Getting to the root of the ‘conspiracy industrial complex’

Distrust in profit-hungry institutions is key to America’s hiatus from reality.

September 12, 2023 6:01 am
(Illustration: Getty Images)

(Illustration: Getty Images)

“Societies develop social structures, or institutions, that persist because they play a part in helping society survive. If anything adverse happens to one of these institutions or parts, all other parts are affected and the system no longer functions properly.” – Diana Kendall, author of Sociology in Our Times

When humans organize into societies, the foundational cement upon which they build those societies is as strong as their shared conviction in what their societies should look like. Principles like “Every child should receive an education,” “Quality healthcare is a right,” and “Justice should be fairly meted out regardless of class,” are just a few ingredients mixed by mortar and pestle to produce the basis for American institutions and the society they help create.

Polls show that most Americans still share the same convictions about what their society should look like on issues such as healthcare, housing, labor relations, the economy, civil liberties, foreign policy, and education. However, the institutions created to build that society are failing.

Polls show Americans’ trust in institutions on a 43-year decline

According to a 2022 Gallup poll, Americans’ trust in institutions has never been lower, with significant declines in trust in 11 of 16 institutions tested. From 2021 to 2022, the percentage of Americans declaring they had a “great deal” of confidence in the public education system fell from 32% to 28%. 

Confidence in healthcare declined from 44% to 38%, and confidence in the justice system eroded from 20% to 14%. Trust in the presidency, the Supreme Court, and Congress declined by 15, 11, and 7 points, respectively.

From a wider historical lens, the percentage of Americans saying they had a great deal of trust in institutions declined from 48% in 1979 to 27% in 2022.

An invasion of profit incentives leads to distrust and disillusionment 

Americans rely on institutions to form the framework of their society. But to the degree that institutions shift from providing Americans with what they need to what the institutions think will make money, Americans will lose trust in them, disbelieve them, and seek other “credible sources” for information and support.

Just a few examples of institutions losing American support due in part to profit-seeking and corruption include:

  • Education: From 1981 to 2021, the cost of attending a four-year college skyrocketed from $11,840/year to $30,031/year, a 153% increase over 40 years. Soaring costs of public universities and fraud committed by private colleges landed Generation X and millennials in $1.77 trillion in debt, even as their degrees increasingly failed to provide the quality of life those same degrees secured for their Baby Boomer parents. After experiencing this, is it any surprise today’s Gen X and millennial parents distrust the educational system, thus giving rise to conspiracy theories about what’s “really being taught” in our schools and universities?
  • Healthcare: In the early-2000s, Purdue Pharma saw an opportunity to strike it big. They encouraged (and sometimes bribed) doctors to prescribe the opioid painkiller OxyContin under the farce that it was the non-addictive solution to acute and chronic pain. Purdue raked in billions of dollars while 280,000 Americans died from overdoses on prescription painkillers between 1999 and 2021. The Sackler family, owners of Purdue, are currently negotiating a multi-billion dollar settlement that would grant them immunity from all future civil litigation despite thousands dead in the name of Purdue’s “contribution to healthcare.” After Americans watched that crisis play out, is it any surprise some have turned to conspiracy theorists who offer “alternative healthcare,” like Alex Jones and his inventory of “health products’?
  • Justice: The courts may still be public institutions, but they increasingly favor business interests over non-business interests. Data shows today’s Supreme Court is the most pro-business of all time, even more pro-business than the courts of the pre-Depression-era Gilded Age. Today’s court rules in favor of business interests 83% of the time, siding with big business to the detriment of the environment, civil liberties, and voting rights. Add to that the recent breaking news of conservative justices benefiting from the largesse of billionaire business tycoons who often have cases before those same justices, and it’s no surprise only one in four Americans has a great deal of confidence in SCOTUS.
  • Politics: Politicians may be public officials, but often in name only. Case in point, researchers at Princeton University found that one’s wealth is a direct barometer for political representation. The bottom 90% of income earners in the U.S. see their preferred legislation pushed for and passed by their elected representatives just 30% of the time. Meanwhile, the top 10% of income earners see their preferred legislation pushed for and passed 61% of the time. After watching candidates make grandiose promises on the campaign trail and immediately forgo those promises once elected so they can serve the interests of their big donors, is it any wonder many Americans have attached themselves to conspiracy theories about politicians and elections?

The root of the problem is neither the conspiracy theorist nor his followers

A population rife with conspiracy theories is not a feature of a healthy society. However, Americans do themselves a disservice when they ostracize people who believe in such theories. For one thing, conspiracy theories occasionally prove to be true, as in the case of MK-Ultra, the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, or the Tuskegee Experiments. But even when they don’t, Americans’ collective ire should never be solely directed at the conspiracy theorists or the snake oil salespeople and fame-seeking hucksters who are often behind the scenes peddling such theories for personal gain.

Rather, Americans must demand accountability from the institutions whose consummate failures led to the growth of the Conspiracy Industrial Complex. U.S. institutions exist to serve the Americans who formed them, not the interests of private capital or the wealthy elites who see every aspect of American society as something to profit from.

Returning America from the brink of a dystopian nightmare where millions wander a landscape of their own invented reality will only occur when trust in institutions is restored. And that can only happen if those institutions are returned to their foundational purpose of serving regular Americans, not Wall Street investors and billionaire business executives.

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Ren Brabenec
Ren Brabenec

Ren Brabenec is a Nashville-based freelance writer and journalist. He reports on politics, local issues, environmental stories, foreign policy, and the economy. For questions, comments, or to suggest a story, email, [email protected].