DANIEL VAUGHAN: Iowa caucuses deal another blow to institutional credibility

“Maybe chemtrails are real,” I said to myself facetiously. I said this while reading about the Midwest debacle — the Iowa caucuses, which are on pace to make the 2000 Florida recount look respectable. I say this because, at least in Florida, the company involved didn’t name themselves “Shadow.” Maybe Evil Inc. was already taken. I don’t know about you, but when I want to instill confidence in my democratic process, the first name I look for on the internet is the company called “Shadow.”

By the way, the first line of Shadow’s company motto is — and I kid you not — “When a light is shining, Shadows are a constant companion.” It’s like learning that the Legion of Doom places its headquarters in Slaughter Swamp. It’s so utterly ridiculous on its face that I can’t even fathom the vetting process in the Iowa Democratic Party that led them to say, without hesitation, that the company that best represented their ideals in caucus voting was the company called Shadow.

But perhaps it is believable. We laugh because it’s hilarious, but as I have written in the past, memes that enter our public discourse tend to reveal more about us than we think. Shadow is funny because it just looks like the most incompetent conspiracy theory-laden company name ever. Bernie Sanders supporters are entirely on board with this line of thought, especially since Pete Buttigieg’s campaign paid for Shadow’s services, and it’s Buttigieg with the surprising win in Iowa.

We laugh at the meme because, frankly, we don’t have any trust in our institutions at this point. We believe there’s a non-zero percent chance any of these conspiracy theories could be right.

For example, we know China came out this week and dramatically increased the number of people it acknowledged as having contracted the coronavirus and died from it. China now acknowledges that the coronavirus has killed “636 people and infected at least 31,161, and many believe those official statistics are far from complete,” which is a dramatic increase from 73 deaths and 3,694 confirmed cases at the beginning of the week. No one believed the initial numbers out of China, and there’s little reason to believe them now.

It’s an open secret that China lies about its economic data, and has done so for decades. If they’re willing to lie on a quarterly basis about their GDP — why would we expect the truth about a potential epidemic?

The popular media narrative is that the virus is no more lethal than the common flu. And while that may be true, as narratives go, governments are shutting down flights to and from China, quarantining cruise ships, and more regarding this virus. The New York Times reports the Chinese are shifting to wartime powers to control their country and shutting down those who speak out on social media.

The meme about Epstein not killing himself, though it’s died down some, still permeates the culture. No one believes he actually committed suicide now. The circumstances surrounding Epstein’s death sound about as innocent as a political company named Shadow helping count caucus votes in Iowa.

We’ve reached a point where the reality we’re being told to accept from elite institutions is just laughable. Either these people are so thoroughly incompetent that they don’t even know how to count a caucus ballot, or there’s some conspiracy theory afoot that explains all the convenient mistakes.

Neither option is overly comforting. I tend to ascribe to a version of Hanlon’s razor on this: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” Except I’d rephrase it in this case and say, “never attribute to conspiracy that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”

The voting in Iowa happened out in the open. There are paper copies of all the ballots. Even if the app in question was hacked, and there’s plenty of evidence that the app could be easily hacked, there were people, cameras, and reporters everywhere, making any attempt to steal the election nearly impossible.

And even still, even with all of that, I’m still where I started: observing the utter collapse of trust in institutions. We don’t trust the media, government, or our cultural institutions to tell us the truth, treat us fairly, or provide strong and virtuous leadership. Instead, we’re left with memes that describe our capacity to laugh at what we’ve decided is either incompetence or an open conspiracy theory against us.

It would be nice if the elites and the institutions they inhabit would acknowledge the lost trust and work to regain it. But as with so many things, they seem more concerned with spinning narratives to defend their position than about fixing the issue. And so we’re left with our memes.

The election of Trump and the rise of Bernie Sanders in the Democratic Party should be a signal to elites that the public is increasingly tired of their games. But there is little evidence that elites are getting the message. They’re still pumping money into companies called Shadow Inc. and expecting everyone to accept it. I don’t think that works anymore.

And here’s the parting shot in all this: we know stories like the coronavirus in Wuhan, China, and the Jeffrey Epstein suicide are built on lies. If all these big stories keep revealing rotten underbellies, what incentive do we have to believe that companies like Shadow are merely incompetent political players? That’s not me putting on a tin-foil hat. I’m just trying to establish a reality in modern America.

And no, chemtrails aren’t real. Anti-vaxxers are costing lives. The moon landing was real. But I don’t trust anyone who names their company Shadow to tell me the truth or run an impartial election.