Conspiracy Theorists Unite!

Rima Fakih, Miss America

Rima Fakih, Miss America

After Rima Fakih won the Miss America pageant on Sunday, the blogosphere ignited in outrage. Fakih is the first Muslim and the first Arab-American to win the prize. Accusations that she was the pageant organizers fixed the competition so that she would win, and (most dramatically) that she has links to Hezbollah quickly found their way into the blogosphere. Rather than celebrating Fakih’s victory as an illustration of the openness and inclusiveness of American society, her win devolved into a discussion of illegal immigration and racist implications that all Muslims are terrorists.

But the reaction to Fakih’s victory got me thinking more broadly about the role of conspiracy theories in politics. Apparently Daniel Drezner has also been thinking about these issues. He’s got a great article in the British journal the Spectator this month, entitled, “The Paranoid Style in World Politics.” In it, he dissects the role of conspiracy theories in thinking about international and domestic politics.

I’ve certainly noticed increasing commitment to various conspiracy theories among some of my students. From the 9/11 Truthers to the Obama Birthers, conspiracy theories seem to be garnering increasing attention on both the left and the right. The question is why? Why do individuals seek to understand the world through these theories?

In his article, Drezer postulates that the rise of the internet (and the increasing level of narrowcasting that exists in much of the mainstream media) serve to reinforce rather than challenge the preconceptions of those who consume the media. Conservatives who get all of their information from FOX News (or liberals who only watch MSNBC) operate in an intellectual echo chamber that both reinforce preconceptions and make even those with the most extreme political views believe their views and opinions are more mainstream than they actually are. In support of this argument, Drezner points to recent polls that 84 percent of Tea Party supporters believe their views are reflective of the views held by most Americans (by contrast, only 25 percent of all Americans agree with that assessment). Similar data exist for climate skeptics.

At the same time, processes of globalization make it appear as if political and economic elites are transferring power away from the people. While we have the right to vote, the process of globalization makes it appear that real power is outside the people’s reach. Multinational corporations, international organizations, and a transnational ruling class all appear to operate beyond our reach. In the context of this perceived powerlessness, individuals seek to make sense of the world.

Drezner is certainly correct, but I think it goes further than this. Conspiracy theories provide a unified understanding of the world, a way to make sense of complex ideas and processes absent a broader theory or ideology. In this sense, conspiracy theories might serve as a proxy for broader political theories or ideologies, like (neo)liberalism, (neo)realism, constructivism, feminism, or (neo)Marxism. They serve as an ideological lens through which the world can be organized and be made to make sense.  The challenge, though, is that unlike more mainstream theories which can be revised or even abandoned in light of new evidence or challenges, conspiracy theories of world politics are not subject to the normal rules of debate and argument. If the evidence doesn’t fit the model, most theories would revise the model. Conspiracy theories challenge the evidence itself.

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