by Gabriel Hearn-Desautels
In the United States, presidential announcements are replete with claims that the liberal media is secretly attempting to undermine the Trump Administration, that Special Counsel Robert Mueller is really in the pocket of the Clintons, and that Democrats inflated the death count from Hurricane Maria in order to make the President look bad. With the rise of America’s first “conspiracy theory president,” much of the world has become inundated with conspiratorial thinking.
Cass Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule, two leading conspiracy theory scholars, define conspiracy theories as “an effort to explain some event or practice by reference to the machinations of powerful people, who attempt to conceal their role (at least until their aims are accomplished).” However, the complex psychology behind belief in conspiracy theories reveals the need to broaden this definition. For the purposes of this short article, I believe it is necessary to extend the definition of conspiracy theories, and, more broadly, conspiratorial thinking, to a perversion of natural skepticism. While conspiratorial thinking is not always a bad thing (some mistrust of government is necessary and beneficial), it can have serious consequences for democratic norms. The growing trend of conspiracism over the last several decades is damaging to democracy insofar as it hinders politicians’ ability to address important issues, undermines the public’s capacity to hold leaders accountable, and contributes to post-truth politics.
With popular support for conspiracy theories rising, politicians often feel morally and politically obligated to address them. The problem with “speaking truth” to conspiracy theories is that it both impedes progress on more important issues and gives credence to conspiracy theories themselves, thereby legitimizing them.
The so-called “Birther movement”, a conspiracy which claimed that former U.S. President Barack Obama was not born in the United States, emerged among fringe groups during the 2008 presidential race. In a series of statements made throughout 2011, Donald Trump questioned the authenticity of Obama’s “short-form” birth certificate, which he had released in 2008. In doing so, Trump effectively mainstreamed the birther movement, lending it a degree of legitimacy that it had not enjoyed in the years prior. The conspiracy became so widespread, both throughout the American public and throughout conservative political circles, that in April 2011 Obama held a press conference where he released his official “long-form” birth certificate. Political scientists Joseph Uscinski and Joseph Parent note that he “had to put aside the faltering economy, two wars, and the national debt” to put the rumors to rest. However, conspiracies surrounding Obama’s eligibility for the presidency did not stop there. Trump simply switched tactics, going after his college records, and conservative Republicans have recently renewed their claims that his birth certificate was faked. Similarly, the 9/11 Commission that was created in the aftermath of the tragic events of 2001 “was designed partly as a response to conspiracy theories accusing Bush and Dick Cheney of staging the attacks on the Twin Towers and Pentagon.” The Commission’s report did nothing to quell fears of a government conspiracy around the attack, and cost close to $20 million.
When political actors endorse conspiracy theories by attempting to disprove them, they paradoxically risk legitimating them in a way that only strengthens the beliefs of their creators. Social psychologist Ziva Kunda points out that conspiracy endorsement can act as a form of “motivated” or “directional” reasoning, in which individuals are motivated to engage in reasoning processes that confirm their original beliefs in the face of “attitude-challenging information.” Similarly, Miller et. al argue that “once a [conspiracy theory] is endorsed, confirmation bias often kicks in, leading individuals to seek out and perceive consistent information, thus solidifying the belief.” This is what happened with the Birther movement and the 9/11 Commission Report. Political leaders acknowledged that the conspiracy theories were important enough to address, spending considerable resources in an effort to disprove them. They gave the conspiracy theorists a very public platform, and despite being faced with hard facts that contradicted their beliefs, conspiracists simply went after other information that would prove them right.
A 2016 study by Chapman University revealed that just over half of all Americans still believe that the U.S. government is “concealing information about the 9/11 attacks,” while 30% believe that Obama’s birth certificate was faked in some way. By comparison, a 2011 study done by political scientists Eric Oliver and Thomas Wood found that 19% of Americans either “agreed” or “strongly agreed” with the statement: “Certain U.S. government officials planned the attacks of September 11, 2001,” and that 24% of Americans either “agreed” or “strongly agreed” with the statement: “President Barack Obama was not really born in the United States and does not have an authentic Hawaiian birth certificate.” Belief in these two conspiracy theories has increased since they were addressed by the government, making it clear that acknowledging them did not have the intended effect.
The consequences of this are twofold. First, when officials choose to address conspiracies head-on, they risk becoming distracted from more urgent political concerns. Second, the belief-reinforcement that comes as a result of legitimating conspiracy theories can convince skeptics and non-believers of the existence of conspiracies, making reform difficult. Miller et. al observe, for example that “the more people who believe that tragic events such as the Sandy Hook massacre are hoaxes, the less of an outcry there will be for legislation to prevent similar tragedies in the future.” After the Sandy Hook shooting, the media was dominated by figures like Alex Jones, who suggested that the victims and their families were nothing but “crisis actors” employed by the liberal government in an effort to bring about gun control. Instead of effectively mobilizing to combat the underlying issue, those involved were forced to deal with harassment from Jones’ followers, and eventually filed lawsuits against Jones himself.
Some scholars have argued that democratic processes logically produce conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theories, they write, are a natural product of the divisions that parties create and exploit in order to pursue political and ideological goals. Additionally, the very nature and functioning of parties invites conspiratorial thinking. While they may not be secret societies that operate entirely in the shadows, they do hold closed legislative caucuses and “make deals and compromises with one another and with the opposition, often without public scrutiny or adequate explanation.” In other words, conspiracy theories are a natural byproduct of the proper functioning of multi-party systems. Conspiracy theorists simply offer explanations for the things they cannot see. Speaking truth to conspiracies would undermine what political scientists Russell Muirhead and Nancy Rosenblum call “the partisan connection,” wherein parties act as reflections of conflicting ideas and interests, thereby connecting with the conflicting ideas and interests of actual citizens.
The partisan connection model also assumes the primacy of ideology in democratic politics. It suggests that political parties, in order to maintain the partisan connection, must accept the inevitability of conspiracy theories and even entertain them in some cases. Otherwise, the necessary fragmentation inherent in pluralistic governments will dissolve. However, Ivan Krastev writes that nearly everyone under the age of 40 living in Western societies “has lived their entire life in a country where the majority of citizens do not trust their national government.” Conspiracy theories have become so prevalent as a result of this, he argues, that they have replaced ideology at the heart of politics.
The problem with the partisan connection approach is that it suggests that popular sentiment predictably mirrors values that have been created at the political or elite levels. Referencing Richard Hofstadter’s “Paranoid Style” thesis, however, legal scholar Mark Fenster asserts that this is not the case. Political feelings are not imposed from above, nor are “composed simply of rational responses to policy issues or the platforms of political parties.” Rather, popular politics “exists in rituals and symbols”; this abstract arena, wherein cultural attitudes toward politics are shaped and interpreted, is where conspiracy theories lie. They certainly are informed by, and act in response to, political occurrences, but they should not be understood strictly in reactionary terms.
While conspiracy theories do offer provocative explanations for certain events, they rarely advance any plausible solutions. This can damage democracy by reducing the public’s ability to hold its leaders accountable. In democracies that are shaped by conspiracy theories (the U.S. being the most obvious case), political leaders can eschew repercussions for their actions simply by “blaming invisible, putatively powerful enemies conspiring against them.”
The U.S. president Donald Trump’s repeated claims that the “liberal media” is deliberately trying to undermine him are a clear example of this dynamic. Given these claims, Trump’s supporters are less likely to hold Trump accountable for his actions and more likely to direct their blame towards the free media, a certain obstacle to a culture of bipartisan trust in government and the press. Additionally, potential dissenters are forced to address the conspiracy itself in their critiques, which risks distracting from public debate on the quality of governance and makes accountability more difficult. More generally, the threat of misinformation dissolves bipartisan collaboration and mutual trust. Conspiracism, in essence, diminishes the accountability of elected officials and foments tensions along party lines, threatening key tenets of democracy.
Conspiratorial thinking diminishes our ability to participate in democratic process in more subtle ways as well. Krastev argues that people are more committed to revealing secrets than they are to finding the truth: “The idea of truth appeals to our common sense. The seductiveness of conspiracy theories is that they appeal to our imaginations. A man can reach the truth on his own, but the secret can be only revealed to him.” Secrets are not solutions, however, and as we become more and more attracted to conspiratorial thinking, our capacity to participate in democratic processes is weakened. We become “zombies either unwilling or too uncomfortable” to challenge our political leaders.
Conspiracism has saturated the contemporary democratic landscape with falsities and fantastical explanations for common occurrences. It is both the result of, and a contributing factor to, a world in which innate feelings are more trusted than sensory observations. In this way, conspiracism has directly contributed to one of the most dangerous phenomena in modern politics: post-truth. A 2016 Economist article defines post-truth politics as “a reliance on assertions that ‘feel true’ but have no basis in fact.”
But why do claims “feel” true? One explanation found in conspiracy theory scholarship is that humans have an innate “need for uniqueness.” Conspiracy theories satisfy this desire because they “represent the possession of unconventional and potentially scarce information.” Another possibility is that conspiracy theories offer simple explanations for seemingly disconnected events. Karl Popper’s “conspiracy theory of society” is perhaps the best examination of this phenomenon. The “conspiracy theory of society” is essentially a theistic structure inhabited by secular agents: “It comes from abandoning God and then asking: ‘Who is in his place?’” The answer to this question is, unsurprisingly, powerful individual actors such as governments, multinational groups, and large corporations. Conspiracy theorists who peddle this belief assert that any number of events or social phenomena (rising income inequality, wars, climate change, etc.) are the result of individual agency. Instead of acknowledging the complex web of factors that lead to a certain outcome, they offer a comfortable explanation that makes order out of the chaos.
The problem with these trends in conspiracism is their reliance on feeling and imagination. They suggest that people who believe ‘facts’ are really the ones in the dark. Observation and sensory experiences become sources of weakness. In their study of the role of uniqueness in conspiracy theory belief, Lantian et. al observed that not only did people rely “on information obtained by themselves, but they thought they did so to a larger extent than they believed they relied on information provided by others.” This reveals, to an extent, conspiracy theories’ role in producing post-truth politics. Leaders like Donald Trump have co-opted conspiracist language, capitalizing on people’s fears of the truth-giving ‘other’ (scientists, elected officials, etc.) He asks us to ignore the facts we are told in favor of believing what we feel is true. He was able to use the rising trend of extreme skepticism to his advantage. When he warned of a child prostitution ring run by the Clintons in a Washington, D.C. pizza restaurant, a man from North Carolina with a gun had to see it for himself, so traveled to the restaurant and threatened its staff. Conspiracism has given a new breed of political leaders the tools they need to subvert evidence, and since they hail themselves as the disruptors of supposedly false claims, the conspiratorial-minded individual supports them.
Mistrust of governmental institutions is inevitable within any regime type, and in many cases, it is healthy. We should not believe everything we hear, because politicians do lie: the Iran-Contra Scandal, MKUltra, and Watergate were all conspiracy theories that turned out to be true. When conspiracism becomes the rule rather than the exception, however, democracy is undermined. A certain amount of trust is vital to the proper functioning of democratic processes. When political leaders are inundated with questions about conspiracy theories, important resources are diverted away from more urgent matters. When we become more committed to revealing fabricated secrets than to finding essential truths, we lose the ability to hold our leaders accountable for their actions. And when truth becomes of secondary importance, anyone can become president.
Gabriel Hearn-Desautels is an undergraduate at Swarthmore College, where he studies History and Political Science. His research interests include Islamic and Middle Eastern history, the politics of memory and emotion, and medical history.
* Disclaimer: The author is a family member of a Democracy and Society editor.
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