Secrecy and the Conspiratorial Mindset
How the secrecy we're told protects our democracy is in fact breaking it down
In Richard Hofstadter’s seminal essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” he recounts some of the possible conditions that aid in the development and perpetuation of conspiratorial thinking in the American consciousness. In elaborating upon the “certain religious traditions, certain social structures and national inheritances, certain historical catastrophes or frustrations [that] may be conducive to the release of such psychic energies,” Hofstadter assesses how groups shut out of power (perhaps by no fault of their own) develop a conspiratorial mindset. He notes: “They see only the consequences of power — and this through distorting lenses — and have no chance to observe its actual machinery.”
If there is a phrase in the entire essay that explains our current predicament as it relates to conspiratorial thinking and the advent of the “post-truth age” it might be this one. While it is common to think of the conspiratorial mindset as a cognitive deficiency, as a by-product of poor or no education, or as the hallmark of fanaticism, Hofstadter opens up a way for us to understand conspiratorial thinking as being rooted in state structures. This allows us to see how it is the opaqueness of power, rather than the defects in one’s consciousness, that breeds conspiratorial thinking. In this sense, democratic deficits create misperceptions of how power operates, which leads to conspiratorial thinking that in turn may further increase democratic deficits.
This sort of analysis shifts our focus away from some of the common narratives surrounding conspiracy theories today. Rather than emphasizing an onslaught of conspiratorial propaganda or an inept mainstream press as being responsible for the persistence of certain conspiracy theories, we are confronted with questions of how direct power relations between citizen and state are organized so that conspiratorial thinking becomes more likely, or even rational. In other words, the degree to which societies are transparent or sufficiently representative is a determining factor in whether or not conspiracy theories are likely to take hold of a population’s political consciousness. In the United States, we see a political terrain that is uniquely hospitable for conspiratorial thinking. Not only are structural opaqueness and a lack of representation a feature of American governance, but also the American state’s unparalleled capacity to exercise military force and engage in repression provides fuel to conspiracy theorists who see the Federal Government behind any act of violence perpetrated on American soil.
Secrecy is central in this inquiry, and has unquestionably laid the foundations for the aggressive distrust that has taken hold of large portions of the American public. It is not only the repressive portions of the American state that have grown exponentially since the attacks of September 11th 2001, it’s opaqueness on matters of national security has increased as well. Sixteen national security agencies, all of which supposedly constitute a “deep state,” constantly operate out of view and constantly make consequential determinations about policy without being subject to normal processes of transparency. The Executive branch, ever-increasing in power, is emboldened to rule by decree with minimal oversight and democratic accountability.
While the revelations of Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, and countless other whistleblowers serve as a testament to the degree to which information is withheld from the American public and how crucial decisions are made outside of public view, the gradual assault on transparency has been undertaken with the public’s full knowledge. It is the exact scenario that C. Wright Mills laid out in his 1956 book The Power Elite, in which he noted that Americans “feel that they live in a time of big decisions” but they “know that they are not making any.” They observe the awesome might of American power, yet can always ascribe to the state the most sinister of motives because the “machinery” of power lacks transparency of any sort. It is no wonder that conspiratorial thinking would thrive in such a context.
Incidentally, the American government itself acknowledged this very fact during a brief and rather unique episode of self-awareness: The Moynihan Commission on Government Secrecy. The report, originally commissioned by the Clinton Administration and made public in 1997, acknowledges the Federal Government’s extensive spying apparatus, and notes that “Secrecy begets suspicion, which can metastasize into conspiracies of the most awful sort.” In this instance, it is the security apparatus and the Executive Branch that is tasked with thwarting criminal conspiracy, yet it is this same apparatus that, through extraordinary overreach and secrecy, facilitates conspiratorial thinking among the public at large. The report noted:
One legacy of a century of real and imagined conspiracy, most of it cloaked in secrecy, is that the American public has acquired a distrust of government almost in proportion to the effort of government to attempt to be worthy of trust. After all, in this “long twilight struggle,” men and women of singular qualities devoted much or most or all of their working lives to defending American society against manifest hostility and danger. As time went on, this effort — so much of it secret — seemed less and less rewarded with an appropriate respect. To the contrary.
This doesn’t mean that the U.S. government deserves more credit for its covert actions. Rather, it suggests that a natural consequence of increased secrecy, particularly within the national security state, is a catalyzation of conspiratorial thinking in the public at large. The very means by which the security state acts generates suspicion. The state has the awesome power to do almost anything but makes its intentions and capacities so unknown to the general public that the wildest speculation about governmental affairs is cast as at least potentially true rather than completely absurd. At its worst, this state of affairs engenders in the public a feeling that nothing that the state says is true and that any imagined violent imposition or overreach that the state could make is possible, which has severe consequences for the authority of the state as an arbiter of truth or justice in any sense. This doesn’t simply delegitimize the state’s inherent capacities to secure rights and deliver services, but it also erodes the public’s language and shared beliefs that serve as the foundation of a functioning democratic politics. Quite simply, the secrecy we are so often told protects our democracy is in fact one of the main drivers of its breakdown.
States structures themselves are not pure embodiments of what societies value. Oftentimes, they function according to opposite principles. However, states do play a role in projecting and reinforcing ways of thinking among their populations. In this sense, when considering the ongoing crisis of “truth” and “civility” in the United States, it is altogether insufficient to locate their origins in the political economy of the mass media or the efficiency of new forms of propaganda. Instead, we should look to dynamics within the state itself as partially responsible for creating conditions in which conspiracies thrive. As we enter a new age of conspiratorial thinking and incivility, we need not look far for answers in how we’ve arrived at this point. Our crisis of social discourse is in reality a crisis of the democratic state.
 REPORT OF THE COMMISSION ON PROTECTING AND REDUCING GOVERNMENT SECRECY, S. Doc. No.105-2 (1997), available at https://info.publicintelligence.net/MoynihanReportGovernmentSecrecy.pdf, p. a-3
 Ibid, p. a-75