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The Paranoid Style in American Entertainment
Secret conspiracies and cabals are a staple of Hollywood, so why are we surprised when people think that's how our political system works?
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Recently, I was watching a rather grippingly made TV thriller when it started to become clear that the bad guys were going to be—stop me if you’ve heard this before—a secret conspiracy inside the highest ranks of the US government with a mole inside the White House.
That’s pretty standard stuff these days, and this is exactly what struck me about it. It’s a plotline that can make for good entertainment—or a slightly ridiculous but very watchable vehicle for James Spader—even if the premise is already a bit hackneyed. But what gave me pause was the realization that this is not just entertainment.
I might watch TV like this and be able to compartmentalize, viewing it as an exciting story but not as a guide to how politics or foreign policy or law enforcement actually works. But what if I didn’t? What if I actually took this seriously, if I accepted that the world really is run by secret cabals buried deep in the fabric of our government?
Well, look around you. A lot of people are convinced that literally everything is a “deep state” plot and that some unnamed “They” are really out to get you.
Not a Sparrow Falls
Nearly 60 years ago, the historian Richard Hofstadter wrote about “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” looking at examples from the Illuminati scare to the John Birch Society. Conspiracism is a tendency that has always been with us. But Hofstadter observed that there are “situations in which they [conspiracy theories] can more readily be built into mass movements or political parties.” We are evidently living in such a time. Years after the far-right, conspiratorial John Birchers went into remission, their successors are back with a vengeance.
But conspiracism is not just an obsession of the lunatic fringe. It’s also a staple of our popular entertainment. I first noticed this a few years back when Fox News Channel got into trouble for promoting a baseless conspiracy theory about the murder of a Democratic National Committee staffer in a late-night mugging. Fox was forced to pull the story, and Sean Hannity was reprimanded. At the time, I pointed out how common the idea was:
“Assassin kills low-level staffer to cover up e-mail leak” is pretty much a typical episode of DC potboiler “Scandal,” a show founded on the refusal to recognize the difference between a plot twist and a conspiracy theory. It's a show where DC elites routinely employ clandestine murder and torture and agree to cover up evidence in exchange for career promotion. And it's heading into its seventh season.
This was in 2017, before QAnon and stolen election theories went mainstream. But those who watched “Scandal” might recall that the series launched in 2012 with a storyline about a fictional election that is tipped by tampering with voting machines. When this becomes a staple of popular entertainment, don’t be surprised to see it become a staple of national politics.
This paranoid style filters down to the smallest things. Many people on the right have heard dark mutterings about Agenda 21, an old non-binding UN resolution on “sustainable development” that is often portrayed as a secret plan to impose dictatorship—thereby connecting local zoning laws to a scheme for world government.
Similarly, if a prosecutor indicts Donald Trump on a widely reported campaign finance scandal, it’s because the prosecutor is taking orders from the left-leaning financier George Soros. Ironically, if another prosecutor fails to throw the book at a mentally unstable criminal, it’s also because he’s apparently a “Soros prosecutor.”
And of course, we are just getting out of a pandemic that some believe was a plot hatched by Big Government and Bill Gates to impose a dictatorship. Major political candidates have been flirting with the idea that vaccine mandates are a nefarious plan to funnel profits into the pocket of Big Pharma.
While specific conspiracy theories are fads that come and go, don’t imagine that people of your political persuasion are immune to them. The grand dame of conspiracy theories for the left is the Kennedy assassination. There were a lot of people who couldn’t accept that a US president was assassinated by a communist crackpot, so they needed to invent other explanations with alternative shooters.
Conspiracies also frequently filter down to the small stuff. If the price of eggs suddenly shoots up, it can’t just be because of a bird flu outbreak. It has to be evidence of corporate greed and a “collusive scheme”—all of which somehow suddenly collapsed when the price of eggs went down. Maybe somebody will make a thriller someday showing the heroic FBI agent on the run who breaks Big Egg wide open.
For the conspiratorial mind, not a sparrow falls (or a chicken) without a secret cabal behind it.
Hofstadter explained the appeal of conspiratorial thinking as an escape from “the normal political processes of bargain and compromise.” I would put it more broadly, as an escape from the process of argument and persuasion.
The paranoid style in politics and the paranoid style in entertainment are connected by the need for a simplified narrative that eliminates words and emphasizes action.
You can see how that appeals to a screenwriter creating an action thriller, where discussing a dispute over the taxation of trade routes to outlying systems will just cause viewers’ eyes to glaze over. The whole point of a popular thriller is to avoid lengthy exposition of complex issues, to sidestep debates about why people on each side believe what they are doing is right. The existence of the conspiracy reduces politics from a need for argument to a mere need for action to go stop the bad guys.
In politics, the simplified narrative of a conspiracy is used to escape the messy and inconvenient fact that other people actually disagree with you and that you have to convince them. Every faction in politics wants to believe that “the people” are naturally on their side. So, if the people don’t actually vote your way, it’s tempting to conclude that this is only because of the machination of a malevolent cabal.
And if you think the real will of the people is on your side, no matter what or who they actually vote for, then you have to set out and create your own conspiracy to overturn those results. Thus, a group of right-wingers were just convicted by a jury of their peers for seditious conspiracy in helping to plan the Jan. 6 attack on the US Capitol. It was neither as glamorous nor as well-planned as the conspiracies in the movies. The real ones never are. Ironically, this was their own self-generated real conspiracy, in answer to the one that only existed in their imagination.
The use of conspiracy theories to justify counter-conspiracies is the key to their danger. If everything is a secret plot by the other side to suppress the true will of the people, then you are justified in engaging in your own conspiratorial machinations to fight back. As an excuse to bypass the whole process of political persuasion, the paranoid style of politics is profoundly illiberal and anti-democratic.
Ruining the Country and Ruining the Story
If our love for conspiracy stories helps feed the cultural forces that undermine the American system, we should consider weaning ourselves off of them.
Certainly, writers and filmmakers can find something else to provide the narrative impetus they require. As the Jan. 6 plotters indicate, there is no shortage of genuine criminal enterprises in the world, even if they will tend to be distinctly less photogenic. And the return of Soviet—excuse me, Russian—aggression in Eastern Europe ought to give us more than enough material for a new golden age of Cold War-style spy thrillers.
So please, Hollywood, next time you are tempted to greenlight yet another drama about the secret cabal in Washington that runs everything—think again about where this leads and find another way to tell a gripping story.
In the meantime, for us viewers, you might want to do as I did. I quit watching because I saw too clearly the symbiosis between the entertainment on my screen and the destruction of our political system, and it ruined what otherwise seemed like a well-constructed story. It’s one of those moments when, once you see it, you can’t unsee it.
Next time you’re watching a thriller and the familiar pattern starts to unfold—maybe it goes all the way to the top!—you might also find that this conspiratorial and illiberal take on our politics ruins the story.
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