“One of the distinguishing features of most conspiracy theories is the tendency to personalize what are, in truth, impersonal forces of unwelcome change.”
This quotation comes from Joseph Ellis’ fascinating American Creation, a book I read while on vacation last week in Seattle. (Just before I went on vacation I had a bike crash and broke my collarbone and several ribs, while puncturing a lung. That’s why I haven’t been posting here lately.)
American Creation is organized around key developments in the founding of America. One of those was the creation of the two-party system. Ellis sees it as crucial to America’s success, because it channeled our differences into a continuing argument rather than trying to impose magisterial solutions. Every one of the founders loudly decried party spirit as a betrayal of American ideals. Yet by the end of Washington’s second term, they were practicing it with a vicious absolutism.
Thomas Jefferson and James Madison became convinced that Alexander Hamilton, John Adams and even George Washington were ready to betray the revolution and opt for a monarchy. Pretty soon they launched covert warfare, which soon became (almost) open warfare.
Differences were inevitable, but what could have convinced Jefferson and Madison that men who had bravely fought at their side in the Revolution were now willing to betray it? Ellis suggests that at an unconscious level it was economics. The economic decline of the Virginians’ tobacco plantations was utterly mysterious to them, as was the rise of a trade-driven economy in the northeast. As sophisticated as they were in political thought, they were ignorant of finance and economics. Even the compound interest on their loans was beyond their comprehension. They became convinced that Hamilton’s Bank of the United States was titanic thievery because they had no idea how banks worked. And so, they imagined a conspiracy to deprive them of their economic and political clout. They thought that if they defeated the conspirators, all would be well. But while they won the 1800 election, and their party dominated politics in the following generation, they died bankrupt. A tobacco economy was undone by quite impersonal forces that they did not grasp.
That seems relevant today. For the right, conspiracies must be behind global warming, because the science is too complex to understand and the impersonal forces of chemistry messing up our lives are too unpleasant to contemplate. For the left, conspiracies must explain worldwide poverty, because global economics is hard to grasp and the impersonal forces of capitalism can be dreadful. And so on. Wherever a conspiracy of “them” is blamed, look for some complicated impersonal reality that is too hard to think about.