Our research suggests that Obama is on to something. Here’s why.
In the fall of 2014, we asked a representative sample of U.S. adults whether they agreed with statements about the conspiratorial nature of politics.
These statements weren’t designed to measure belief in any particular conspiracy theory, such as that Obama was born outside of the United States (“birtherism”) or that government officials knew about the 9/11 terrorist attacks before they happened (“trutherism”).
These statements were designed to measure various components of a broader conspiratorial mindset. Here is what we found:
- 94 percent agreed that “politicians often lie, deflect blame and find other ways to look innocent.”
- 85 percent agreed that “government institutions are largely controlled by elite outside interests.”
- 83 percent agreed that “in national politics, nothing happens by accident.”
- 78 percent agreed that “in national politics, you can see patterns, designs and secret activities everywhere once you know where to look.”
Most Americans therefore tend to agree with these claims, and at a far higher rate than they agree with specific conspiracy theories such as birtherism. These people perceive a breakdown of the democratic machinery and refuse to accept coincidence. They believe in a web of secrets and patterns that only the most experienced watchdogs can expose.
What, then, about gun control? We combined responses to these four questions into an overall measure of belief in government conspiracies. We found that this belief was strongly related to attitudes about gun control, as this graph shows:
Moreover, this correlation persists even after we account for other factors — including partisanship, ideology, trust of the government, knowledge about politics and a host of demographic characteristics. With these factors taken into account, someone who is most suspicious of government is still 20 points more likely to want to repeal restrictions on guns than someone who is least suspicious.
So, perhaps Obama is correct. Conspiratorial thinking does seem to permeate the collective American psyche, and is related to attitudes about gun control.
At the same time, it’s important to note that belief in government conspiracies exists among Democrats and Republicans alike. This kind of suspicion is in our DNA, and not merely in one political party.
Adam Enders is a PhD candidate in political science at Michigan State University. Steven Smallpage is a PhD candidate in political science at the Michigan State University and an adjunct professor of philosophy at Stetson University.