From Truthers to Birthers
Conspiracism has always been with us. The (liberal) historian Richard Hofstadter wrote a famous essay in the mid-1960s that eventually turned into a book, whose title, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, suggests that it can all be dismissed as irrationality. But such a theory allows us little room to make testable predictions. I think we can do better in understanding why bipartisan extremism of this sort is on the rise. In a widely-cited passage, Hofstadter actually at one point describes conspiracism as rational, in a sense:
One of the impressive things about the paranoid literature is precisely the elaborate concern with demonstration it almost invariably shows. One should not be misled by the fantastic conclusions that are so characteristic of this political style into imagining that it is not, so to speak, argued out along factual lines. The very fantastic character of its conclusion leads to heroic strivings for ‘evidence’ to prove that the unbelievable is the only thing that can be believed.
This is suggestive of a process in which the conspiracist has a very strong prior belief. Like anyone in any situation of uncertainty, upon receiving new information he must revise his belief based, as Rev. Bayes noted, on the strength of the prior belief and the strength of the new evidence. In many circumstances of the sort that are lending themselves to the new conspiracism - Dick Cheney arranged the bombing of the World Trade Center, for example -- sensible people in contrast reject the conspiratorial story out of hand. Their own prior beliefs about such an explanation are not inordinately high, because they do not enter with a very dismal belief about Dick Cheney. In conjunction with the readily available evidence that in fact the people who are publicly claiming credit for the attacks had the motivation to do it, it is only a question of the means, which after the event also become explicable. So the official story holds together.
But what if someone does in fact have a prior belief about Dick Cheney that is unusually suspicious -- even before the September 11 attacks, a belief that Mr. Cheney is in government primarily to siphon money to Halliburton, perhaps because Halliburton, as a big corporation (and an oil company to boot), is itself a sinister force. More generally, what if he believes that the American conservative movement is in fact not just wrong but evil? Then, the probative force of the evidence that can sway a person without such beliefs does not do the job for him. (The exact same argument holds for someone with high prior skepticism of the American left in general, or Barack Obama in particular.)
Now all we have to do is explain this high prior skepticism. I suspect it is the combination of several factors. First, the rising degree to which we now expect government to solve our problems, so that control of the government becomes a profoundly important question. The other side winning the next election is a dramatic threat to all of the government policies that so affect the lives of a once-free people. Conspiracism is the product of a decayed republic, where politics assumes cosmic importance because people have become so intertwined with the state and depend upon it to advance both their material interests and their belief in a just world.
And that last idea suggests another intervening factor. In his book Life, the Movie, Neil Gabler argues that popular entertainment has infiltrated every arena of American life. Not just in the sense that celebrities, movies, and so on are important to us, although that is a big part of the story, but in the sense that we consume much of life as if it were entertainment. We treat politics in particular like entertainment, although often entertainment with profound moral content. We want the good guys to win and the bad guys to lose just as if we were watching a movie or play. We take sides, and invest our side with the righteousness of truth and justice and the other side with the dark robes of evil. Elections are not abut consensual governance, but a rollicking good show. (Hence the domination of horse-race coverage in the media.) But if evil is triumphing and good is on the run, how best to explain that? Only some grand dark force can explain right routed by wrong.
The political scientist Robert Putnam wrote a highly influential book in the late 1990s called Bowling Alone: the Collapse and Revival of American Community. Among many other points, he argued that the nature of American political engagement has changed. Where once upon a time being a citizen of the Republic meant attending township meetings or becoming a precinct ward, now it primarily involves national pressure groups like the NRA or Environmental Defense Fund signing up huge numbers of members who do nothing other than send in checks to Washington, which the organizations use to hire staff, generate even more fund-raising letters, and (most importantly) making campaign donations and funding campaign commercials. The organizations have all the contact with the actual legislators, and it is the job of the citizen merely to send in the money and to watch the organizations’ polemical warriors go out and strike the evildoers a mortal rhetorical wound on Fox or MSNBC. That kind of citizenship -- the passive citizenship of watching, instead of the active citizenship of doing -- also lends itself, I suspect, to conspiracy theories as an essential element of the morality play (with "play" the operative word) that politics has become.
Finally, there is ignorance. Our students are increasingly urged to be "educated" about the broader world around them. The Chronicle of Higher Education had a recent essay (Google cache) arguing that students are more "globally aware," and that that is a good thing. But if all "globally aware" means is that people learn that there are a lot of other countries, and that America really is just another one, that is not the same thing as actual knowledge about the world. People who know that there is a country called Iran, and that their cultural values are different from ours, do not necessarily know anything about the history of Shiite Islam, nor do they necessarily know actual things about the broader world -- how China came to be such a vast country, why Madison so feared factional warfare, etc. A society that knows how to read the news but not understand it, a society where everyone is taught, especially at school, of the importance of civic engagement and directing the path of the country, but is ignorant of the historical knowledge and insights into human behavior necessary to do that with any wisdom, is a society ripe for simple explanations of complex things.