Many people seem to believe that America is ruled from behind the scenes by a conspiratorial elite with secret desires, i.e., by a small secretive group that wants to change the government system or put the country under the control of a world government. In the past, the conspirators were usually said to be secret Communist sympathizers who were intent upon bringing the United States under a common world government with the Soviet Union, but the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 undercut that theory. So most conspiratorial theorists changed their focus to the United Nations as the likely controlling force in a "new world order," an idea which is undermined by the powerlessness of the United Nations and the unwillingness of even moderates within the American power structure to give it anything but a limited role.
For a smaller group of conspiratorial thinkers, a secret group of operatives located within the CIA was responsible for many terrible tragedies and assassinations since the 1960s, including the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
There are several problems with a conspiratorial view that don't fit with what we know about power structures. First, it assumes that a small handful of wealthy and highly educated people somehow develop an extreme psychological desire for power that leads them to do things that don't fit with the roles they seem to have. For example, that rich capitalists are no longer out to make a profit, but to create a one-world government. Or that elected officials are trying to get the constitution suspended so they can assume dictatorial powers. These kinds of claims go back many decades now, and it is always said that it is really going to happen this time, but it never does. Since these claims have proved wrong dozens of times by now, it makes more sense to assume that leaders act for their usual reasons, such as profit-seeking motives and institutionalized roles as elected officials. Of course they want to make as much money as they can, and be elected by huge margins every time, and that can lead them to do many unsavory things, but nothing in the ballpark of creating a one-world government or suspending the constitution.
Second, the conspiratorial view assumes that the behind-the-scenes leaders are extremely clever and knowledgeable, whereas social science and historical research shows that leaders often make shortsighted or mistaken decisions due to the limits placed on their thinking by their social backgrounds and institutional roles. When these limits are exposed through stupid mistakes, such as the failure of the CIA at the Bay of Pigs during the Kennedy Administration, then conspiratorial theorists assert that the leaders failed on purpose to fool ordinary people.
Third, the conspiratorial view places power in the hands of only a few dozen or so people, often guided by one strong leader, whereas sociologists who study power say that there is a leadership group of many thousands for a set of wealth-owning families that numbers several million. Furthermore, the sociological view shows that the groups or classes below the highest levels buy into the system in various ways and support it. For example, highly trained professionals in medicine, law, and academia have considerable control over their own lives, make a good living, and usually enjoy their work, so they go along with the system even though they do not have much political power.
Fourth, the conspiratorial view often assumes that clever experts ("pointy-headed intellectuals") with bizarre and grandiose ideas have manipulated the thinking of their hapless bosses. But studies of policy-making suggest that experts work within the context of the values and goals set out by the leaders, and that they are ignored or replaced if they step outside the consensus (which is signaled by saying they have become overly abstract, idealistic, or even, frankly, "pinko").
Finally, the conspiratorial view assumes that illegal plans to change the government or assassinate people can be kept secret for long periods of time, but all evidence shows that secret groups or plans in the United States are uncovered by civil liberties groups, infiltrated by reporters or government officials, and written about in the press. Even secrets about wars and CIA operations -- Vietnam, the Contras, the rationales for Bush's invasion of Iraq in 2003 -- are soon exposed for everyone to see. As for assassinations and assassination attempts in the United States, from McKinley to Franklin D. Roosevelt to John F. Kennedy to Martin Luther King, Jr., to Robert F. Kennedy to Reagan, they have been the acts of individuals with no connections to any power groups.
Because all their underlying assumptions are discredited by historical events and media exposures, no conspiracy theory is credible on any issue. If there is corporate domination, it is through leaders in visible positions within the corporate community, the policy planning network, and the government. If there is class domination, it is through the same mundane processes that social scientists have shown to be operating for other levels of the socioeconomic system.
Even though there are no conspiracies, it is also true that government officials sometimes take illegal actions or try to deceive the public. During the 1960s, for example, government leaders claimed that the Vietnam War was easily winnable, even though they knew otherwise. In the 1980s the Reagan Administration defied a Congressional ban on support for anti-government rebels in Nicaragua (the "Contras") through a complicated scheme that raised money for the rebels from foreign countries. The plan included an illegal delivery of armaments to Iran in exchange for money and hostages. But deceptions and illegal actions are usually uncovered, if not immediately, then in historical records.
In the case of the Vietnam War deception, the unauthorized release in 1971 of government documents called The Pentagon Papers (which revealed the true state of affairs) caused the government great embarrassment and turned more people against the war. It also triggered the creation of a secret White House operation to plug leaks (the "Plumbers"), which led in turn to an illegal entry into Democratic Party headquarters during the 1972 elections, an attempted cover-up of high-level approval of the operation, and the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon in the face of impeachment charges. As for the Reagan Administration's illegal activities, they were unraveled in widely viewed Congressional hearings that led to a six-month imprisonment for the president's National Security Adviser for his part in an unsuccessful cover-up, along with convictions or guilty pleas for several others for obstruction of justice or lying to Congress. The Secretary of Defense was indicted for his part in the cover-up, but spared a trial when he was pardoned by President George H. W. Bush on Christmas Eve, 1992.
It is also true that the CIA has been involved in espionage, sabotage, and the illegal overthrow of foreign governments, and that the FBI spied on and attempted to disrupt Marxist third parties, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Ku Klux Klan. But careful studies show that all these actions were authorized by top government officials, which is the critical point here. There was no "secret team" or "shadow government" committing illegal acts or ordering government officials to deceive the public and disrupt social movements. Such a distinction is crucial in differentiating all sociological theories of power from a conspiratorial one.
The group said by many conspiratorial thinkers to be at the center of the alleged conspiracy in the United States, the Council on Foreign Relations, is in fact a mere policy discussion forum. It has nearly 3,000 members, far too many for secret plans to be kept within the group. All the CFR does is sponsor discussion groups, debates and speakers. As far as being secretive, it issues annual reports and allows access to its historical archives. Historical studies of the CFR show that it has a very different role in the overall power structure than what is claimed by conspiratorial theorists. (See "Why and How the Corporate Rich and the CFR Reshaped the Global Economy after World War II" on this site for just one example.)
For my responses to an interviewer on the issue of conspiracy, see http://www.publiceye.org/antisemitism/nw_domhoff.html.
For more about conspiracism, including links to other resources, please visit the Conspiracy section of PublicEye.org, especially Chip Berlet's excellent article entitled "Conspiracism as a Flawed Worldview".
All content ©2022 G. William Domhoff, unless otherwise noted. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.