How political ignorance and irrationality increase the popularity of conspiracy theories

January 21

Prominent blogger and legal scholar Glenn “Instapundit” Reynolds has an interesting USA Today column arguing that the Obama administration’s scandals and abuses of power have given new respectability to conspiracy theories:

Spend a little while on Twitter or in Internet comment sections and you’ll see a significant number of people who think that the NSA may have been relaying intelligence about the Mitt Romney campaign to Obama operatives, or that Chief Justice John Roberts’ sudden about-face in the Obamacare case might have been driven by some sort of NSA-facilitated blackmail.

A year ago, these kinds of comments would have been dismissable as paranoid conspiracy theory. But now, while I still don’t think they’re true, they’re no longer obviously crazy. And that’s Obama’s legacy: a government that makes paranoid conspiracy theories seem possibly sane.

Nick Gillespie points out that such conspiracy-mongering predates the Obama administration’s current troubles, and that the Bush administration’s misdeeds also did a lot to make conspiracy theory more respectable:

I’m partway there in agreement….

Yet I think Instapundit’s analysis goes a bit too far a bit too fast. Obama was the subject of highly fraught conspiracy theorizing before he even won the Democratic nomination in 2008. The whole secret Muslim from Kenya birther shtick proceeded not from anything particular he did or proposed – it clearly was thrust upon him by a mix of racist theorizing and inchoate anxiety about the direction of the country. And, even more important, Obama comes after eight years of conspiracy mongering about George W. Bush – that he stole elections in 2000 and 2004 (remember all the “not my president!” stuff), that Dick Cheney and Haliburton was calling all the shots, or Big Oil, that Iraq was a personal mission to avenge assassination attempts on his life, that he planned the 9/11 attacks, and more….

[C]onspiracizing is as common a feature of the American landscape as, say, Mount Rushmore. It’s man-made, for sure, but it never seems to go away. And it gets worse when the economy sucks and flagrant falsehoods and deceptions by government come to light (weapons of mass destruction, secret kill lists, you can keep your plan, etc.).

In this 2008 post, which may be more relevant today than when originally written, I suggested that one of the reasons why conspiracy theories become popular is because of widespread political ignorance. Most of the public knows very little about government and politics. If something goes badly wrong, it is more intuitive for such people to blame an evil conspiracy than to consider more complex explanations relating to the inherent limits of government or even just honest mistakes by policymakers facing difficult problems. Conspiracy theories are simple explanations for our problems, with easily identifiable villains. They therefore have greater intuitive appeal than more complex explanations that require greater knowledge to understand. And, as Gillespie notes, that appeal increases at times when lots of things go wrong in a short period of time, as has occurred over the last decade.

Conspiracy theory also appeals to people in the more knowledgeable minority of the population, who pay greater attention to political issues than the average voter. Many of them are committed “political fans” who enjoy cheering their preferred party or ideology, and hating its political opponents. Such fans are highly biased in their evaluation of new information, overvaluing anything that supports their preexisting views and undervaluing, misinterpreting, or ignoring that which goes against them. As a result, they are very willing to embrace even dubious conspiracy theories that paint their political enemies as nefarious villains. In many cases, such theories just seem to confirm what partisans already believe to be the true nature of their enemies. That’s why numerous Republican partisans readily embraced “birther” claims that Obama’s supposed foreign origins have been covered up, while numerous Democrats believe “truther” conspiracy theories holding that the Bush administration knew about the 9/11 attacks in advance, but deliberately let them happen anyway.

Obviously, some tragic events really are caused by conspiracies in high places. But political ignorance and partisan bias lead people to greatly overestimate the frequency of such occurrences. Unfortunately, there is no easy solution for public ignorance and irrationality. But understanding the nature of the problem is at least a good start.

Ilya Somin is Professor of Law at George Mason University. His research focuses on constitutional law, property law, and popular political participation. He is the author of "The Grasping Hand: Kelo v. City of New London and the Limits of Eminent Domain" (forthcoming) and "Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter."
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Ilya Somin · January 21