This is the second in a series of several essays by different authors on the issue of conspiracies. This series is sponsored by Claremont McKenna’s Salvatori Center for the Study of Individual Freedom.
I first read A Lot of People Are Saying this past summer. I picked it up for a variety of reasons: because I know Russell Muirhead from UT Austin, because conspiracism is so en vogue, and because I had heard that the book contained an interesting take on asymmetries in American politics. I found the book compelling, and it has informed my thinking ever since. I’ve been quite grateful for that because, truly, thinking about conspiracism can be a bit of mindbender, especially, perhaps, for philosophers and political theorists.
After all, conspiracies, by definition, are about power and causation and ideas and agency. Theorists think about these things all the time: What caused a given human event or phenomenon? To what extent do human beings exert control in the world, and to what extent are we all just subject to chance and happenstance? Are there other forces at work behind a given eventuality? How would we ever know for sure? The core of the matter is this: thinking about conspiracism brings us up against all kinds of questions about how the human mind discovers (or creates) patterns of causality in the world, and about when and how we attribute agency to others. Each of these questions opens its own philosophical can of worms, as it were—each points to fundamental philosophical and political questions, most of which are contentious and fraught. Most people have a vague sense of these lurking questions and possibilities; the theorist is trained to identify them—and then, ideally, to think-them-through.
Sometimes, though, rather than seeing through conspiracism, it turns out that people who are used to thinking in abstract terms, and who are used to entertaining radical ideas, seem especially susceptible to it. Or at least that is the conclusion that I’ve come to after ruminating on the Muirhead/Rosenblum book for a season or two. In recent years, I’ve spent quite a bit of time reading and writing about conservative political theorists and thinkers who have given intellectual support to the New Right under Trumpism—people like Michael Anton, Adrian Vermeule, Patrick Deneen, William Barr, and Yoram Hazony—and they were very much in my mind when I read A Lot of People Are Saying. I was constantly struck by how much of what Muirhead and Rosenblum said about the “New Conspiracism” resonated with the more sophisticated ideas I saw circulating among intellectuals of the New Reactionary Right.
With their concept of the so-called “New Conspiracism,” Muirhead and Rosenblum have identified a new kind of radical conspiracism that is notable for its flightiness and lack of accountability. As they put it in the preface: “It takes the form of bare assertion and innuendo. It dispenses with evidence and argument. It is embellished and spread through social media. And it is validated by sheer repetition.” Their pithy view of the matter is that the New Conspiracism is “conspiracy without the theory.” Muirhead and Rosenblum are clearly onto something with these insights, but there is also more to the story. Over the course of the Trump years, thinkers on the New Right have made some of the more theoretical dimensions of right-wing conspiratorial thinking quite plain. What follows is a quick set of examples of the intellectual conspiracism of the New Right, followed by a set of observations about how it works in (largely unintentional) syncopation with the New Conspiracism, while at the same time helping us to understand some of the perennial dangers involved in overly-abstract/general thinking. I conclude with some thoughts about the asymmetries of the New Conspiracism (i.e., what Muirhead and Rosenblum refer to as the “partisan penumbra”) and float an idea about its relationship to conservative moralism .
I have put together a collection of extreme, conspiratorial claims made on the part of New Right Intellectuals during the Trump years, which was recently published with the Niskanen Center (also check out this great response by John Ganz, who brings in some great insights about conspiracism and cultures of despair on the left and right). My main aim here at The Constitutionalist, then, is not so much to demonstrate that such claims have happened, or to address their substance, but rather to discuss some of their implications. But with a view to that broader end, let me offer a few examples here of what I have in mind. I differ slightly with Muirhead and Rosenblum in how I would define conspiracism. While they maintain a neutral definition, in keeping with the idea that some conspiracies are real/true, and some are not, I distinguish the concept of conspiracy proper (whereby a group of people engage in secret plotting) from the concept of conspiracism, which, it seems to me, has a necessarily negative connotation and implies a distortion of some kind. As such, I define conspiracism or conspiracy thinking as involving the overweening attribution of sinister intent and coordination to a powerful group.
We can see such conspiratorial thinking at work all the time in the work of Michael Anton, who is convinced that Democrats and the conservative establishment are engaged in a coordinated effort to destroy America. His now-infamous “Flight 93 Election” essay is probably the best example of this mode of thought; the whole premise of the essay is that a Hillary Clinton presidency would have wrought unimaginable destruction to the United States, including “items few of us have yet imagined in our darkest moments.” He claims that the left seeks unprecedented degrees of vindictive persecution against resistance and dissent, and on and on. There are also plenty of examples of a paranoid, conspiratorial mindset in the work of Patrick Deneen, who speaks extremely dismissively of the electoral system throughout his 2018 book, Why Liberalism Failed, and in vague terms that echo the titular premise of A Lot of People Are Saying. For example, Deneen speaks of how elections are “increasingly regarded as evidence of an impregnably rigged and corrupt system” (p. 2) and of how “Our electoral process today appears more to be a Potemkin drama,” (p. 8). After the 2020 elections, Deneen expressed dismay (on Twitter, in a since-deleted re-tweet of well-known conspiracy-monger Jack Prosobiec) about how the elite had “made sure” to roll back the “burst of democracy” that existed under Trump.
Harvard legal scholar Adrian Vermeule fell even deeper into the hole of conspiracism after the 2020 election (see links to relevant Tweets here). For their part the Claremont Institute and its affiliates helped to orchestrate Trump’s “Big Lie,” and continue to stand by their lying claims about widespread (but entirely one-sided, and somehow not-at-all affecting downballot races) election fraud.
Some other examples of conspiratorial thinking on the part of New Right Intellectuals include Arthur Milikh’s overweening, distorted claims about the sinister intentions of American academics, or Bill Barr’s overweening, distorted claims about how liberal secularists are engaged in the “organized destruction” of America, or Patrick Deneen’s overweening, distorted claims about the sinister motives of American “liberalocrats” (educated elites who exploit everyone else and knowingly destroy communities because they benefit from a more cosmopolitan lifestyle), or Yoram Hazony’s overweening, distorted claims about the sinister motives of all the Marxists who have infiltrated liberal institutions and movements, or the Claremont Institutes’ Christopher Flannery’s unhinged and racist claims about the sinister (“evil”) motives and actions of the Black Lives Matter and Antifa movements. Again and again, these so-called conservative “intellectuals” peddle reductive, conspiratorial ideas about American institutions and their own political opponents.
This is something quite different from what Muirhead and Rosenblum have identified with the New Conspiracism, but it ultimately shares many of the same targets, and has some of the same effects. To be sure, I have highlighted some of the most extreme claims made by the intellectuals of the New Reactionary Right; in context, their overweening claims rest on many other (sometimes reasonable-sounding) arguments and claims. But one thing they share with the New Conspiracism is a near-total disregard for serious empirical evidence, and a near-total disregard for prudent and measured political claims. For example, Patrick Deneen, who is certainly among the most thoughtful of this collection, often speaks in authoritative social-science-like tones, but his actual use of that scholarship is scant at best (compare, for example, some of the extraordinary claims he makes in the Introduction to Why Liberalism Failed—I call it his hyperbolic dystopianism—with the meager list of citations for that chapter; or consider the elaborate arguments made in this January 5 article, by political theorist Claes Ryn, arguing that widespread election fraud did take place, with the actual evidence that he provides). Whereas the New Conspiracism is totally unhinged and full of rank fabulism, its destructive messages and disorienting effects are reified in an iterative way by the more sophisticated—but still free-floating and evidence-free or evidence-skewing—theoretical structures concocted by the intellectual right. It’s basically a case of one kind of insular fabulism meeting up with another.
Abstractions and Incredulity
The problem of excessive, impenetrable, and unaccountable, levels of abstraction on the part of political theorists, philosophers, and thinkers is not exactly new. The history of political thought is chock-full of people worrying about this problem—from Aristophanes and Plato to Machiavelli, Bacon, Rousseau, Nietzsche, Tocqueville, and Arendt. Aristophanes was clearly worried that Socrates’ investigations into the natural world would wind up messing with conventional life in Athens: in his play The Clouds, the poet suggests that Socrates’ wild abstract notions could undermine peoples’ belief in more mundane moral aspects of life—and my sense is that he thought Socrates’ notions might be having such effects despite also possibly being true. Plato’s works are full of considerations of what happens when genuinely false or sophistical ideas accrue too much power. Machiavelli worries about the problems that arise from “imaginary principalities” that have no foundation in reality. Bacon was concerned that much of Scholasticism was derived from false premises, and detached from the realities of nature. One could go on and on, but the point is that abstract concepts and notions are, to say the very least, a consistently tricky business. They are enticing to us because they seem to have explanatory power, but they can also be like little traps: even the most crisply-captured insight tends to obscure surrounding complications. So often it’s just very difficult to tell the difference between a genuine insight and a hasty, manipulative, or outright falsifying reduction.
Yoram Hazony’s essay on Marxism and Liberalism, written for Quillette.com, offers a good example of this problem. Hazony’s big idea is that the Marxists pose a major threat to America (“Marxism is back, and making an astonishingly successful bid to seize control of the most important American media companies, universities and schools, major corporations and philanthropic organizations, and even the courts, the government bureaucracy, and some churches”), and that good liberals fail to recognize this problem for what it is both because the Marxists are so sneaky and because liberalism has some blind spots that Marxism bridges and fulfills.
The problem with this rather unserious article is that it is composed mostly of vagaries and abstractions. Hazony’s account of “Marx’s political framework” is so vague that most of it, granting a few linguistic adjustments, could apply to almost any serious political thinker. To him, Marx stands irreducibly for notions like “oppressor and oppressed,” “false consciousness,” “revolutionary reconstitution of society,” and the “total disappearance of class antagonisms.” Now, it is true that Marx put particular emphasis on such ideas and is probably singular in his devotion to the final two, but the idea that notions like “oppressor and oppressed” or “false consciousness” or “revolution” are unique to Marx is absurd—Plato speaks plenty about the strong and the weak, and the famous allegory of the Cave is all about something like false consciousness—and his work pretty much set the tone of political thought in the so-called West for millennia. The American Founders were revolutionaries, too. But Hazony attributes these kinds of ideas almost exclusively to Karl Marx. He then proceeds to argue—in a truly convoluted manner—that Marxism poses a special threat to liberals and liberalism because it hits upon truths (truly novel ideas about “oppression” and “exploitation”) that their (the liberal) worldview is too shallow to comprehend.
Now, Hazony is right, I suppose, to suggest that liberals often have shallow views about power, but the idea that this makes them unusual, or susceptible to Marxist thought in particular—as opposed to any of the other great minds that have explored generic issues like “power” or “oppression” or “false consciousness” or “groupthink”—is laughable. One might as well say that liberalism’s shallowness makes liberals susceptible to… big political ideas and abstractions (Tocqueville makes an argument along these lines at some point). In the remainder of the article, Hazony argues for something called “the endless dance of liberalism and Marxism,” whereby liberals’ claims about freedom and equality are constantly radicalized by the Marxists who point to the limits of liberalism’s achievements—as though were no standards internal to liberalism through which such a critique might emerge (I’m thinking of standards supplied by things like human rights regimes, the law, and liberal values and traditions). In any case, both “sides” of Hazony’s political operation are presented so generically that it’s almost impossible to disagree with them: at a certain level of abstraction (e.g., “politics is about power”), all we get are truisms and interpretative hot air.
Hazony casts such a wide net that he can pretend to drag anything in, but his abstractions aren’t especially incisive or helpful, and there’s not much accountability in his article for what’s actually happening in the world. Hazony just assumes that his audience will take him at his word that American liberals today are under the secret sway of clever Marxists-dressed-up-as-woke-progressives. For some perspective on the matter, consider: the main socialist group in the country—the Democratic Socialists of America, or DSA—has seen quite a bit of growth in recent years, and has seen four members elected to the US Congress; they still do not even have 100,000 members nationwide. Even if we were to grant Hazony’s claim that the Marxists like to operate in secret, are we really supposed to believe they would be shy about joining the DSA? The clearest thing about Hazony’s essay isn’t any insight on offer about liberalism or Marxism, but rather just the author’s concerted effort to tie these two together into a knot of horribles.
The effect of all this—as with the New Conspiracism—is to undermine trust in establishment structures and values. Hazony writes as though he’s a friend to liberalism, but he clearly intends for his reader believe that lurking behind every liberal—and behind every claim to freedom and equality, the core aspirations of American democracy—lies a radical Marxist, ready to pounce. Beware, beware, beware; distrust, distrust, distrust.
One insight that I took away from Muirhead and Rosenblum that I think is especially helpful here is that conspiracism doesn’t just work on peoples’ credulity and willingness to believe; it’s also deeply entangled with the problem of excessive doubt and skepticism. It preys on peoples’ ordinary doubts about their common-sense perceptions of the world—in Hazony’s case, it’s a matter of exploiting peoples’ skepticism about liberalism and American government—and generates still more uncertainty and bafflement, replacing ordinary skepticism with deeper and more unwieldy incredulity. As Tim Hartford put it recently in an insightful essay for the Atlantic this past March, “A focus on excessive credulity distracts from the problem of excessive doubt, which is everywhere in our modern information ecosystem.” Muirhead and Rosenblum further explain how conspiracism wrecks our basic capacity for sensible judgment:
There are good reasons for democratic citizens to withhold deference, to raise questions about experts, and to hold them accountable for their judgments. This is wholesome skepticism. Conspiracism is not skepticism. In its indiscriminate denial of standing to knowledge-producing institutions, it undercuts the basis for criticism: a commitment to evidence, impartial analysis, and ongoing research. And conspiracism undercuts the habits of doubt that empower us to question and test how we know what we think we know. (118)
Ultimately what remains is a lack of measure and good sense, in every direction. And rank fabrications aren’t the only problem here: overweening abstractions contribute to it, too.
Moralism, Asymmetry, and Systems
I want to conclude with one final thought about Muirhead and Rosenblum’s book, returning to the question of partisan asymmetries in the US. Muirhead and Rosenblum make a good case for notion that the new conspiracism has a “partisan penumbra”—that is to say, that while conspiracism itself occurs across the political spectrum—and it is non-partisan in its destructive effects—the current spate of conspiracism in the United States is aligned with radical conservatism (95). According to Muirhead and Rosenblum, the new conspiracism works in tandem with longstanding GOP hostility to active government, which reaches back to Reagan’s anti-government organizing principle, and forward to Steve Bannon’s (and Claremont’s) attacks on the “administrative state.”
This analysis strikes me as intuitive and persuasive. In thinking through the new right intellectuals’ conspiracism, another possible factor in these asymmetries has come to mind, which has to do with the asymmetrical moral intuitions/habits/attitudes that we typically see play out on different parts of the American political spectrum. I haven’t fully thought it through, but it seems plausible to me that American conservatives’ thinking about small government typically dovetails with specific arguments about individual moral responsibility, and that this might have something to do with recent popular forays into conspiracism. On the other hand, just as people on the left generally envision a positive role for government in human affairs, they also tend to be more comfortable with the idea that there are systemic/impersonal forces at play in society that give shape to our lives. This notion, which is obviously true at least to a degree, can certainly lead to other problems (including anti-corporate conspiracism), but perhaps it makes leftists less susceptible to QAnon-type ideas, which strike me as more moralistic, individuating, and punitive. It would be ironic if, in the end, the “Marxist”-style insights about material and systemic forces that Hazony seems to be so worried about are actually helping to keep American liberals from falling too quickly into the conspiratorial abyss.