This is the fifth 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
Greg Weiner is Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs at Assumption University. He is also a Visiting Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He is regular contributor for The Constitutionalist.
Several years ago—more than several, come to think of it; probably 20—a story broke to the effect that Al Gore, apostle of environmentalism, lived in a gratuitously large house that was responsible for gratuitously large carbon emissions. The claim, which seemed well founded, was that Gore’s choice of living arrangements was hypocritical. Fair enough. But shortly afterward, a friend cited the report in casual conversation as proof that climate change was a myth.
The incident struck me at the time as indicative of a political culture in which any shred of evidence—in this case, it was not even that—was sufficient to sustain an argument. Investigation—weighing competing claims, testing them against reason and evidence, and abiding by an all-things-considered judgment—was unnecessary. Plausibility had become the new truth.
Those were the days. At least my friend felt compelled to cite something, however irrelevant. Then, plausibility was truth. Today, assertion is. We live in a world seemingly governed by Bohemian undergraduates who grew up and got jobs but still took Foucault seriously.
Russell Muirhead and Nancy Rosenblum have done their readers a tremendous service in identifying the distinctive nature of today’s epistemic crisis: it is “conspiracy without the theory.” I am in the difficult position of having no quarrels with their argument. But perhaps some questions would provoke further conversation.
Muirhead and Rosenblum accurately identify the Trumpian method of concocting an argument, putting it in the mouths of “a lot of people,” and then saying it needs analysis for that reason. That seems like a middle ground between plausibility and assertion. Why bother, one wonders, stopping there? Why not go the whole nine, all the way to mere assertion?
Call this intermediate step “plausibility by proxy.” The speaker does not endorse the absurdity in question. He or she merely wants those who supposedly do endorse it to be taken seriously. But while I cannot put my instinct up against Muirhead’s and Rosenblum’s evidence, the middle step seems unnecessary. The whole affair is a sort of rhetorical kabuki theater and—this is the key point of curiosity, at least for me—everyone, including the audience, knows it is theater.
Take the example Muirhead and Rosenblum cite of Trump’s claim that a million people, or perhaps it was a billion, or a trillion—what difference does it make?—attended his inauguration. Trump claimed to have photographic evidence. On the surface, it appeared as though he needed to give his base some plausible reed, however thin, on which to rest their belief. What if, instead, Trump knew he was lying, his audience knew he was lying, and the whole point was the purported display of the only quality Trumpism admires—“strength”—in his willingness to lie as a means of Nietzschean self-assertion? In that case, the more brazen the lie, the stronger the liar.
If there is anything to that, it suggests a collapse of the quality Muirhead and Rosenblum say we must revive—common sense—but in its Scottish rather than its colloquial sense. Opposing itself to Cartesian contortions that made human reason the judge of reality itself, the Scottish Common Sense school—with which Paine was familiar when he entitled his revolutionary pamphlet—insisted that we could trust the obvious evidence of our senses.
Yet these epistemological debates assumed something else: that anyone cared about evidence or argumentation. Postmodern theorists like Foucault instead imagined language as a mere instrument of assertion and power instead. We could will our own realities. Neither Aristotelian evidence nor a retreat into the Cartesian self were required.
Here, I would add something to Laura Field’s assessment of conspiracy-mongering on the right. The point is not that the left does it too. It is that the postmodern left, at least academically, supplied the deconstructionist epistemological theories that substitute assertion for evidence. That is not to say that the QAnon shaman read Foucault and then invaded the Capitol. It is to say, however, that what academics consider theory seeps into culture. More important, it disables the ability of thoughtful people to respond coherently. Falsehoods can only be fully condemned if truths can be objectively shown.
Colleen Sheehan’s response to Muirhead and Rosenblum would also benefit from that perspective. Sheehan argues that conspiracies are nothing new, which is true enough but does not address the core of Muirhead’s and Rosenblum’s argument: that we now have theory-free conspiracies. If that is a new development, it makes historical comparisons less persuasive. Sheehan’s better argument against the left is not an equivalence with the right but rather its epistemological premises, which, in the name of theory, stripped the theory out of conspiracies. We can grant that something new is happening—and that, right now, the moment under discussion, it is primarily happening on the right—while also holding the left to account. Blame, sadly, is not a scarce commodity that must be shifted to one side to avoid it on the other.
Where, then, do right-wing conspiracies and left-wing epistemology leave us? Put otherwise, where are we on this spectrum between plausibility and assertion? Is plausibility-by-proxy actually necessary, or are fabulists going through the hassle when they could avoid it as easily? Muirhead and Rosenblum argue that conspiracy without theory “dispenses with the burden of explanation.” But it does seem to cling to a veneer of explanation. Sean Spicer was made to debase himself and cite evidence, however spurious, for the size of the inaugural crowd. Someone put time into inventing lies about Dominion voting machines.
The case for optimism or despair seems to hinge on whether the hassle merits the effort. If we still require plausibility, even by proxy, there are reasons to hope. If we have osmotically absorbed enough postmodernism not to care, it is much more difficult to see a way back. One route would be focusing on the epistemic roots of our indifference. One need not assert an equivalence between the contemporary left and right to observe that the left is complicit in eroding them. The occupational hazard of the political theorist is to attribute everything to theory. Postmodernism is not the cause of our woes. But it is an accomplice.
To combat it, we do indeed need a revival of common sense. The Scottish version would be especially helpful. But it is only helpful to people who still care, even if nominally, about standards of proof. A lot of people are saying we no longer do.