Russell Muirhead, Professor at Dartmouth College and co-director of the Political Economy Project and Nancy L. Rosenblum, Harvard University Senator Joseph Clark Research Professor of Ethics in Politics and Government, are guest contributors for the RAISE the Vote Campaign. The views expressed in the posts and articles featured in the RAISE the Vote campaign are those of the authors and contributors alone and do not represent the views of APSA.
Nancy Pelosi resisted the call for impeachment hearings for three years. That is, until a whistleblower revealed President Trump’s unremitting effort to get the president of Ukraine to investigate his political opponent. Trump was also driven by his belief in the “Ukraine conspiracy,” according to which it was Ukraine (not Russia) that interfered with the 2016 election. His advisors tried to disabuse him of this fantasy, but without success. How do you convince someone that a conspiracy “theory” is wrong, when there is no evidence to support it in the first place—once a believer inhabits an evidence-free zone, no argument can penetrate. This is the problem with the conspiracism that envelops American politics today. According to our research, what we see today is not conspiracy theory, but conspiracy without the theory, or what we call “conspiracism.”
Conspiracy theory claims to illuminate the covert machinations of the powerful by following the dots to the patterns that add up to a narrative of villainy. Conspiracism is sheer assertion: Rigged! This one word suffices to suggest that the election of 2016 was fraudulently tilted to Democrats. There is no narrative, no explanation, no evidence. Just bare assertion that seems “true enough” to repeat and retweet. Repetition substitutes for evidence: ‘a lot of people are saying’.
Moreover, our research indicates that there is a Left – Right split when it comes to conspiratorial thinking. The Left goes for classic conspiracy theory, replete with argument and evidence (even if in many cases the evidence is strained, the argument wrong). Take Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains (Viking 2017), which claims to uncover in the thinking of Nobel Prize winning economist James Buchanan a “radical right” strategy “he and his collaborators developed over six decades to disempower the majority.” One might find MacLean’s theory warranted or not. But it is a theory, laid out across 334 pages, that can be evaluated and contested.
Conspiracism, or conspiracy without the theory, by contrast, is aligned with the Right, at least for the moment. For example, claims related to the Birther conspiracy, which insists that President Obama occupied office illegitimately because he was born outside the U.S., were immune to all evidence, including the president’s birth certificate. The same is true of more fantastic concoctions like “Pizzagate,” according to which Hillary Clinton and her campaign chairman John Podesta were running a child sex trafficking ring from the basement of a pizzeria in Washington DC. As Edgar Maddison Welch, who arrived at the pizzeria shooting an assault rifle in an effort to “self-investigate” the charges discovered, there were no children being held captive in the pizzeria’s basement. There was not even a basement. As he admitted to reporters: “The intel on this was not 100%”.
Of course, the alignment of the Left with conspiracy theory and the Right with conspiracism is loose and contingent, and there are exceptions. Sometimes conspiracism mimics the evidentiary aspect of conspiracy theory, so the difference between the two is not always stark. “QAnon” cognoscenti interpret and reinterpret the “crumbs” or putative evidentiary clues on the 4chan message board. (QAnon is a conspiratorial mashup according to which the Mueller investigation was just a ruse to distract from Trump’s secret plan to arrest a raft of treasonous liberal globalists like George Soros).
Still, the general alignment between conspiracism and the Right is worth attention. This alignment serves the conservative end of dismantling the administrative state. But conspiracism has a power that goes well beyond conservative ends. Something more is at work: in Speaker Pelosi’s words, “all roads lead to Putin”. The alignment between conspiracism and the Right is also the work of the Russian state, which seeds conspiratorial claims to buttress right-wing insurgent parties in the West and to delegitimate democracy broadly. Indeed, some experts argue that the “Ukraine conspiracy” was originally planted by Russia to deflect its responsibility for interference in the 2016 election—and to sow confusion and conflict within the U.S. Conspiracism has replaced Marxist ideology as a primary tool of Russian international influence.
By obliterating facticity and obscuring what is really happening in the world, conspiracism, which seems like a way to disable enemies and opponents, ends up making it impossible to act effectively.
Like many, we expected that principled conservatives, especially elected representatives, would speak truth to conspiracism. We expected this because notorious conspiracists like Alex Jones are conservatives of convenience; they are conspiracy entrepreneurs driving traffic to their YouTube channels and websites. We certainly had little doubt that Republicans would dissent from Trump’s dangerous and incomprehensible actions when it came to Putin and Russia. In the early days of the Trump presidency, it looked as if this might happen. In July 2017, a bipartisan Congress imposed sanctions on Russia for election interference. And early on, some conservative dissenters emerged: Senators Jeff Flake and Ben Sasse, for example. But Flake only ended up proving that if you resist Trump’s conspiracism you are vulnerable to that potent sliver of the electorate that votes in Republican primaries.
That brings us to where we are today, when almost every Republican official in the House and the Senate and administration is mute or endorses, whether coyly or more emphatically, the “Ukraine conspiracy.” This is submission to a president who imposes his conspiracism on the nation—submission to claims that do not illuminate but obscure the machinations of power and that cripple democratic agency. In addition, if Trump could have escaped his conspiratorial mindset, he might have attended to his advisors’ arguments, and would not be getting impeached now.
By obliterating facticity and obscuring what is really happening in the world, conspiracism, which seems like a way to disable enemies and opponents, ends up making it impossible to act effectively. A political world enveloped in the blinding fog of conspiracism is one where democratic politics itself becomes impossible. As we see in the impeachment hearings, conspiracism makes it impossible not only to negotiate and compromise, but even to disagree. What remains is the force of the authoritarian, who inhabits the thicket of conspiracist claims and counterclaims, benefits from its disorientation, and exploits his office to impose his version of reality on the nation.
Russell Muirhead teaches politics at Dartmouth College, where he is the co-director of the Political Economy Project. Muirhead’s publications include A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy (with Nancy L. Rosenblum, Princeton 2019) and The Promise of Party in a Polarized Age (Harvard 2014). Muirhead has taught previously at the University of Texas at Austin, Harvard University, and Williams College.
Nancy Rosenblum is the Harvard University Senator Joseph Clark Research Professor of Ethics in Politics and Government. Her field of research is historical and contemporary political thought. Good Neighbors: The Democracy of Everyday Life in America was published by Princeton University Press in 2016. On the Side of the Angels: An Appreciation of Parties and Partisanship received the Walter Channing Cabot Fellow Award from Harvard in 2010 for scholarly eminence. She is the author, among other books, of Membership and Morals: The Personal Uses of Pluralism in America (1998), which was awarded the APSA David Easton Prize in 2000. Her recent edited works include Breaking the Cycles of Hatred: Memory, Law, and Repair with Martha Minow; Obligations of Citizenship and Demands of Faith: Religious Accommodation in Pluralist Democracies; and Civil Society and Government, co-edited with Robert Post (2002). She is editor of Thoreau: Political Writings, Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought. Prof. Rosenblum is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Science. She is past President of the American Society for Political and Legal Philosophy, past Vice-President of the American Political Science Association, and a past Board Member of the Russell Sage Foundation. She is Co-Editor of the Annual Review of Political Science. She served as chair of the Department of Government from 2004 to 2011.
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