My first contact with the American conspiratorial mindset came in college when I attempted to write a profile of Jake Calhoun for a campus publication. This gentleman was in the news because, in the windup to the 1992 presidential election, he publicly accused President George H. W. Bush of undermining the campaign of third-party candidate Ross Perot by leveraging the “vast resources” of Yale secret society Skull and Bones.
In those pre-Internet days, I managed to track down Mr. Calhoun’s phone number. He declined a phone interview, but said he’d have someone drop him off at a New Haven highway exit the next morning at 7 a.m. So off to breakfast I went, taking notes while he jawed on about President Bush (“You ever heard of Coconut Grove? Palm Beach? This is where the intelligence agencies would hang out. Bush has been there. They’d have drunken orgies for three or four days. It’s big. It’s so big that it’s in the currency, and in all the versions of the Bible”) and Skull and Bones (“The traditions of the secret societies are the traditions of Solomon. These guys go into these secret societies and they have a punishing time, spelled with lots of puns. It’s a sophomoric code that’s being used fundamentally, and I mean fun-da-mental-ly. They’ve got a secret language, like rappers.”). For me, the upshot was a dilly of a writing assignment, but more immediately, a massive headache. I marched straight back to my dorm room and napped until my head stopped throbbing.
In 2020, conspiracies are making real news. A Republican candidate who professes allegiance to QAnon – a conspiracy that sounds like a Jake Calhoun special (believing that “President Trump is on the verge of breaking up a shadowy cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles”), but that is frustrating real efforts to combat human trafficking – is likely to be elected to Congress. And if you’re wondering why your children have been relegated to remote learning this fall, look no further than the tens of millions of Americans who believe the Covid-19 virus is a hoax and refuse to wear masks, or the majority of Americans who don’t plan to get vaccinated. I’ve talked previously about my college classmate, Covid skeptic and Fox News darling, Alex Berenson. Alex has taken to belittling the public health risk in a paranoid Orwellian style, tweeting “Attention Citizens! Attention Citizens!” and referencing public officials from the “Department of Pandemia.” Alex used to be less of a lot of things, including a conspiracy theorist. But having developed his own wantonly casual Covid slang (“virus gonna virus,” calling coronavirus the "ro"), I can attest that he didn't used to be less annoying.
Conspiracy thinking has also hindered our response to Covid. Hospitals around the country have faced tremendous challenges accessing complete medical histories of Covid patients. With the adoption of electronic health record systems over the past 15 years, virtually every American has one. But thanks to conspiracy theorists like Senator Rand Paul, who has railed against the “dangers of the growing surveillance state,” and organizations like the Citizens Council for Health Freedom, Congress has failed to overturn the ban on a national patient identifier enacted over 20 years ago by Senator Paul’s conspiracy-minded father, Representative Ron Paul. In an era of endless data and single sign-ins for travel, entertainment, and almost any frivolous pursuit under the sun, prohibiting unified access to health information is costing lives.
And as we struggle with the economic impact of Covid – first and foremost, putting nearly 30 million newly unemployed Americans back to work – the same thinking is hindering necessary investments in postsecondary education. One of the reasons Americans are losing confidence in colleges and universities is that they don’t know if the massive investment is producing a return. Sure, college graduates get more jobs and better jobs. But people with the wherewithal (and resources) to get into and graduate from college have the aptitude and motivation (and resources) to get more jobs and better jobs anyway. Meanwhile, institutions can barely tell us what percentage of students complete, let alone get good jobs. As Paul Lingenfelter, former President of the State Higher Education Executive Officers has noted, “Our fundamental problem is that we don’t have very good ways of measuring our fundamental product.” Or as the late Stan Jones of Complete College America said, “We know they enroll, but we don’t know what happens to them.”
The obvious answer is a national student unit record system. The human capital equivalent of a national patient identifier, a student unit record system would track every postsecondary learning experience that the federal government has helped to fund – either directly in the form of federal grants and loans, or indirectly in the form of learning delivered at institutions that receive any public funding (i.e., all of them). Just as healthcare professionals should be able to immediately access all relevant patient data, a student unit record would be the single source of truth for student outcomes. Amy Laitinen of New America says “it will really help schools understand the trajectory of students, what works, and what doesn’t — and then they can reallocate the resources towards what works.” And then by connecting a student unit record system to employment data, we could get return on investment information for courses, programs, and institutions. Without a student unit record system, we can’t possibly figure out how public investments in higher education are working, or signal students where their own investments may be at risk.
Sadly, conspiracy thinking continues to rule the day. Senator Paul’s education confrere is Representative Virginia Foxx, ranking member of the House Committee on Education and Labor. Representative Foxx authored the original ban on a student unit record system when the Higher Education Act was last authorized in 2008 and continues to resist repeal. Interest groups support Representative Foxx’s position, arguing against “life-long dossiers on nearly every individual in the nation.” But if the IRS can collect and keep tax information, why can’t the Department of Education keep information on the credits you’ve earned?
America the Beautiful has been supplanted by America the Paranoid. It reminds me of another college classmate – Ian – who said he had an idea for a revolutionary invention. But he was so afraid someone would steal it, he wouldn’t reveal any information to those of us who might have helped. So the idea died on the vine. Like Ian, America has been prioritizing privacy over efficacy. And hey, privacy was probably pretty great back in the stone age.
Americans have always loved liberty, but not like this. When social security numbers were first assigned in the 1930s, Vanderbilt historian Sarah Igo says many Americans were so proud that “they began buying rings and other jewelry proudly displaying their numbers… in the ultimate sign of pride, some people tattooed their social security numbers on their bodies.” And other countries where liberty was actually limited in the 20th century aren’t experiencing this nuttiness. (The Bertelsmann Foundation reports Covid appears to have enhanced social cohesion in Germany.) It’s not only clear that our idea of liberty is causing real harm, but also that it’s not really about liberty anymore.
It’s more about lack of trust and alienation. Tens of millions of Americans don’t feel connected to any group they can trust; 22% of millennials report their number of friends as zero. For prior generations, connections were found within families, clubs, and congregations. The military also played a critical role, but now is limited by demography and geography. Today, far too many of our connections are formed or sustained online, the same place conspiracies are fomented.
One cause of alienation used to be a source of cohesion: employment. In speaking recently with leaders of AIChE, the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, one wistfully recalled the days when a “bus picked up graduates at the University of Delaware and dropped them off at DuPont. Then 40 years later, they’d retire.” “We’re a long way from there,” another recognized. All but a handful of American employers have gotten out of the business of entry-level training and career pathing. Sure, every company provides orientation. But during the Great Recession, serious training on business knowledge and technical skills went out the window for all employers save an elite few. The vast majority only want perfect candidates who’ll be productive on day one, or they don’t hire, and only make token investments in upskilling. Arguably, the loss of employer loyalty has been driven by increased employee churn, which has turned training into a free rider problem (except, of course, when employers can keep frontline workers occupied with inexpensive online education in order to increase retention). But whichever chicken-or-egg came first, the upshot is that pathways to economic mobility and opportunity have either disappeared or are heavily obscured.
Ironically, a second source of alienation is also a victim of it: colleges and universities. Young Americans are told their only path to a good job requires a degree. So they enroll and scrape and borrow to graduate. But most either fail to complete or end up underemployed due to the combination of capricious employers and oblivious schools. Higher education has reached a vicious circle: conspiracy thinking barring student unit record system, reducing transparency and trust, increasing alienation and conspiracy thinking. The circle has become a spiral due to for-profit colleges enrolling unqualified students, and now traditional colleges following in their footsteps with rapacious marketing and industrial size enrollment call centers armed with autodial. This year, many institutions are taking alienation to its logical conclusion with a bait-and-switch of historic proportions, and then refusing rebates for remote learning. No wonder students no longer trust colleges. According to one survey, only 25% of students strongly agree their institutions will take the necessary steps to keep them safe. It’s like every institution in American life – private, public, left, and right – is now only acting its own self-interest. Everyone has taken the ball and gone home, which is particularly galling for those with a mission of serving the public interest.
Back in 1992, the Yale Daily News quoted conspiracist Jake Calhoun on secret societies: “I am tired of a group of people keeping things secret.” But the throbbing headache I got from our meeting revealed that the only secrets were those he made up. Paranoid conspiracy thinking has infected the concept of liberty for too many Americans. And for too many – socially and economically injured and lashing out – there’s an urgent need to underscore the racist in conspiracist.
What’s the most likely cause of America the Paranoid? Collective trauma from British oppression passed down from generation to generation over nearly 250 years, or 50 years of lost trust and alienation? Admittedly, I’m from Canada where we embraced British oppression and see government not as the enemy, but bumbling at worst. (By contemporary American standards, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s scandals are less evil than totally charming.) But one thing seems clear: although government has been the primary target of American conspiracy thinking and paranoia, what’s happened is that over the past 25 years is less government malfeasance than the warping of Ronald Reagan’s message of limited government by opportunists in politics and the media, redirecting understandable frustration and rage against the most obvious source of authority. When I hear Americans talk about life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness, it’s clear to this Canadian observer that the second has crowded out the latter, and now the former as well.
The answer isn’t to make fun of student unit record conspiracists, although that’s easy to do. (Does a shadowy cabal of government officials want to know how many credits you have in order to transfer them to pedophiles?) We need new organizations that can help refill the glass of social cohesion in a digital age, where membership produces meaningful, durable relationships i.e., more meaningful than being a member of Costco or Amazon Prime, let alone QAnon. We need organizations that make members realize others actually care for them, and that therefore they should care for others rather than troll them. Unions have a major role to play, as do industry associations like AIChE and other non-profits. Colleges and universities may eventually get their act together and embrace faster + cheaper pathways to good first jobs in order to advance socioeconomic mobility as well as cohesion. New intermediaries whose economic interests are wholly aligned with members will also be instrumental. And public policy must foster the growth of such organizations and ensure they’re using their privilege for social good and the public interest, not the opposite. Financial capital and human capital won’t function properly in America until we’ve rebuilt social capital.
Americans have not been betrayed by their government. But if we’re ever going to reemerge as a cohesive polity, the repairs must be led by the government. And the first step on this long journey is to elect a government more interested in repair than damage and conspiracy.