By Daniel Rigney
Tabloid newsman Andrew Breitbart met his last deadline when he died a few months ago, but his mean spirit lives on at Breitbart.com, the website he founded in admiring imitation of conservative news-spreader Matt Drudge.
Maybe this is what immortality looks like in the 21st century: When we die, our spirit lives on in cyberworld for as long as cyberworld exists and remembers us. If so, Breitbart will probably be remembered digitally as a right-wing polemicist of the second rank.
I was reminded of Breitbart’s ghost this morning as I read an AP story in the Houston Chronicle (classic paper edition)* citing allegations of a "vast conspiracy" against conservatism. Presidential wannabe Mitt Romney had said in a video interview with the conservative Breitbart.com that the news media have formed a "vast left-wing conspiracy to work together to put out their message and attack me.”
I fired up my Internet machine to watch the interview online for myself. In fairness, Romney calls the alleged conspiracy a “quote left-wing conspiracy,” with a slight chuckle in his voice, so his remark may represent not his actual view but only his sarcastically ironic “quote unquote view” or his “chuckle view.” I don't know.
In any case, here is yet another eruption of “vast conspiracy theory” -- emanating this time from the Romney campaign. Poor victimized Mitt. Can't a quarter-billionaire with the Republican nomination in his tailored pocket get a break?
I clipped the story out of the paper and filed it away in my bulging folder (classic manila) labeled “Persecuted Conservative Victims.” Conservatives are staunchly opposed to victim mentalities except when they see themselves as victimized.
Romney’s remark reminds me of another vast conspiracy comment made a few years ago when Hillary Clinton, in a 1998 Today show interview, alleged a “vast right-wing conspiracy” by her husband’s antagonists to bring down the Clinton presidency. Her allegation invited derision at the time, as Romney’s does now.
In reality, I suspect there is no such thing as a “vast" conspiracy. If it’s vast, it’s not really a conspiracy. In most instances "vast conspiracy" is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms.
“Conspiracy” connotes a secret plot or plan to perform some nefarious act, usually illegal. Conspiracies are almost by definition confined to small numbers of participants. As a cabal becomes larger and its intrigues grow more complicated, more things can go wrong and more insiders can spill beans or spring leaks (or leak beans?).
One may rightly speak of a "vast effort" (such as World War II) or a "vast, coordinated campaign" (such as an ad campaign to promote a new movie or fast food item or presidential candidate), or a vast and coordinated “alliance” of interests. But deploying the phrase “vast conspiracy” to describe these phenomena makes the speaker’s own rhetoric seem transparently hyperbolic and manipulative. Ambition should be made of subtler stuff.
I’m not saying there are no conspiracies in politics. There are, but on a smaller scale than “vast.” Granted, many secretive and quasi-legal backroom conversations are going on right now between political operators and large donors who funnel tens of millions of dollars anonymously into the new Super PACs (or S-PACs). I fear we are only beginning to see the consequences, intended or not, of turning over the funding of what’s left of American democracy to these behemoths and the somewhat varied interests they represent. They clearly signal an increasing concentration of political power in the hands of wealthy donors, whether these donors are funding Republicans or Democrats or both (as bet-hedgers on Wall Street do).
My only question is whether a vast alliance of organizations constitutes a vast conspiracy. The vast but imperfectly-coordinated alliance on the right (e.g.,the Murdoch media empire, oil and other old energy industries, policy institutions like Heritage and AEI, the religious right, and RNC) is arrayed against a vast but imperfectly-coordinated alliance among their progressive counterparts (including many in the greener industries of new energy and information).
I’m suggesting, then, that there is not a single backroomocracy in American politics, but rather hundreds of them, some working against each other, and each trying to shape the course of political events in its own direction, often through campaign funding.
Most funding in political campaigns comes from an economic elite, while most of the votes come from below. A political campaign has to work both the backrooms and the living rooms to win.
Thus even as Mitt Romney seeks the financial support of his fellow plutocrats, he also continues to court the electoral favor of the right's rank and file, putting his message out constantly through mass tabloid news outlets like Fox News, Drudgereport.com and Breitbart.com, the shadowy domain where Andrew Breitbart will be spending his electronic eternity.
*“Many rival donors yet to back Romney” Houston Chronicle, May 21, 2012: A4