Administrative State

The ‘Marlene Effect’: Why Our Reasonable Neighbors Are Blind to the Deep State


- July 24th, 2019
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In an essay that I published recently at The American Mind, I argue that we need a conservative revolution to reclaim our constitutional republic. Exposing the deep state is a necessary condition for this revolution. By deep state, I mean a species of corruption exercised by a largely hidden elite almost completely insulated from the oversight of the sovereign people. This elite act in direct violation of the principles of limited and balanced government as well as democratic participation.

While the evidence for this corruption is overwhelming, the soft power of both the deep state and the institutions supporting it is so great that public opinion remains largely immune to evidence, even as those Americans who are “woke” to it, strive to resist. It is here where the most insidious consequences of the deep state begin to come into view.

How do people with reasonable and moderate political views and who possess the typical American generosity of soul refuse to believe something so obvious to so many others? I’ll call this the Marlene effect, after one concrete example of my acquaintance. Marlene has a general faith in the American government and in the public discourse about politics and issues found in legacy media outlets. 

So far as she is concerned, the news she gets every day is fair if not entirely unbiased. Her exposure to Donald Trump through the media, long before the election, sparked in her an aesthetic disgust with him.  He is not (or is not portrayed) as the sort of man she could admire. Because she shared this revulsion with those in her social circle, her views became hardened and, to her, altogether obvious. Every story amplifies her feelings. 

When Donald Trump was elected, this patriot of some 80 years could only be baffled by the results. By logical necessity, she had to assume that her proper disgust at the misogynist president ought to be extended to a great many citizens who have now become alien to her—the “other” who she thinks threatens the values that she associates with the America of her experience and the America of her dreams. 

Marlene has become, unexpectedly and suddenly, aware of a hidden America, a dangerous America, and now she is able to see in all manner of symbols (words, cars, hats, and so many more that suddenly fit her new social and moral map of America) the deplorables who are all around her: driving down the road, standing next to her in the grocery store, or fixing her plumbing. 

Fortunately, the most powerful institutions in America offered Marlene hope. Her most trusted news sources promised Marlene that this stain on America’s reputation, this global embarrassment of a president, would be brought down. The most respected people in her world—the FBI, Justice Department, and perhaps seasoned, wise public servants at other federal agencies—were taking their constitutional and moral duties seriously to remove the president for cause. Marlene sought information daily on the gossip and developments of the Mueller investigation and other efforts, but she did so through the news sources that she trusted. Insofar as she heard about any alternatives to these sources or was subjected to alternative interpretations, she was regularly reassured that they were conspiracy theorists and cranks who are not to be trusted—they were part of the problem, the philistines to be vanquished. 

When disconcerting evidence emerged and the facts lined up against the narrative that she had internalized, her trusted sources supplied her with odd and strained explanations and asserted a bit more loudly that whatever you think you see is not actually there. Only the narrative is true—trust the narrative, not the facts. The guardians of public opinion promise to make the crooked line of evidence straight for you. Marlene is reminded of the self-evident truth beneath the evidence: Trump is bad, the Democrats in Congress and their allies in the trusted government agencies are trying to protect American principles, and the media is there to supply you with a comforting and useful narrative. 

The deepest problem is that Marlene is not capable of challenging this narrative. To do so would be to risk both social alienation and her own sense of place in the world. 

The Marlene effect is particularly strong among educated (especially professional) people over age 50 who have long thought of themselves as moderate, practical, and deeply informed. They care about cultural, social, and aesthetic trends and plug into the most socially acceptable forms of information that keep them connected to the cosmopolitan trends appropriate to their actual or aspirational station. The more geographically distant from the center of cultural and social power, the more powerful the Marlene effect on those needing reliable sources to provide them with the right opinions, tastes, and styles.

The distance between Marlene and the evidence, coupled with the need to have the correct opinion on matters she is incapable of assessing directly, puts her completely at the mercy of the sources of authoritative information and assessment that she has chosen. More than perhaps any other segment of the population, those afflicted by the Marlene effect are most controlled by a public opinion generated by elite institutions rather than by their own experiences (indeed, as we noted before, their experiences are shaped by the opinions with which they are supplied). Like all provincials who aspire to be known for their cosmopolitanism, Marlene cannot question the authority of her sources without exposing her complete dependence on the work of others for her most cherished opinions and values. 

The Marlene effect makes people immune to evidence and dependent on a constructed narrative. The Marlene effect reveals that the most important battle is about who gets to define reality for the citizens of a self-ruling nation.

Photo credit: iStock/Getty Images

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