Conspiracy theorists seem to lurk behind every door or near every URL. Are conspiracy theories more commonly held by those on the left or the right? Are our times uniquely beset by such theories? If so, why we are beset with conspiracy theories? And should the answers to such questions worry us? Can we answer these questions without ourselves becoming conspiracy theorists?
Conspiracy theorists reject the obvious or standard explanation for why an event happened and instead assign responsibility to a covert, nefarious mastermind that has successfully carried out a plot. The surface is a smokescreen for a deeper, uglier reality.
Examples abound. FDR invited the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor. 9/11 was an inside job. The FBI, an agent of the Deep State, conspired with the FISA court to frame Carter Page. Jeffrey Epstein did not kill himself—he was about to spill the beans on the whole cabal or was working under deep cover and luring Democrats into compromising positions with underage girls so he had to go. President Trump is gaming the postal service to undermine election integrity.
Some conspiracy theories go mainstream: Claims about systemic or institutional racism partake of the elements of conspiracy theories, especially in being unfalsifiable. Differences between ethnic groups exist. Instead of tracing those differences to different subcultures and choices (the common-sense assumption), systemic-racism conspiracy theorists posit that a secret, unconscious set of structures make the oppressed commit crimes or have children out of wedlock or perform worse in schools.
It could be that conspiracy theories have always been with us. Tinfoil hat wearing conspiracy theorists used to live apart from one another, though. Society shunned and shamed such lunatics, if mildly. Modern communications like the internet, which compromise old-fashioned, face-to-face shunning and shaming, make it easier for lunatics to find and fuel one another. As people suppose many others to entertain the same conspiracy theory, they hold that opinion more strongly and it has greater practical influence on their conduct. Shaming and shunning no longer attach themselves to those who offer conspiracy theories. Nothing stops them from going mainstream or sowing themselves into political parties or factions. Such theories are more openly and confidently avowed now than before, even if there may not be more conspiracy theorists. That in itself is interesting.
Then again, perhaps conspiracy theories are particularly endemic to modern representative democracy and popular government as such. Democracies organize themselves for political action through electoral fights for office. Electoral fights foster particular hatreds, though they keep the government in touch with the people. Conspiracies are a particularly insidious form of political hatred endemic to democracy. They are a form of partisan propaganda. People see conspiracies because they want to think the worst of their political enemies or (more cynically) because they want to get their partisans to think the worst of their political enemies. Democrats aren’t just wrong; their leaders are pedophiles! Republicans aren’t just wrong; their leaders are actively undermining the mail service!
But we need to remember another thing: not all conspiracy theories are of a kind. Conspiracy theories that contradict available evidence should never be believed because the obstacles to executing conspiracies are so vast. Carrying out a conspiracy requires prophetic forethought, great competence, tight-lips, and steely nerve in the face of long odds and stern opposition. Ockham’s razor should be applied here: simpler explanations are better. Some conspiracy theories can’t survive such a test.
The Pearl Harbor conspiracy theorists, for instance, argue that FDR’s administration provoked the Japanese to attack or that they had gathered intelligence on the Japanese attack but did nothing to stop it out of a desire to get the United States into the war. There are dots here and there in the form of off-hand remarks by low-level officials to support this view. The factor most likely to connect those dots is the incompetence and wishful thinking of FDR’s associates. Can’t FDR just be incompetent instead of an evil genius? No one is good enough to get their enemies to act just as one wants: if FDR wanted war with Germany, getting Japan to attack Pearl Harbor was an odd way of getting his wish.
But what of conspiracies that are consistent with the surface of things? What of conspiracy theories that pass the test?
After all, the fact that partisans want to think the worst of their political opponents doesn’t mean those opponents are not conspirators. Sometimes the conspiracies are right out in the open. In his “House Divided” speech, for instance, Abraham Lincoln implied that Stephen Douglas and his fellow Democrats “Roger, Franklin, and James” had initiated a “conspiracy” to extend slavery throughout the nation. Lincoln was roundly criticized as a conspiracy theorist as a result. Does that make Lincoln wrong? Jefferson saw Hamilton and the Federalists conspiring to introduce a British-style prime ministership to America. Indeed, Hamilton had no little affinity for that style of governance. Joe McCarthy thought there were many communist spies in the U.S. government, but there were more than a few.
Revolutions, especially modern revolutions, involve conspiracies of a sort—suppressed intentions and a peaceable surface combined with a determined adherence to the revolutionary cause. Sergey Nechayev, a father of modern revolutionary terrorism, puts conspiracies at the center of his thought. He concludes his Catechism of a Revolutionary, wherein he describes no end of scheming and pretending, like this: “To weld the people into one single unconquerable and all-destructive force—this is our aim, our conspiracy, and our task.” Note that conspiracy is the central factor in modern revolution. It’s not paranoid lunacy if people really are out to get you.
This gives rise to an unpleasant thought. Perhaps conspiracy theories are more common today because conspiracies themselves are more common today.
Consider the modern Left, insofar as it is inspired by Marx. On its view, politics is inherently conspiratorial since what on the surface appears to be a debate about justice and the good is in reality a hidden power struggle over the means of production (or, in today’s iteration, power struggles between sexes or races). For this disposition, the norm of social trust is a class conspiracy—nothing but a power play whereby the strong hoodwink the weak into obeying.
But you don’t need to be a Marxist to grasp that there are times when politics really is all about power. Lenin’s questions about the nature of politics—Who? Whom? (as in “who” is doing what “to whom”?)—matter especially in times of revolution or regime disintegration. Conspiracies arise when regime changes upset established ways and seek to introduce a new way, or when social trust and genuine concern about the common fate wane. Those leading this regime change are not apt to be more upfront about their intentions or motives than they need to be, so they are quiet about it or disguise their actions and intentions in more palatable words.
Much of this is clear from the very words and actions of those who seek regime change. Revolutionaries and conspirators were afoot in Russia during Nechayev’s time and in the years following. It was difficult to differentiate the terrorists from the liberals or the population at large, and difficult to distinguish natural disasters from terrorist actions. In unsettled times, conspirators can use the ambiguous surface of things to their advantage. The whole political movement was an open conspiracy, but retail conspirators often disguised their intentions and means in order to bring it about.
Old regimes represent stability. Its citizens recognize that the repose and confidence afforded by the old regime are the chief blessings of civil governments. New rising regimes must upset that stability and confidence. Conspiracy theories grease the skids: those seeking to change the regime explain their opposition to the old regime with a conspiracy theory that seeks to discredit it. We can apply these thoughts to our situation. Opposition to the old regime is couched in terms of a conspiracy, critical race theory, which decries what it sees as “systemic racism.” This undermines the confidence in the old and makes people ready for the new. Minions within this new rising regime then actually conspire to punish those associated with the old regime, in order to detach honor from it and make it difficult to serve (e.g., the prosecution of Carter Page). The overall aim to destroy and build anew is pretty clear, but sometimes the means are unclear or open to generous interpretation.
Meanwhile, those who oppose this regime change are likely to misapprehend it because the fog of revolution makes it difficult to navigate. They cannot see well, though they feel in their bones what is going on. This problem is evident today. Every brush fire out West seems to have been started by Antifa. Or so someone says. For the QAnon conspiracy theorists, the open conspiracy to change the regime is a smokescreen for a salacious one where the pedophilia of power brokers is a central concern. The intentions of the open conspirators are clear, but those sniffing out conspiracies in the general atmosphere of regime change see machinations where there are none. Conspirators exploit those mistakes to prove that no open conspiracy is happening.
Conspiracy theorists will be with us as long as we struggle over election outcomes and as long as people would upset our regime. A successful big-time conspiracy, however, will likely put an end to conspiracies! And that cure would be worse than the disease.