Editor's Note: Dr. Joseph Parent and Dr. Joseph Uscinski are both Assistant Professors of Political Science at the University of Miami. They recently published the paper, Conspiracy Theories are for Losers.
Judging from the talk on New York stoops and in Cairo coffee houses, conspiracies make the world go ‘round. The Bush Administration planned the September 11th attacks, or perhaps it was Israeli secret agents, or perhaps it was Wall Street profiteers, or perhaps Dick Cheney was pulling the strings of all of these in a tangled scheme to make money for his old firm, Halliburton. And that is just the tip of the iceberg with 9/11 “truther” beliefs.
The world is awash in conspiracy theories. The “birther” conspiracy theorists claim Barak Obama became president unconstitutionally because he was born in Indonesia. Others believe Obama is a secret Muslim intent on instituting Sharia Law in the U.S. Last summer, many argued that the president blew up the Deepwater Horizon oil rig himself, in order to push his “green” agenda. With dizzying logic, others contend that Osama bin Laden is not dead and the Holocaust never happened. Still others say the world is run by the Council on Foreign Relations, the Freemasons or the Federal Reserve. The list sprawls on.
This is not the place to weigh the merits of particular conspiracy theories. For now, just think how different the world would look without them. Without their feverish conspiracy theories, what would Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Joseph McCarthy, Timothy McVeigh or Anders Behring Breivik have been? For better or worse, picture what American politics would look like without the imminent specter of vast conspiracies. What if President Clinton was not accused of concealing shady dealings in Arkansas (or had not counterclaimed that he was victimized by a “vast right-wing conspiracy”)? What if Bernstein and Woodward had not thought a conspiracy was afoot at the Watergate? What if the American Founders had not believed that Britain’s King George III had conspired to establish an “absolute tyranny over these states”?
Conspiracy theorizing is common and consequential, yet scholars know little about what makes some of these beliefs more successful than others. To answer this question, we have collected the first systematic, long-term data on conspiracy theories in the United States. Looking at letters to the editor of the New York Times and Chicago Tribune since 1890, we measure the content of conspiracy theories, as well as their ebb and flow.
We found two intriguing patterns. First, in times of conflict, no villain is more popular than foreigners. Whether Russian communists, Latin American banana regimes or Middle Eastern religious groups, wartime villains speak with an accent. More than a third of conspiracy theories accuse enemies abroad of plotting to subvert the common good. But this notoriety is not constant - it is during periods of external threat that foreign foes crowd out domestic suspects, like the U.S. government or corporate fat cats. When the United States engages in hot or cold wars with great powers, conspiracy theories focus on global dangers.
Second, when international threats diminish, Americans return to infighting. This too follows a predictable pattern. When Republicans are in power, right-leaning villains such as big business dominate conspiracy theorizing. When Democrats are in power, left-leaning villains such as socialists become the top peril. And interestingly, actors on the right and left are equal targets. Who controls the presidency is the main force behind this, though Congressional control is also important. All of this suggests that conspiracy theories are deeply political and have a strategic logic to them. Their tendency to scapegoat, however reprehensible, provides a unifying narrative that helps vulnerable groups cooperate and manage threat.
It should come as little surprise then that George W. Bush was accused of all sorts of conspiracy theories, but those faded once he left office. Likewise, no wonder Barack Obama was increasingly tarred with the brush of conspiracy theorists when he came to office - it’s his turn. The same fate awaits whoever wins the 2012 election.
If conspiracy theories are about shifts in power and threat, then they are simply a part of life. Still, that does not mean they should be met with a shrug. For example, greater transparency as well as the unwavering protection of individual rights could take the wind out of many conspiracy theorists’ sails. But some extremists will always be unreachable; and for them, our argument predicts who is mostly likely to be targeted for violence and when.
Paradoxically then, democracy is both a root cause of, and a remedy for, conspiracy theories. Groups across the political spectrum have leveled conspiracy accusations at others and been subject to the same accusations themselves. Although conspiracy theories have anti-democratic aspects, in this respect they are very fair: All of us get to play the villain eventually.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of Dr. Joseph Parent and Dr. Joseph Uscinski.