The Mainstreaming of Conspiracy
July 28, 2022
“We have to figure out what’s going on!”
“The world laughs at us. They won’t laugh when I’m president.”
– Donald J. Trump
It is a sign of the convulsive cadence of our era that conspiratorial thinking has pushed its way into the mainstream of political life. Some have even referred to this phenomenon as a “rise to power,” in which “conspiracist thinking that was once on the margins of American political life now sits at its heart.” This movement has certainly stimulated consideration among artists and academics, but are they approaching conspiracy in a progressive or even fair way?
One such work, Russell Muirhead and Nancy L. Rosenblum’s A Lot of People Are Saying (ALPAS) (Princeton UP, 2019) stands out amongst the slew of recent titles on conspiracy theorizing and post-factuality because it proposes a new theory of conspiracy theory. They aim to help explain what it is that feels so different about recent shifts in our political culture, and they seek to point out the way to combat those shifts. The book provides a fresh overview of many of the most infamous conspiratorial crazes of recent times, and it does so by combining interdisciplinary social science research with anecdotes from the world of today. Somewhat disappointingly, however, the takeaway seems to be to hold fast to the status quo. In the end, the book may reinscribe the very chasm that gave rise to the mainstreaming of conspiracy, rather than genuinely attempting to overcome it. A reading of the book, though, might show us where we so often go wrong.
The book’s thesis is simple: We have witnessed the emergence of a new kind of conspiracy theory culture, which, unlike the “classic conspiracism” – think the JFK assassination or the moon landing – does not really put out proper conspiracy theories as much as it just vocalizes a conviction in conspiracy without seeking to gather and present evidence. This is the “new conspiracism” of the book’s subtitle. Thus, despite a fascinating argument (borrowed from Gordon S. Wood) that American political culture has always framed things in conspiratorial terms, due to a mismatch between an Enlightenment belief in individuals intentionally making history and a world shot through with indifferent error and lamentable happenstance, Muirhead and Rosenblum argue that the conspiracism of today is distinct.
I’ll begin by summarizing their understanding of what a healthy democracy looks like before moving on to consider how the “new conspiracism” undercuts that vision of healthy democracy so potently.