Why conspiracy theories in America are not on the rise after all
We recently had a visit from Joe Parent and Joe Uscinski, associate professors in political science at the University of Miami, who gave a public talk based on their forthcoming book: Conspiracy Theories in America (Oxford University Press).
It was a great talk. They’ve put together a highly original data set, and they use it to debunk some of the common ideas about conspiracy theories in America. And they suggest that conspiracy accusations are best explained in terms of party identification.
Watch the talk below:
There’s a lot to say about all of this, but for now I’ll just briefly recap their presentation.
Their main data set is letters to the editor of the New York Times from 1890-2010. They (or rather, their assistants) then coded them according to the usual definition of conspiracy theory: (1) a group (2) acting in secret (3) to alter institutions, usurp power, hide truth, or gain utility (4) at the expense of the common good.
This approach shows in the first instance that conspiracy talk – at least in this sample – is largely stable or even declining over the last century, with just two anomalous periods.
In the periods of stability, a pattern jumps out: When republicans are in power, more of the conspiracy talk comes from the left, accusing Wall Street, corporations and right wing organizations of secretly pulling the strings. When democrats are in power, conspiracy talk comes more from the right, and focuses on subversion by communists, unions and so on. And across the board, foreigners are suspected of being up to no good, and to a lesser degree there is fairly stable suspicion of government and the media. Conspiracy talk, it seems, oscillates back and forth according to who is in power. Neither right nor left is more susceptible. Party identification is key to conspiratorial accusation, and in this sense, “conspiracy theories are for losers.”
The anomalies are two periods of intense conspiracy talk in the 1890s and the 1950s. They explain these spikes in terms of the bipartisan perception of threat. In the 1890s big business had not yet been aligned with the republican party, and both parties saw monopolies and trusts as a threat to American democracy. Almost a third of conspiracy talk from 1890-96 concerned the influence of “business”. In the 1950s, both left and right were gripped by the Red Scare. Again, party and ideological affiliations are the key to the prevalence of conspiracy talk.
When it comes to understanding conspiracy theories today, they argue that conspiracy theories appear when “motive meets opportunity”. By motive they mean that some people are socialised into suspicion, and these people form a sort of vanguard in concocting and promoting conspiratorial accounts of the dangers coming from powerful opponents. They characterize this in terms of a sort of conspiracy ideology, which predisposes them to think in conspiratorial terms. When confronted with information suggesting a conspiracy by people they don’t like, those high on this scale will be easy to convince, and those low on the scale less so.
They also presented survey results that upset some common assumptions who believes in conspiracy theories. They suggest that belief in conspiracy theories is extremely widespread. So either we’re all crazy, or it’s not just crazy people who believe conspiracy theories. Against the idea that conspiracy theories are a simple way to make sense of a complex world, they suggest that most conspiracy theories are actually far more elaborate than other available explanations. And they suggest that the internet has made no difference. Most of the internet talk about conspiracy theory is focused on debunking it.
The talk raised a lot of questions. They got some push back about using letters to the editor as a proxy for more general trends in public opinion. And I asked why, if “conspiracy talk” is stable, is there so much “conspiracy theory” talk? Public debate has always been marked by accusations of conspiracy, but “conspiracy theory” as a distinct category or label in the realm of public opinion and, indeed, as a public problem and now as a focus for social science research, emerges only in the 1960s.
Further, if conspiracy talk is largely stable or declining, then how does it relate to trust in government, which is usually thought to have dropped from a high in the early to mid-1960s to a low at the beginning of the 1980s?
Finally, we might ask, what does this mean for democracy? Against some recent alarmism about conspiracy theories, Parent and Uscinski’s work seems almost reassuring. Conspiracy talk is simply the background noise of a contentious yet stable system of representative government…