Many on the left just know that the Christian right is scheming with big corporations to take over the country and eliminate our freedoms. Many on the right just know that the United Nations is scheming with the liberal media to take over the country and eliminate our freedoms. Ezra Klein, in a piece on how China is trying to understand American schemes by hacking into government and business computers, explains why the kind of elaborate plans necessary for a good conspiracy just can’t get carried out.
From Ezra Klein in the Washington Post:
This is the most pervasive of of all Washington legends: that politicians in Washington are ceaselessly, ruthlessly, effectively scheming. That everything that happens fits into somebody’s plan. It doesn’t. Maybe it started out with a scheme, but soon enough everyone is, at best, reacting, and at worst, failing to react, and always, always they’re doing it with less information than they need.
That’s been a key lesson I’ve learned working as a reporter and political observer in Washington: No one can carry out complicated plans. All parties and groups are fractious and bumbling. But everyone always thinks everyone else is efficiently and ruthlessly implementing long-term schemes.
Democrats fear Grover Norquist’s Monday meetings, the message discipline across Fox News and talk radio, and Focus on the Family. Republicans believe the press corps is out to get them and Hollywood has dedicated itself to providing crucial air support. People are very good at recognizing disarray and incompetence on their side of the aisle, but they tend to think the other side is intimidatingly capable and unified and unburdened by scruples or normal human vulnerabilities.
But they’re not. This city may be rife with plans, but no plan survives first contact with Congress. Nothing will disabuse you of the myth of scheming faster than listening to key congressional staffers speculate on the future of a bill. Communication between various political actors — a crucial ingredient in any serious plan — is surprisingly informal and inadequate. Members of Congress and their staffs don’t really have access to secret, efficient networks of information. Instead, they read Roll Call and the Hill and The Washington Post and keep their televisions tuned to cable news, turning up the volume when a colleague involved in a bill they’re interested in appears on the screen. Then everyone sits around and parses what they just heard with all the intensity of a 13-year-old boy analyzing a hallway conversation with a crush.And in a way, that’s a strength. Human beings like to think otherwise, but we’re not very good planners, at least not when matched up against reality.
I almost feel bad for the Chinese hackers. Imagine the junior analysts tasked with picking through the terabytes of e-mails from every low-rent think tank in Washington, trying to figure out what matters and what doesn’t, trying to make everything fit a pattern. Imagine all the spurious connections they’re drawing, all the fundraising bluster they’re taking as fact, all the black humor they’re reading as straight description, all the mundane organizational chatter they’re reading.
They’re missing our real strength, the real reason Washington fails day-to-day but has worked over years: It’s because we don’t stick too rigidly to plans or rely on some grand design. That way, when it all falls apart, as it always does and always will, we’re okay.