The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Conspiracy theories are a dangerous threat to our democracy

President Trump with reporters outside the White House on Aug. 30. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

Do you believe conspiracy theories? I generally don’t. I realize that high-level coverups have occurred, in business and government and the Catholic Church. But as a rule of thumb, I find most conspiracy theories violate former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski’s axiom, “History is much more the product of chaos than of conspiracy.” (Come to think of it, he would want us to believe that, wouldn’t he?)

Despite my skepticism, however, I believe there is a conspiracy afoot today among powerful people in U.S. politics and media to exploit some of the nation’s most vulnerable citizens.

Let me back up a bit. What scholars call “conspiratorial ideation” is nothing new in the United States. The historian Richard Hofstadter famously defined “the paranoid style in American politics” in 1964 in an essay and book that covered conspiracy theories going back to the early days of the republic about the supposed powerful machinations of the pope, Jews, the Illuminati, Masons and countless others.

Hofstadter argued that conspiracy theories are widely believed, and survey data have since backed him up again and again. For example, polls in recent years have found that a steady 61 percent of Americans — more than half a century after the event — reject the official government account of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. Asked their assessment of the statement, “Certain U.S. government officials planned the attacks of September 11, 2001, because they wanted the United States to go to war in the Middle East,” according to 2011 survey data, about 20 percent of Americans agree, and another 20 percent are unwilling to say they disagree.

Why do people believe in wild conspiracies? Researchers disagree on the answer. Some say these beliefs are a glitch in human evolution: We are wired to be attuned to plots by the powerful to exploit us, but we mostly get “false positives” (conspiracies that don’t exist) in the process. Others believe that our brains physically adapt to favor beliefs, including those that are false, that bring high emotional arousal. But in all cases, conspiratorial ideation is generally a form of mistaken thinking.

Who makes these mistakes most often? For years, there was a widespread sense that conspiracy theories were especially prevalent among conservatives. But that view has been persuasively debunked. What scholars instead find are, in the words of Rutgers University sociologist Ted Goertzel, people who lack interpersonal trust, suffer insecurity about employment and have high levels of “anomia” (a belief that life for the average person is getting worse; that it’s unfair to bring a child into today’s world; and that public officials are not interested in the average person’s welfare). In other words, conspiracy theorists are outsiders — pessimistic about the future, negative about others and feeling victimized by people in power.

So here’s what we know: People who believe conspiracy theories are prone to cognitive error and are some of the most vulnerable people in our society. These are the people that America’s leaders — in, say, politics and the media — are ethically most duty-bound to help and protect. At the very least, they should never be exploited.

Those who propagate conspiracy theories are not necessarily hapless victims. Sometimes, conspiracies are spread by the powerful themselves. Consider: “This must be the product of a great conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man. A conspiracy of infamy so black that, when it is finally exposed, its principals shall be forever deserving of the maledictions of all honest men.” These words came from Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.) in 1951, decrying the supposed infiltration by communists of the U.S. government. McCarthy was one of the most powerful men in the United States — not some random, hopeless guy trying to understand why he got the short end of the stick in life.

President Trump has accused his opponents of McCarthyism, but he is the one making wildly unsupported accusations, argues columnist E.J. Dionne, Jr. (Video: Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

McCarthy framed himself as a champion of outsiders under threat from a wired-in cabal of left-wing elites. But he was instead a populist conman who shamelessly fomented the public’s legitimate fear of communism to tar political enemies and assert his personal dominance. McCarthy’s use of conspiracy theory was itself a plot by a powerful person to manipulate an error in reasoning by the hopeless and disenfranchised, using false information.

Which brings us to today’s political environment and a true conspiracy that Americans face: the propagation of conspiracy theories by elites themselves. Populism has flourished on both left and right over the past decade in the ecosystem of mistrust for institutions, siloed partisan media and political polarization. The development has become ripe for exploitation by powerful figures, from the current president of the United States, who has, in the past, embraced wild theories including the falsification of former president Barack Obama’s birth certificate and the supposed role of Sen. Ted Cruz’s father in Kennedy’s assassination, to hosts on MSNBC, who entertain claims that President Trump or someone in his Cabinet is a Russian agent or that the wealthy sex offender Jeffrey Epstein was murdered. The result is a nearly constant stream of conspiratorial ideation as a tool of influence.

Why should we care? In a society based on the free flow of ideas, twisting information to create suspicion and rage among the powerless is morally akin to swindling poor people out of their savings. It is also a dangerous threat to a democratic society that requires trust and transparency to function.

If there is a true conspiracy afoot today, it is in the current paranoid style of American power, cynically wielded to manipulate the most vulnerable citizens.

Read more:

Catherine Rampell: Move over, Illuminati. The conspiracy against Trump’s economy is massive.

Michael Gerson: Trump’s spread of conspiracy theories undermines a belief in truth itself

Jennifer Rubin: This is how to respond to Trump’s conspiratorial lunacy

Michael R. Bromwich: Epstein’s death raises a lot of questions. Don’t jump to theories to answer them.