In light of the current administration turning out to be a bunch of gangland thugs, no less an authority than the Gray Lady herself ran a story yesterday asking why seemingly-rational Americans believe in conspiracy theories. The answer: it's a way for powerless people to fight against their meaninglessness. Like Freud's explanation for the existence of religious people, it starts from the premiss that those in question are idiots.
There's a saying in economics that one should never argue from a price change. An additional rule I tell my students is, "Your explanation for something should never come down to 'because they're stupid' or 'because they're bastards.'" A surprising amount of the world thinks that's a substantial argument (see: Thomas Frank's What's the Matter With Kansas?).
Here's a more-substantial argument: conspiracies exist.
In this sort-of-crazy-but-maybe-mostly-right article, Ron Unz points out a number of times that the national media refused to report important stories. Case in point: it turns out Joe McCarthy was right. Of course, if your only knowledge of McCarthyism comes from The Majestic, this will be news to you. But the point is that if your knowledge of McCarthyism comes from CNN, it might as well be coming from The Majestic. Or, if you want to appear high-brow, Good Night, and Good Luck.
The biggest argument against conspiracy theories is the impracticality of coordination. "You mean to tell me that someone went around and got all the people who saw the truth to be silent about it?" This argument is invalid, though, when you realize that there doesn't need to be directed coordination. People with similar viewpoints will self-coordinate without any discussion.
The heads of NBC News, CBS News, ABC News, CNN, The New York Times, Time, The Huffington Post, and--most importantly (sadly)--The Daily Show didn't need to get together in a room and have someone say out loud, "Let's kill this Benghazi story." It just happened. All of those people, and most of their subordinates, saw the story and said, "Oh, I don't think we'll be reporting that." And the same thing is happening with the IRS scandal. The actual top-down coordination didn't start until this self-coordination started to unravel, when the White House press secretary had a closed-door meeting with reporters before the public news conference last week. That would be the first time any top-down directive was given, eight months after the events that should have been news.
The presence of one true conspiracy makes others more likely. In 2008 I dismissed birther arguments. When Sheriff Joe's posse released its findings, I became unsure. The publicly-released birth certificate is, I'm fairly certain, a forgery. The old argument of "someone would have known; you can't keep that secret" doesn't work here. You don't have to keep it secret. You can tell everyone you want, if they're of the right persuasion.
I'm willing to bet that President Obama's college records show he was a foreign exchange student, meaning he either was born overseas or falsified his application for admission and financial aid purposes. And lots of people at Columbia University could make those records public if they wanted to (the same way Obama manages to always release sealed documents). But no one is going to do it, because they are self-coordinating the conspiracy.
Was the IRS scandal directed from the top? Maybe, but not necessarily. When you hire people who are more committed to the agenda than the country, you don't need to tell them what to do. They do it for you.