Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Dangerous American Love of Conspiracy Theories

For a political party that once upon a time largely valued knowledge, science, education and purportedly personal responsibility, the GOP has morphed into something very ugly.  Now, ignorance, victim-hood, open bigotry are all the norm for the majority of the GOP base.  Worse yet, much of the base seems only to ready to embrace whatever conspiracy theory that fringe elements of the far right might float.  In response, some Democrats have shot back with their own conspiracy theories, although most have a least a shred of reality to support them.  A piece in Politico looks at the conspiracy theories plaguing the 2016 elections.  Here are highlights:

This weekend, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani told Fox News Sunday viewers that Hillary Clinton was seriously ill. The media, he said, “fails to point out several signs of illness by her. … Go online. Search for ‘Hillary Clinton illness.’ Take a look at those videos for yourself.” The idea that Clinton is secretly wrestling with some unknown illness is just the latest conspiracy theory to go mainstream in an election season chock full of them. Conspiracy theories, which I’ve studied for the past seven years, have always been part of American politics, but they’ve tended to pop up in the dark corners of our political discourse, serving mainly as sideshows to more important political disputes. Not so this year; I’ve never seen a time when they so dominated the mainstream debate—and when they had the potential to do so much harm.
Whether it was witches colluding with Satan during colonial times, Freemasons nefariously controlling the government in the 1800s or communists coopting the State Department during the Red Scare, Americans have always been drawn to the idea that certain people or organizations are working in secret for their own benefit against the public good.
Despite this, the United States has not gone off the conspiracy theory cliff because our elite politicians and mainstream news sources generally eschew this type of heady theorizing. A few politicians or news sources might allege a plot from time to time (think Sarah Palin and her Obamacare death panels), but these are usually a result of overheated partisan rhetoric and they tend to receive intense backlash. That was, until now. Donald Trump, one of two people likely to be president next year, has been propagating, and now creating, conspiracy theories as a major theme of his campaign. There’s an obvious reason for this: Donald Trump has branded himself an “outsider.” In my research, I have found that conspiracy theories tend to work best when they are employed by outsiders, electoral losers and statistical minorities. These “losers” have to use conspiracy theories to justify their outsider status, explain away losses and call accepted practices into question.
There is nothing fundamentally wrong with conspiracy theories. They have their positive attributes: Sometimes they turn out to be true (think Watergate, for example), and sometimes they bring new information to light (such as securing the release of many documents pertaining to the Kennedy assassination). But too many can distort ourperception of reality, squander precious government time and resources and endanger lives—especially when they move out of the fringes of political life and become the currency of the truly powerful.
Here are the five most dangerous conspiracy theories of 2016 . . . . . 1. Mexicans and refugees are murderers, rapists and terrorists  Danger: Violence - Donald Trump has accused Mexican immigrants of being pawns in a Mexican conspiracy to send murderers and rapists to America. He also has accused refugees, fleeing their tattered homeland and shattered lives, of working against the government as ISIL agents.
In this case, however, the typical model is reversed: The strong (a man running for U.S. president with the backing of a major political party) is accusing the weak (refugees and minorities). This is a more dangerous type of conspiracy theory because those in power can actually act on their wild hunches, sometimes with deadly consequences.
2. “There’s something going on” Danger: Mass paranoia - A favorite go-to conspiracy theory of Trump’s, used in different circumstances at different points during the campaign, these four words suggest that our governmental institutions and our institutions for disseminating information are not only malevolent, but also engaged in a cover-up of epic proportions.
This conspiracy theory is useful for Trump because it lets him avoid specifics; it’s also dangerous because it’s open-ended, leaving Trump supporters plenty of room to connect their own dots. What is, in fact, “going on”? . . . these four words suggest that everyone is in on it, we need to watch our neighbors, keep an eye on the government and watch the president’s body language like a hawk.
This style of conspiracy theorizing—leaving the details for people to figure out on their own—is advantageous because it gives people less to disagree with.

3. Trump/Clinton is a Manchurian Candidate Danger: Institutional distrust, political polarization - Criticizing Clinton for her mishandling of classified emails, Trump suggested that the Democratic nominee is now beholden to the Obama administration, which decided not to prosecute her. Trump also suggested that other countries now have evidence to blackmail or control Clinton, given that they have been able to hack her private email server. Shooting back, the Clinton campaign put out an ad suggesting that Trump is an agent of powerful Russian interests. Americans of all political persuasions should be able to trust that the two candidates who could lead the national government aren’t pawns to other interests. When they start to doubt their leaders’ loyalty to the country, institutional distrust can skyrocket.
4. Vast right-wing conspiracy Danger: Lack of accountability - There are conspiracy theories; and then there are conspiracy theories about conspiracy theories. This particular one was born during the height of the investigations into then-President Bill Clinton’s business practices and personal life. During a Today Show interview, then-first lady Hillary Clinton dismissed the burgeoning Monica Lewinsky scandal: “The great story here for anybody willing to find it and write about it and explain it,” she said, “is this vast right-wing conspiracy that has been conspiring against my husband since the day he announced for president.” Conspiracy theories aren’t reserved for Republicans. Hillary Clinton has held on to her conspiracy theory that the right wing is in league against her and her family to this day; in fact, she claimed this election cycle that the conspiracy is “even better-funded” now.
5. Everything is “rigged” Danger: Disenfranchisement and alienation - The campaigns of Trump and Sanders repeatedly alleged during the primaries that the nomination process is rigged. Earlier this month, Trump claimed that in states without voter ID laws in place, fraud will be rampant and people will be voting “15 times.” And he asserted that the only way the Clinton campaign can win Pennsylvania is if “they cheat.”
We’ve seen what can happen when people seize on conspiracy theories about fraudulent and rigged elections—despite there being no evidence of mass voter fraud. Over the past few years, similar beliefs have led state legislatures across the country to enact restrictive voter ID laws. But rather than fix a system that wasn’t broken to begin with, these efforts have been shown to disenfranchise minority voters. This year, if Trump deploys supporters to polling stations across America to monitor for fraud and challenge voters’ legitimacy as he is promising to do, the results could be similar.
But such claims about election fraud pale in comparison to the larger allegations that the entire system is rigged.
Far from being helpful, this sort of rhetoric is dangerous. First, it allows for scapegoating (“my lot in life is the fault of the 1 percent”) and indictment (“the rich and powerful have gotten that way only through illicit means”). It also brings about hopelessness and alienation—the feeling that we have been locked into an unfair and degrading system by a few people who wish to abuse us. These sorts of conspiracy theories also serve to depress the vote, as those who believe that elections and governmental processes are rigged will most likely stay home; this weakens our democracy.

1 comment:

EdA said...

Interesting and important, but replete with false equivalencies, even conceding that I am a solid supporter of Hillary's and a solid opponent of the piece of trump and everything and everyone he stands for.

"Shooting back, the Clinton campaign put out an ad suggesting that Trump is an agent of powerful Russian interests." Benedict Trump has bragged of his admiration for the Russian dictator and has made no secret of his support for Putin's foreign policy and his willingness to abandon policies and treaty obligations which American presidents - and Congresses - and the American citizenry - have held constantly, regardless of party, since the end of World War II.

"Hillary Clinton has held on to her conspiracy theory that the right wing is in league against her and her family to this day; in fact, she claimed this election cycle that the conspiracy is “even better-funded” now. " Can anybody, least of all someone from Politico, seriously doubt that there IS a vast well-funded right wing conspiracy against the Clintons and progressive Democrats in general?