If you, like me, were watching the disastrous Iowa caucus unfold on Monday night, you were probably already losing your mind when you first heard the words “quality control.” The Iowa Democratic Party cited this ominously vague factor as the reason it declined to provide the hotly anticipated results of its presidential primary caucus, which, two days later, have still not appeared in full. Stranger insinuations began to emerge. A state-wide technological glitch had inhibited data collection. An Iowa Democratic party representative hung up the phone on a CNN anchor, live on national television.
If you, like me, then turned to the internet to fill in the blanks, your sanity may have taken a turn for the worse. Rumors began to spread that the smartphone app used for reporting data was developed by Shadow Inc, a subsidiary of ACRONYM. This is a better joke than the fictional agency CONTROL, in the Cold War-era spy thriller satire Get Smart.
Anyway, things got weirder. Whatever the implication of these facts, they are facts: multiple factors, both personal and financial, tie Pete Buttigieg and his campaign to Shadow, which has also had ongoing dealings with the Democratic Party nationally. A week before the caucuses, the Wall Street Journal reported that “critics expressed concern about the reliability of the app amid warnings that cyber adversaries could seek to disrupt the 2020 elections.”
It is not unreasonable to wonder, in an event like this, if the outcome was to any extent deliberate, perhaps arranged by some secret coterie of Buttigieg operatives. This is, after all, a man who worked for a company that was fixing bread prices.
As the chips began to fall, Joe Biden, who by all accounts appears to be the loser, implied that the process was somehow fixed, an accusation he has largely been permitted by those who usually tut-tut these kinds of claims. Buttigieg gleefully declared victory before any results had been announced at all, a brazen act of exhibitionism that seemed all the more suspect after a partial release of results showed him holding a narrow lead. I don’t know about you, but I went to bed seething.
It is not unreasonable to wonder, in an event like this, if the outcome was to any extent deliberate, perhaps arranged by some secret coterie of Buttigieg operatives. This is, after all, a man who worked for a company that was fixing bread prices. His campaign spiked the release of the Des Moines Register poll in advance of the caucus — which, if it corresponds to the popular vote from the caucuses, probably showed Bernie Sanders in the lead. The incident also follows a string of reports that showed general animosity from the Democratic establishment towards Sanders — statements disparaging him from Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama had circulated, the Democratic National Committee mulled over various procedural changes to obstruct him, and John Kerry was overheard considering entering the race to stop him.
Grown-ups, however, will admonish us not to engage in conspiracy theories. This fiasco does not represent the machinations of power, they say, merely human error. “Folks who are claiming anything may be rigged sound like Trump,” said Neera Tanden. Journalist Nick Confessore had already insisted before the caucus that “There is no such thing as a Democratic establishment.” Former Georgia Democratic Rep. Stacey Abrams offered a firm admonishment:
Voters need to trust the election process, regardless of who is operating the system. Mistakes were made in Iowa, and voters' confidence has been shaken. But people should not lose faith in our democracy. We must keep voting, while we demand accountability and improvement.— Stacey Abrams (@staceyabrams) February 4, 2020
This is an astonishing statement from Abrams, who lost the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial election due to widespread voter disenfranchisement — to the point that she never officially conceded the election. Some of those who indulged in Russiagate conspiracies also neglected to consider any foul play here, instead folding it back into Russiagate.
So Trump is back to mocking, if not implicitly denying, the fact of Russian interference? And opening the door for Putin again in 2020... https://t.co/27K9aCNmIa— Bill Kristol (@BillKristol) February 4, 2020
“Conspiracy theory” has become a shorthand for something that is not true, although this is not what the words mean. There is a legal definition of a conspiracy, the agreement between two or more people to commit an illegal or secret act. The form that theories of conspiracy usually take in the popular imagination are of social control by a small group of powerful people exerting a secret influence. Inconveniently, this is exactly the way the world works.
Indeed, if you believed that the incident that precipitated the Vietnam War had not taken place, you would be a conspiracy theorist. You would also be correct — the Gulf of Tonkin incident of August 4, 1964, according to then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, did not occur. If you believed that the CIA funded the drug trade in one South American country in the 1980s in order to install a right-wing dictatorship in another one, that would be a conspiracy theory, and it is true. All evidence, including that which was collected by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, overseen by John Kerry, suggests that the US State Department under the Reagan administration funneled money to Colombian drug cartels in order to provide support for the Nicaraguan Contras. Arms sales to Iran were also involved. If you believed that the Nixon administration broke into the Democratic Party headquarters on the testimony of a guy who named himself after a porn movie, that would be a particularly goofy conspiracy theory and it undeniably happened. We now use its name — Watergate — as a shorthand for any scandal. Hey, remember how the Bush administration made up evidence for nonexistent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? That’s a conspiracy fact, friends.
Let’s take the most ridiculous conspiracy theory in recent memory: Pizzagate. Some people believed that the American ruling class was running a pedophile ring that included participation from the Clintons and took place in the basement of a pizzeria. The rational response was to say, there is no evidence for this. Beyond that, many people argued that such a thing was fanciful and unlikely on its face.
But the fact of the matter is that if you were a rational observer who believed in the honor and straightforwardness of the American ruling class, you were more delusional than the conspiracy theorists. Revelations about Jeffery Epstein showed that Pizzagate was effectively true; it was merely the details that were wrong. Instead of being located in a pizzeria, the pedophile ring was on a private island, which was accessed on a plane known by the comically on-the-nose name “Lolita Express.” That Epstein died in his jail cell during lapses in surveillance may well have a banal explanation, but the more meaningful question is whose interests it served.
"Supposing we were ever so sure of all those things — what would we know then that we don’t already know?"
The queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick once posed a thought experiment, based on a conversation she had with an activist in the 1980s, during the early spread of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. “This was at a time when speculation was ubiquitous about whether the virus had been deliberately engineered or spread,” she remembers, in her essay “Paranoid Reading.” She asked her friend, Cindy Patton, now a scholar of the period, whether she thought it was credible that the virus had been introduced by the U.S. government. Patton responded that the question was effectively irrelevant:
"I mean, even suppose we were sure of every element of a conspiracy: that the lives of Africans and African Americans are worthless in the eyes of the United States; that gay men and drug users are held cheap where they aren’t actively hated; that the military deliberately researches ways to kill noncombatants whom it sees as enemies; that people in power look calmly on the likelihood of catastrophic environmental and population changes. Supposing we were ever so sure of all those things — what would we know then that we don’t already know?"
As Laura Wagner wrote about the Iowa caucus at Vice, “To sincerely believe in a villainous conspiracy ripped from a B-movie would miss an obvious explanation here, of course, but to dismiss the role of motive would miss something too.”
It’s part of the point of social power that it does not require elaborate plots to carry out and enforce. This is why, when debating the details of whether or not some particular incident took place — say, the rigging of an election — we risk obscuring the knowledge that the exercise and abuse of power is abundant.
The BBC journalist Andrew Marr once interviewed Noam Chomsky on his critique of media, and took the implication that he served the interests of power somewhat personally. “How can you know I’m self-censoring?” he asked Chomsky.
“I’m not saying you’re self-censoring,” Chomsky replied. “I’m sure you believe everything you say. But what I’m saying is if you believed something different you wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting.”
This is the meaningful question: who gets to sit where they sit, whether it’s on CNN, in the DNC, or the Iowa Democratic Party. That question shouldn’t live or die with the details of one vote.