What Is The New Conspiracism?

By Steve Goldstein
Published: Monday, May 13, 2019 - 12:22pm
Updated: Tuesday, May 21, 2019 - 1:46pm

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LAUREN GILGER: We're all familiar with conspiracy theories. Sometimes they're the equivalent of legends or tall tales, or they can approach the realm of reality where evidence and facts could possibly be compatible. But what if we take the theory out of the phrasing and focus just on the conspiracy part? That gets us closer to what is in the public sphere more commonly now. Dartmouth College Professor Russell Muirhead covers that and more in the new book he co-wrote called "A Lot of People are Saying: The New Conspiracism  and the Assault on Democracy." Our co-host Steve Goldstein spoke with him via Skype and started by asking about the difference between so-called classic conspiracy theories and what we're seeing more of today.

RUSSELL MUIRHEAD: It used to be that the conspiracy theories tried to make sense of a world that's often really hard to make sense of. And they .,.. were a little bit like investigative journalism. They connected the dots. They looked for ample evidence. They came up with explanations or theories that made the world more understandable and made power more transparent, more visible, more legible, more readable. I'll give you a good example of a classic conspiracy theory: 9/11 conspiracism. It says, hey, 19 guys in the sands of Afghanistan attack the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The cause is so puny compared to the world historical fact. That doesn't make sense; it must be that the cause is bigger. The government must have been in on the planning. And if you go to Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth, you'll see evidence and theories and an appeal to, you know, engineers to try to explain the ... conspiracy theory. The new conspiracism, there isn't a theory, often no explanation. It doesn't, it's bewildering. It's often very disorienting. It doesn't make the world more understandable. The most obvious example is something like Pizzagate. The idea that — and I don't want to call this a theory — it's the allegation that Hillary Clinton and her campaign chairman John Podesta are running a child sex trafficking ring out of a pizzeria in Chevy Chase, Maryland. It's, you know, not at all clear what this is doing, other than than making the world into a very strange and mysterious place. Or maybe just making people who voted against Hillary feel better by painting her as you know the concentration of all evil.

STEVE GOLDSTEIN: Are part of these conspiracy theories just sorts of ways of, at the very least, chipping away when we try to knock down some of these more traditional institutions that we've come to count on, many of us come to count on for centuries?

MUIRHEAD: My co-author Nancy Rosenblum and I are really worried about two institutions in particular. One, believe it or not as political parties, I say believe or not because like nobody likes political parties, but that the real institution that we have in mind is the tradition of viewing the other side, your opponents in politics, as legitimate players in the Democratic contest. You know Republicans traditionally look at Democrats as they don't want him to get elected, but they see them as legitimate participants and vice versa. Increasingly, the new conspiracism is painting the other side as a conspiracy that's bent on destroying the country that's so evil, there's almost nothing more evil and, and the right thing to do is not to tolerate them but to lock them up. And I'll tell you this institution of the legitimate opposition, this is the kind of thing democracy just depends on. If we lose it, I don't know what's going to take its place. And the other thing that we're concerned about, the other institution that the new conspiracy without the theory targets are knowledge-producing institutions, from courts to universities to the thing we have really minor these kind of lonely agencies in the government that are staffed by nerdy experts that assemble facts. Agencies like the Bureau of Labor Statistics, filled with economist types who come up with things like the unemployment rate. And the new conspiracism says, "Oh you know there's a conspiracy in the Bureau of Labor Statistics to make Obama look good or make Democrats look good or to favor one side." When we ... condition people to thinking that all of these agencies are corrupted by conspiracies, we're going to end up in a fact-free politics.

GOLDSTEIN: How close does that get us to the phrase that you use: malignant normality? First of all w hat is that, and how much does it seem like we're sort of moving in that direction? At least I think a lot of people hope this is a blip in time, but it's certainly something we're facing right now.

MUIRHEAD: That's right, that's right. Malignant normality is this idea where you know you gotta accommodate yourself to this distorted picture of reality, in order maybe to keep your job if you're somebody working in in the government. You have to pretend that you too agree with the conspiratorial allegation, that you share it. You agree that the FBI is plotting you know spied on and the campaigners plotting against the president. ... And once you you know take a few steps to accommodate, it it becomes normal. But it's a normality that undermines good decision making, good thinking, and even, you might even say, just the health, the health of our politics and the health of ourselves. And that's a malignant normality. So, that's when this stuff gets woven in, when it becomes kind of a necessity to agree with the new conspiracism then, then we have a very serious situation.

GOLDSTEIN: Should the general public be concerned that there is an impact on the right and the left of this? Are we seeing it on both sides as far as progressive and those who are very conservative, and what does that say? Does that, could that cause some sort of odd moment to come?

MUIRHEAD: Yeah that's a good question. We, when we are, Nancy and I are writing the book, we saw a lot of conspiracy theory, the classic stuff on the left. Lots of it, as there always has been on all sides of politics. I think all of us are given to some kind of conspiratorial theory theorizing from time to time is very normal. The new conspiracy when you're writing the book, we really thought coming mainly from the extreme right, the radical anti-government right. We don't think it's going to remain there. We think it's very satisfying to truck in these kinds of fabrications that completely delegitimate the other side in politics. And I fully expect to see this coming from the left as well as the right in time.

GOLDSTEIN: Is the reason for optimism if people take hold and try to do something to counter this?

MUIRHEAD: I love that question, and I really do have, I mean, I have a lot of confidence in common sense. It's come through before. It came through when Thomas Paine called it out in 1776, and it fueled a revolution. I don't think, ultimately, I don't think we really need professors to protect us from this. I think we need common sense.

GOLDSTEIN: That was Russell Muirhead. He is a professor of democracy and politics at Dartmouth and also co-author of the new book, "A Lot of People are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy." Russ, thanks so much for the time today. Great to talk with you.

MUIRHEAD: What a pleasure to be here. Thank you so much.

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