Are Republican leaders more prone to conspiracy theories?

September 2
X-Files/20th Century Fox
X-Files/20th Century Fox

In a previous post, we argued that the propensity to believe in conspiracy theories is roughly equivalent between Republicans and Democrats. Using polling data, we showed instances where people of both parties were as likely to believe in conspiracy theories in general, and in comparable conspiracy theories in particular, such as voter fraud, birtherism, and trutherism.

Paul Krugman, Jonathan Bernstein, and Andrew Gelman protested. Although Krugman has previously implied otherwise by referring to modern conservatism as a “cult, very much given to conspiracy theorizing,” none of them objected to our claim that conspiracism is about equal among the masses. They did however counter that Republican elites are more approving of conspiracy theories than Democratic elites.

Obviously it’s subjective who counts as an elite and what counts as an accusation of conspiracy. One person’s conspiracy theory is another’s conspiracy, and a conspiracy theory today can turn out to be a conspiracy in time (Watergate comes to mind). How we define elites, conspiracies, and conspiracy theories is influenced at least partly by our own partisan biases. This is why systematic studies are so important.

Our critics are sharp observers and they are probably on to something. We make the case in our book that out-of-power parties are especially inclined to conspiracy theorizing. So we agree that Republican elites are more prone to conspiracy theories right now because they have more to fear. With a Democrat occupying the most powerful office on the planet, Republican elites are an alarm system sounding warnings about potential plots against conservative values. But that is a temporary, situational argument, and one that none of our critics make.

Their claim is that there is something conspiratorial about conservative elites that is unique and lasting. Circumstances change, but conservatives’ stay the same. Democrats are different. This perspective has a storied lineage going back at least to Richard Hofstadter’s “Paranoid Style in American Politics.” The main problem, however, is a lack of evidence.

We tried to remedy this in our research and examined over 100,000 letters to the editor of the New York Times and Chicago Tribune as a proxy for public opinion over a century, separating elite from non-elite letters. Our results found little difference between elites and non-elites, or between Republicans and Democrats, or between Republican elites and Democratic elites. The best available data doesn’t support Krugman.

Admittedly the study of conspiracy theories is still in its infancy and the picture may change in time. Maybe one side’s elites are more conspiracy-minded than the other’s. But right now the evidence does not support claims of partisan asymmetry.

Joseph M. Parent and Joseph E. Uscinski are Associate Professors of Political Science at University of Miami and authors of American Conspiracy Theories.

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