At the Washington Post’s website, Ezra Klein shares why he can’t bring himself to sit through the conspiracy-themed Matt Damon film, The Adjustment Bureau:
I can’t believe in guys in suits with the ability to plan things.
And why can’t he believe it? Because, as a Washington political reporter, he sees how history is really made (that is, contingently):
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 carrying out complicated plans. Partisans 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 unburdened by scruples or normal human vulnerabilities. And there’s so much press interest in Svengali political consultants like Karl Rove or David Plouffe, all of whom get built up in the press as infallible tacticians, that the place just looks a lot more sophisticated than it really is.
But I tend to be shocked at how sophisticated it isn’t. 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 speculates about what they just heard. Most every political reporter can back me up when I say that it’s extremely common for key players on both sides of the aisle to ask you what you’re hearing or how you’d rate the chances of their bill — and this typically happens when you’re sitting down to ask them the very same questions.
In general, politicians are overworked and understaffed. They’re traveling constantly, buried under too many meetings and constituent requests, and working desperately to stay one step ahead of whatever they’re getting yelled at about that week. That isn’t to say they don’t take on long-term projects, but in general, the way they take them on is one day at a time. The most common lamentation you’ll hear from congressional staffers when a legislative fight starts going badly is “didn’t anyone think of this beforehand?” In general, the answer is yes, someone saw the fight over the excise tax or the expiration of the Bush tax cuts coming. They just didn’t have enough time, or couldn’t get their boss and the relevant principals and staff members from other offices to put aside the time, to plan for it.
In other words, as the round world turns, no one ever really has a firm grip on the steering wheel of its evolution.
Isn’t that scary?
But it’s quite easy, in retrospect, to construct a story that matches our desire to believe that at least someone was in control of how an event actually turned out:
When a campaign — either electoral or legislative — fails, we hear all about this: Staffers anonymously complain that there was no plan, that the internal communication had broken down, . . . Usually, a lot of that stuff is true. More misleading are the contrasting stories about the campaigns that succeed. Those stories tend to feature the brilliant plans, effective communication strategies and towering cunning of the people involved. . . . Events tend to be too fluid and fast to support very detailed planning. Whenever I read those stories, I think of George Foreman’s contention that the rope-a-dope was never a strategy at all, that Muhammad Ali had fired an arrow into a barn and then walked over afterward and painted a bull’s-eye around it. More often than not, that’s a pretty good description of how politics works . . .
And why elaborate conspiracy theories, in the real world, don’t.