A lot of what anti-conspiracists consider “extreme” is more a reflection on their own white-bread suburban backgrounds, and the effectiveness of the no-scar lobotomy mill known as the education system, than it is on the content of the ideas they’re dismissing.
I remember Keith Olbermann once ridiculing the “nutjob” belief that the Ninth and Tenth Amendments might impose objective limits of some kind on the subject matter of federal legislation. A constitutional lawyer friendly to his side had to gently remind him that it wasn’t really a “lunatic fringe” idea that there might be objective constraints on federal power.
And when Jesse Ventura suggested the other day that George Bush lied this country into a war, in part, for the benefit of the oil industry, the women on The View looked at him like he’d advocated killing Baby Jesus. Was he seriously implying that an American! President! would actually send American soldiers to die on a false pretext just for the profits of big business? Why, who could imagine something so crazy?
I hope nobody tells them about the Tonkin Gulf incident; they might have to change their drawers. Seriously, it’s more depressing than anything else to see someone like Barbara Walters, regarded by some as a top-tier journalist, to display such abysmal ignorance of all the parts of American history that didn’t make it into the Officer Friendly lecture on the first day of civics class.
The question of whether the “paranoids” are right deserves serious consideration. Establishment liberalism tends to be closely allied to the interest group pluralism of the Bell and Hofstadter variety, and to be dismissive of the very idea of elites or ruling classes. But interest group pluralism has been soundly demolished by people on the Left like C. Wright Mills and G. William Domhoff, among others.
The “paranoid style in American politics” is usually traced back to the populists. Frankly, I think the populists had reason to be paranoid. If you look at Matthew Josephson’s account of how the railroads were built, or Parrington’s “Great Barbecue,” it looks very much like American society was reshaped from the top down — and not by a “consensus” of disparate interest groups in a pluralist political arena, but by a coalition of class forces that were almost entirely unaccountable to the American public.
As John Curl describes it in his history of cooperatives in America, For All the People, corporate capitalism as we know it was forced through almost entirely through a revolutionary seizure of power by the plutocrats. An alliance of industrial plutocrats and southern landed oligarchs seized political power in the Compromise of 1877. In return for ending military reconstruction in the South, and handing power in the region back to the prewar planter class, the corporate oligarchy secured southern backing for its power grab at the national level (hence the infamous Tilden-Hayes election theft).
This seizure of national power by Gilded Age plutocrats, and the resistance to it by workers and farmers, amounted for all intents and purposes to a civil war. Curl refers to the resistance movement of artisan laborers, factory workers and small farmers against corporatization as the “Great Upheaval.” The first and largest wave of the Great Upheaval was associated with the Grange, the Knights of Labor and the Greenback-Labor Party.
The railroad barons and bankers, fighting a ruthless counter-revolution, used their control of credit and shipping to break Grange enterprises economically, and bought state legislators wholesale. The two most dramatic confrontations of the Great Upheaval, in particular — the railroad strike of 1877 and the eight-hour day movement — were both defeated by decisive state action. The railroad strike, which turned into a nationwide general strike, was broken (“to prevent national insurrection”) by Hayes’ troops; the eight-hour day movement, backed by a nationwide general strike in 1886, culminated in the post-Haymarket liquidation of the labor movement (including full-scale war by the railroads, wholesalers and banks against the Knights of Labor cooperatives).
So the corporate-state regime we live under today was founded by the exercise of naked power by evil men, just as those “paranoid” populists said. And it’s produced more than a few “conspiracies” over the years.
There really are serious shortcomings in the way stereotypical conspiracists like the Birchers understand the world, which I’ll discuss in more detail next time. But their conceptual failings are nowhere near as egregious as those who smugly dismiss any suggestion that government policy might be motivated by other than its officially avowed purposes. Man, that’s just STUPID.