Conspiracy theories are for losers
August 30th, 2011
06:00 AM ET

Conspiracy theories are for losers

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.

Read: Ahmed Rashid on the power of Pakistani conspiracy theories.

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.

Read: Fareed Zakaria on why we embrace conspiracy theories.

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.

Read: The bin Laden conspiracy theories and why falsehoods flourish in the Muslim world.

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.

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Topics: Culture • Global

soundoff (13 Responses)
  1. j. von hettlingen

    Human fantasy has limitless resources! It's always simple to believe in a conspiracy theory, when one feels disaffected!

    August 30, 2011 at 10:53 am | Reply
  2. 100% ETHIOPIAN

    The people who believed conispiracy theory, wheather its Monetarilly, politically or power seeking; are Slave Descendants and Anti-Westerners.

    It is all about Mind Sets.

    August 30, 2011 at 11:00 am | Reply
    • Kar

      Please tell me you're being comedic.

      August 30, 2011 at 11:59 am | Reply
  3. Dont worry

    Ah yes, try and write off any conspiracy theory as crazy, or conspiracy theorists as losers. I mean, our government is always looking out for us right? They could never have a secret agenda or anything like that, the people who think that are just a bunch of losers! Right? So lets just keep watching CNN and Fox news, I'm sure they have our best interests at heart.

    August 30, 2011 at 5:04 pm | Reply
  4. Tom Leykis

    War profiteers and lack of accountability in 2 wars that have cost $3 TRILLION dollars each and with the fact that over $100 BILLION has been lost to theft, waste, fraud etc in both Afghanistan and Iraq. http://www.startribune.com/nation/128711593.html

    The numbers don't lie and companies such as Blackwater, Halliburton/KBR, and many other took BILLIONS in revenue for poor workmanship, fraud, graft, waste and gross incompetence. The numbers don't lie. Cheney is a war criminal.

    August 30, 2011 at 9:01 pm | Reply
    • Matt

      Well said, Tom. I'd like to know what the guy who wrote the above article takes us for anyway. A bunch of absolute idiots who were born just yesterday???

      August 30, 2011 at 10:03 pm | Reply
  5. Onesmallvoice

    Conspiracy Theories are for Losers? Not always as many of the theories do turn out to be true. Even 9/11 was most probably a conspiracy itself, considerng the fact that Al Qaeda had neither the funds nor the sophistication to carry out such an attack on it's own. Even anyone who never got past the 5th grade in school ought to smart enough never to put anything past the C.I.A.!!!

    August 30, 2011 at 9:58 pm | Reply
  6. Charles Frith

    Conspiracy theories flourish because the lap dog press parading as guard dog media is no more. Losers like CNN are at the forefront of investigative journalism. Corporate media sucking up.

    August 30, 2011 at 11:48 pm | Reply
  7. Chase

    welp ig the world isn't round after all....sorry for the conspiracy.

    December 13, 2012 at 6:41 am | Reply
  8. Todd

    After reading this article, the term "gaslighting" fits it nicely.

    August 31, 2014 at 2:30 am | Reply
  9. don berry

    Wow, what insight when he says it should come as no surprise that c.t’s about Bush diminished when he left office and then it was Obama’s turn. I was hoping for more insight and at least a little bit of critical thinking since they are professors. As usual, I hope for too much.
    I am not the great thinker that these gentlemen are as I do not have any letters after my name, but I would think if one finds a fairly large fault with the assertion about the diminishing c.t’s, I would think it would pretty much make any conclusions drawn from the book suspect.
    They have drawn these grandiose conclusions by going through letters to the editors for about a century from the N.Y Times and the Chicago Tribune ; am I the only person who sees a glaring problem with any conclusions they could draw from this data ?
    Think , one more second now…..
    Surely you have it by now.
    Well, duh, of course they diminish when this is where you get your data from. Letters to the Editors are SELECTED by the newspaper and of course the newspaper is going to only print those letters which THEY think are relevant.
    Using their example, if Obama is now president and the newspaper gets 50 letters about Bush and 50 letters about Obama, which ones do you think the newspaper is going to print ? In actuality it is irrelevant which one they choose to print, the entire point is the newspaper itself does choose what to print – they do not print every letter they get, they filter those letters.
    So the ONLY conclusion I can draw from this is that there is absolutely nothing in their book that could qualify as factual based on their own assertion that their data came from letters to the editor.
    really smart guys, great book. I think I will write a book based on data that is filtered and then draw some grandiose conclusions from it and go on talk shows and write articles professing to be an expert.
    If thise were a letter to the editor, I have no doubt my letter would be put aside and never see the light of day – so you don’t need to use it to draw any conclusions.
    My conspiracy theory is no one in the media takes even a second to actually think about throwing people out there like these guys and proclaiming them to be an expert. Then people who agree with the book’s summary can use it as proof positive they are correct.
    just another day in America

    September 4, 2014 at 2:00 am | Reply
  10. Editor

    This is supposed to be a real article? In this fantasy worldview there simply are no crimes by powerful people, despite several millennia evidence to the contrary?

    Let me ask the self-appointed arbiters of reality a simple question: was that torture conspiracy by the CIA an actual conspiracy or a "conspiracy theory?"

    August 11, 2016 at 5:54 pm | Reply

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