© Josh Sager – May 2012
The United States political scene is rife with conspiracy theories and conspiracy theorists looking to “explain” the true forces behind the scenes in Washington. These conspiracies are widely varied—including issues as absurd as those who claim Obama to be a Kenyan and issues as potentially serious as the true perpetrators of 9/11—and have helped shape the political landscape.
A conspiracy theory is a theory about an event or pattern of events which asserts that there is a hidden cause for the events in question. Oftentimes, these conspiracies are based around the ideas that the truth is being covered up by a hidden hand with an agenda (ex. a political group or organization) and that the common understanding of the situation is simply a fabrication. Such theories pop up whenever major events have perceived inconsistencies or when individuals believe that they recognize pattern in isolated events.
It is important to note that some conspiracies are very real, but a vast majority are simply fabrications by paranoid minds. When talking about conspiracies in the context of this article, I am only referring to the conspiracies that have little evidence supporting them, those based upon utterly ridiculous premises, and those which have been proven to be false.
While conspiracy theories have always existed in the United States, recent years have seen an uptick in the mainstreaming of conspiracy theories in the American right. In the last few years, the mainstream of the right wing has embraced numerous conspiracy theories which would previously been relegated to the fringe. Here are a few examples:
Since his election, Obama has endured numerous conspiracy theories surrounding his history and intention. These conspiracies are common and have taken over the right wing’s dealing with Obama. Rather than deal with Obama in the real world, the right wing’s belief in fictional conspiracies involving the president has destroyed discussions over real issues and has distracted the public from substantive policy differences.
Birtherism: This conspiracy claims that Obama was not born in the United States and is really a Kenyan. For years, no document release would placate these conspiracy theorists and there are still some who believe that the issue is open. As recently as last year, nearly 51% of GOP voters believed that Obama was not born in the USA.
Obama is a Muslim: As of July 2012, 30% of self-identified republicans believed that President Obama is a Muslim.
Obama Education: Many Republicans have questioned Obama’s academic record and have demanded that he release his records. This conspiracy is based around a desire to discredit the president and is fed by latent racism doubting the ability of a black man to succeed academically.
Obama Wants to Take Away Guns: Throughout his presidential career, right wingers have claimed that Obama is plotting to subvert the 2nd Amendment. This claim is completely incorrect and is not supported by any of the facts. Even when Obama doesn’t do anything about gun control, he is simply accused of lulling people into complacency before he strikes.
United Nation Hysteria:
There are numerous right wing conspiracies surrounding the United Nations, focusing on a variety of subjects. Some claim that UN treaties are really a ploy to give away sovereignty to foreign interests; others claim that the UN is really a pernicious organization bent upon “one-world government”. Probably the weirdest conspiracy theory to spring out of the anti-UN sentiment has been the “Agenda 21” conspiracy. According to this belief, the UN is working with other interests to take control over American business, ban the sport of golf, and force Americans to live in eco-friendly “hobbit homes” (I am not joking).
The GOP Conspiracy Movement
The key difference between the current GOP and its previous, more serious, incarnations is that the current GOP has let the fringe conspiracy theories drive the agenda. Rather than relegate the insane conspiracy theorists to the powerless fringes, the current GOP has attempted to ride their passions into a favorable position—by playing on the fear of conspiracy theorists, the GOP has gained a motivated and reliable voting demographic.
The modern GOP is using the conspiracy fringe (now a significant portion of their coalition) to attack their political opponents and disrupt politics. Unfortunately, this tactic has also resulted in a logjam of the legislature, as the conspiracy fringe is unlikely to deal and unwilling to compromise. This tactic is effective at disrupting political opponents, but it is not an effective method of governing a country.
The conspiracy theorists of the GOP can be divided into three distinct groups, each with their own goals and culpabilities for the current state of the GOP. These groups are: the opportunists, the delusional, and the people who see part of the picture.
Opportunistic individuals, who are sane but willing to exploit the unbalanced, have attempted to turn right wing conspiracy theorists into a tool. By mobilizing and egging on the conspiracy-believers, these people have exploited them for political power and personal profits.
In the wake of the 2008 losses, the elites within the Republican Party were desperate to inject life into their party and obstruct the incoming Democratic majority. In order to do this, the GOP party elite invited the John Birch Society and their ilk into leadership positions—this conspiracy theory fringe mixed with the religious right and formed what we now know of as the Tea Party. The movement of unstable conspiracy theorists from the powerless fringe to the fore of the party had the intended results of obstructing the Democrats and mobilizing the base for the 2010 election, but it also came at a cost. In giving power to their fringe, the GOP elites lost control over their party and, rather than simply using the fringe as a weapon, the current GOP has been swallowed by their fringe.
In essence, the elites within the GOP created a monster to attack their opposition, but they then lost control of it and it became dangerous in more than a simply political manner. Unfortunately, we are now stuck dealing with the monster rampaging around and damaging our government until the right wing leadership regains control.
The GOP elite are not delusional, but they are culpable for giving the delusional partial control over the national discourse. In attempting to utilize the unstable in order to destroy a political adversary, they have damaged our government’s ability to function—Case in Point: our legislature couldn’t even confirm a treaty that would extend rights to the disabled across the world because conspiracy theorists were afraid that such a treaty ceded our national sovereignty to the UN.
Even the likes of Karl Rove have come to the conclusion that they made a terrible error in empowering the fringe and have sworn to retake their party from the lunatics. After the 2012 election, Rove began working on an effort to fight the more insane candidates that the Tea Party would present to the public; this effort would attempt to prevent insane right wingers from primarying establishment candidates (ex. like what happened to Dick Lugar) and causing them to lose elections.
In addition to the political elite, there are individuals who have attempted to make a profit out of exploiting the delusional conspiracy theorists of the right wing. Just as how the political elite mobilize the conspiracy nuts in order to gain a political profit, these individuals use the group power of the deluded to fund massive fundraising campaigns and movement-based products. These people don’t necessarily believe in the conspiracies that they promote, they just want to sell products and raise money off of the deluded, thus they pretend to believe.
Rush Limbaugh rode the wave of right wing conspiracy theorists to a position of massive power and wealth. I seriously doubt that Limbaugh believes half of the things that he says on air, but he still says them because that is what the audience wants to hear. By acting as the authoritative confirmation of the delusions of the right, Limbaugh retains his position of power in the right wing echo-sphere and increases his wealth.
Many conspiracy theorists are simply deluded and paranoid people who are seeing things that do not exist. Through a combination of magical thinking and specious logic, the delusional will often draw connections which do not exist and construct elaborate conspiracies. These people are honest in their beliefs and are just trying to promote what they see as the truth, but they are simply wrong in their beliefs.
In the past, these individuals have been relegated to the fringes of their party but, as previously discussed, this is no longer the case. What were once fringe movements (ex. the John Birch Society) have been adopted by the right wing mainstream and turned into the political base for the GOP. Unfortunately, this transition has led to the situation where the right wing political base consists largely of delusional people who have little connection with reality and no real understanding of governmental process.
The likes of Alex Jones and Glenn Beck are the perfect examples of delusional individuals that have risen to the fore of the right wing conspiracy fringe. Both Jones and Beck are mentally unbalanced individuals who believe themselves to be the only ones who see large conspiracies within our government. By drawing tenuous conclusions between disparate events and utilizing their powerful imaginations, these individuals create elaborate and superficially convincing narratives to sell to their audiences.
Delusional propagators of conspiracy theories aren’t necessarily bad people, but they need to be marginalized in order to stop their lunacy from spreading. A conspiracy theory that the Illuminati used tornado-seeding technology to destroy a town in Oklahoma with a massive cat-5 tornado (an actual theory by Alex Jones) is protected speech, but that doesn’t mean that the propagator of such insanity shouldn’t be derided as an unserious lunatic. The media and our sane politicians must simply call these people out for their conspiracy-mongering and attempt to convince as many people as possible not to listen to them.
The People Who See Part of the Picture
Of the three types of people who commonly propagate conspiracies, those who identify a problem or inconsistency in the government but who attribute it to an incorrect cause, are the least dangerous. There are undeniably large problems with our government, but the exact reasons why these problems exist are often very complex and difficult to understand for the lay-person. As such, these lay-people sometimes construct their own narratives to explain the very real issues that they see in our government.
You see this type of conspiracy theorist very often in the area of corruption. People see governments brought to heel by private interests and, rather than seeing that such corruption is organic and a function of right wing deregulatory ideologues, they believe that a massive conspiracy by a few powerful groups (ex. Rothschilds) is enacting a long-term plan for global domination. It is much easier to believe in a big conspiracy centrally directing this type of corruption than to understand the complex motivations of hundreds of different corporate entities set loose in an era of deregulated campaign finance, so people choose to believe the conspiracy.
Ultimately, this type of conspiracy theorist sees real problems, but their lack of understanding of what actually causes them leads them to delegitimize their own arguments and sometimes go off on wild tangents. For example: It makes it easy for those in power to delegitimize people protesting the USA’s advances towards a police state when they start talking about FEMA camps, mind control via water fluoridation, and Agenda 21 as all parts of this progression.
This type of conspiracy theorist is already half-way towards actually being informed, and they simply need to be convinced of the true causes of the issues that they already have identified. Once informed, these people are no longer conspiracy theorists and could be a great asset towards fixing the problems currently afflicting the USA
At the end of the day, conspiracy theorists will always exist but we must not let them steer our debates about public policy into a ditch. In recent years, the GOP weaponized their conspiracy theorists and lost control of them in a way that has nearly crippled our federal government—this is a warning to any and all who would let the lunatics run the asylum in order to score political points.
Of the three types of conspiracy theorists, we must condemn the opportunists, pity the delusional, and inform those who see only part of the picture. If this can be achieved, we may eventually manage to get back to a public policy discussion based in reality, not the delusional mental-constructs of those who have no real understanding of reality.