This essay is a response to Colleen Sheehan’s essay, “Everybody Knows”, which was the third 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.
Russell Muirhead is the Robert Clements Professor of Democracy and Politics and the Chair of the Department of Government at Dartmouth College.
Nancy L. Rosenblum is the Senator Joseph Clark Professor of Ethics in Politics and Government at Harvard University. They are the co-authors of A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy upon which this essay is based.
Are Q Anon and Pizzagate examples of “sheer lunacy,” as Professor Colleen Sheehan says? To call them sheer lunacy is to suggest they are mere lunacy—that because they reflect a kind of pathology or cognitive incapacity, they are not dangerous political phenomena. They can be safely discounted.
Would we say that the Stolen Election Conspiracy is merely sheer lunacy?
For us, Pizzagate, Q Anon, and the Stolen Election Conspiracy all represent a distinctive type of conspiracism: conspiracy without the theory. They rest on sheer assertion and gain force through repetition rather than any known process of validation. One word or phrase suffices to launch charges of secret, nefarious operations: “Rigged,” “Hoax,” “Witch hunt,” Lock them up,” “the Deep State,” on and on.
This is different from classic conspiracy theory, which painstakingly tries to connect the dots in order to reveal hidden patterns and unmask treachery. Many conspiracy theories are far-fetched and vexing in the way they form self-sealed systems of thought resistant to contrary evidence. And yet some are true. That is why social science has been likened to conspiracy theory – it tracks the often-subterranean paths of power. That is why we have an appreciation for classic conspiracy theory and think it has a place in democracy. It is also why we defend skepticism, vigilance, and suspicion.
The political consequences of conspiracism and the way it shapes public life today are our concerns. One is the unceasing, now successful assault on the foundational democratic institution of legitimate political opposition.
The legitimate opposition is a practice according to which incumbent office holders peacefully walk away after they lose elections, and winners of elections refuse to use their power to harass, intimidate, humiliate, kill their opponents or threaten to “lock them up.” The first exhibition of this democratic self-discipline in America was when Federalist president John Adams peacefully walked away after his loss to his own vice-president, Republican Thomas Jefferson in 1800. The second time was when John QuincyAdams peacefully turned over power to Andrew Jackson, having lost the presidency like his father after just one term. They started something that came to seem so solid that we took it for granted.
Except that now we cannot. When we published A Lot of People Are Saying, we showed that conspiracism attacks the legitimacy of organized political opposition. We followed the logic of “Rigged!” to a scenario in which the incumbent president, after losing re-election, would refuse to concede. At the time we didn’t predict that this would actually happen. And then it did.
Sheehan does not mention the “Big Lie,” or who levelled it, who affirmed it, who remained mute, to what purpose and to what effect. Her essay is an exercise in the oldest strategy of minimization: partisan symmetry: “American liberals/progressives are no less inclined to conspiracism.”
What the partisan symmetry claim neglects is that conspiracy charges came directly from the White House, from a President with a compromised sense of reality and the capacity to impose it on the nation, abetted by Republican officials in Congress and the states. Or that the President incited insurrection to overturn the formal count of electors. Or that against the evidence of their own eyes and the nation’s, Republican congressional officials present in the Capitol on January 6th attributed the assault to left wing extremists.
What is the case for symmetry? Is it Madonna’s confession that she thought a lot about “blowing up the White House?” Are anti-Trump conspiracy claims by pundits the equivalent of Presidential charges of Democratic treason? Are the six “investigations” of Benghazi led by congressional Republicans equivalent in reasoning, purpose, and authority to the Mueller investigation?
Of course, Right and Left make hyperbolic statements about the opposition, and always have. Left and Right media often exhibit partisan bias. Mutual partisan distrust is hardly new. Both Right and Left have advanced conspiracy theories, some of which are true (think of Progressive-era investigations of smoke-filled rooms and corporate boardrooms and the democratic reforms that followed).
We don’t doubt that politicians and political groups of every stripe are capable of conspiring to keep their opponents out of power. That is party politics. But that is not the world we live in today where conspiracism delegitimates the opposition. It should not be “hard to say which is the pot and which is the kettle.”
Perhaps former president Trump and the “shirtless, horned helmet, Bison-man who took the dais in the January 6th mobbing of the Capitol” are two peas in a crazy pod. Or perhaps those who advance false conspiratorial charges in order to subvert elections are more cynical and purposive and dangerous for democracy – for legal procedures and regular order — than that would suggest. We are not experts in the psychology of what people believe or why. Our attention is riveted on the politics of today’s conspiracism – we examine the nature and effects of the unreality that has gripped Republican officials and that continues to shape public life. We think through the question, “what does it mean to know something?” and examine what happens to democracy when willfully ignoring that question becomes a malignant normality.