "real people" "want to hear about."

    Like anything else: one part malevolence to nine parts ignorance and laziness.

  32. acer Says:

    @Haywood. Duh.

  33. mngstrfy Says:

    If it's so futile, why devote yourself to it? Why dig the pit deeper and deeper? Why make the acid of loathing and misanthropy eat deeper and deeper into your mind?

  34. Rosalux Says:

    The sad news is that because of a string of recent SCOTUS decisions, corporations are now freer than ever to buy and sell elections and control nearly all policy outcomes. Not that I blame corporations. A CEO's job is to maximize shareholder value, not serve the public interest.

    It all comes down to campaign finance reform. That's the key issue that will determine whether America continues is death spiral into a corporatist nightmare. Lots of good ideas out there: public financing, requiring shareholder votes for political expenditures, taxing gifts to (c)(4)s, requiring corporations to disclose their donors. These ideas are where the progressive community should be devoting their energy and resources, because unless they even the funding playing field, they will struggle mightily to achieve any other policy goals.

  35. toones Says:

    Of course , with all due respect – there are and have been genuine conspiracies.

    When more than one person has a plot to benefit them [conspires] , that is a conspiracy – there is certainly no shortage of those.

    And the wealthy have all the money and never seem to get in trouble when they commit crimes.
    We get a police/surveillance state.
    They pay no taxes.
    We get cuts.

    Gulf of Tonkin – was fake no attack

    WMD = fake no weapons

    Reichstag fire…fake

  36. eclair Says:

    I am reading a history of France (I wasn't a history major and I like to fill in the gaps) and was fascinated by the social structure prior to the Revolution. Briefly, the 3 Estates: the Nobility ruled and fought wars and were exempt from taxation; the Clergy prayed and kept everyone on the straight and narrow – and were exempt from taxation; the Common People labored – produced the food and clothing and buildings – and paid the taxes.

    And the King had absolute power over all, a power given him by god.

    "My god," you say, "how could people (especially the downtrodden Third Estate, put up with this obviously unfair arrangement?"

    Now, Rosalux points out that, " A CEO's job is to maximize shareholder value, not serve the public interest." And she's ok with that, as most of us are – or were. We don't question the arrangement.

    But, the fresh winds of The Enlightenment spread radical ideas of the equality of man throughout the pre-Revolutionary France, leading people to question the divine right of kings and the immutability of the three divisions of society.

    Likewise, what is so sacred about the right or duty of a CEO to maximize shareholder value – and damn what that maximization does to the workers, the environment or to the social fabric? Should we begin to see the Corporation, as it is currently constituted, as a giant leech, sucking blood out of the planet and out of society, and declaring itself above the law and immune from taxation? And, immortal, to boot.

  37. brett Says:

    I think that people like these stories because they make the world appear less complex (not more). If all it takes is one meeting by a group of elites to set the presidential agenda, then you can at least conceive of the relevant actions that could produce political power. If, on the other hand, the president's agenda is driven largely by events, or by complicated office, party, and institutional dynamics, then you need to have an understanding off all those things to have an accurate view of how power works. That is really hard.

  38. ProgressiveATL Says:

    Party of big business is right, Ed. Best overview I've found re our managed democracy: http://www.alternet.org/news/85728/

  39. Heywood J. Says:

    SB:

    "I'm no 9/11 Truther by any stretch of the imagination but you gotta admit there are some weird ass coincidences where that event is concerned."

    Agreed. The hardcore Truthers have cluttered up the field with odd tales of controlled demolition of the WTC, and a rocket rather than hitting the Pentagon. I would hope (but because this is America, where stupid sells by the bale, would never assume) that most people feel comfortable disregarding those more lurid claims.

    Most of the 9/11 conspiracies that I've seen are one of two categories, LIHOP (let it happen on purpose) and MIHOP (made it happen). I think we can chuck any MIHOP theories right off the bat; if in fact the Cheney regime had a hand in knocking down the World Trade Center, it would be one of the very few things they were able to pull off as planned. They were spectacularly incompetent at everything else.

    But the LIHOP crowd may have a point — there was the infamous August memo, where an aide had the temerity to interrupt C-Plus Augustus' month-long vaykay with a NSA memo outlining Bin Laden's intent to strike a US landmark with a plane.

    With any event/undertaking/catastrophe, there is always going to be something that doesn't quite square with the official explanation. That's why so many folks end up going that extra mile and believing crazy shit whole hog. In for a penny, in for a pound, I guess.

  40. Heywood J. Says:

    Monkey Business:

    To be honest, I never understood the thing about the flashlight either, but it adds an odd flavor to the image. Another classic odd one has to do with someone being so incompetent they are unable to put their fingers together in the dark.

    And of course Dubya provided us with more and better ones; the man literally could not eat a pretzel without hurting himself. (Naturally, I assume that the man was simply drunk, but of course they were never going to come clean with that.)

  41. DocAmazing Says:

    There is no narrative of 9/11 that isn't a conspiracy theory. Period. LIHOP scenarios are only slightly less overheated than the whole al-Qaeda as SMERSH for a new generation crap that keeps getting shopped around.

    Conspiracies happen all the time. The mental-illness part is in believing that they're all linked up under one big omnipotent umbrella, or that Joe Schmo listening to Art Bell is so very important that the US government has an agency devoted to monitoring him. Otherwise, believing in conspiracies is simply acknowledging obvious facts. Believing that everything that happens is completely random and coincidental and involves no human planning whatever is no less delusional than fearing the Trilateral Commission/Illuminati.

  42. blondie Says:

    Sorry, Ed, but I gotta agree with jazzbumpa on this one.

    I will add one thing, the democratic and republican candidates for office seem interchangeable, except if you are a woman, gay, a person of color, a poor person, etc. When the republicans continually demonize reproductive rights and gay rights, it's hard to say the democrats are no better.

  43. beejeez Says:

    The simplest fact that disproves the theory that there's little difference between the parties is the current state of maximal partisanship. You think things are FUBAR now? Give Republicans both houses and the presidency.

  44. garry Says:

    @beejeez: that's like disproving the theory that bullets are harmless by firing one into my brain. i think i already know the answer, but i'd prefer not to do the research.

  45. Jewish Bowel Syndrome (jbs) Says:

    Thanks, Ed, for exposing the Jewish cabal once again!

  46. Mike Says:

    If there's really no difference between the parties, then I might as well live in Texas or Arizona, instead of Seattle.

    Medicare Part D was a straight-up giveaway to pharma. Whatever the Affordable Care Act's demerits, it includes real reform of health insurance.

    (To be clear, I am not particularly in love with the Democrats.)

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