Conspiracy Theories

The Paranoid Style Is American Politics

Fear and loathing on every campaign trail

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On Tuesday the lesbian assassin of Vince Foster won Pennsylvania's presidential primary. In the larger contest for the Democratic nomination, though, she still lags behind a jihadist sleeper agent who is simultaneously a secret Muslim, a secret Communist, and a secret Republican. Whoever wins their race will go on to face a brainwashed puppet of the Viet Cong, and whoever wins that race will then get on with the modern president's central task: serving the interests of Mexico. It must be true, I read it in my email.

There's a persistant political myth that paranoia is only a feature of the fringe, something common among alienated radicals and reactionaries but rare in the great American center. In fact, paranoia has been ubiquitous across the political spectrum. You can find it in nearly every faction and movement at every point in American history, not least among those establishment figures who think they're immune to conspiracy theories. (The most lurid and destructive tales of Waco were not told by militiamen after the raid was over. They were told by the media and the government while the siege was underway.)

In The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, the historian Bernard Bailyn showed that the worldview of the patriots who would soon revolt against England included a strong belief, in the words of one colonist, that "a deep-laid and desperate plan of imperial despotism has been laid, and partly executed, for the extinction of all civil liberty." At the same time, Bailyn notes, British administrators "were as convinced as were the leaders of the Revolutionary movement that they were themselves the victims of conspiratorial designs." Colonial governors such as Thomas Hutchinson—a man John Adams accused of "junto conspiracy"—believed, in Bailyn's words, that "the root of all the trouble in the colonies was the maneuvering of a secret, power-hungry cabal that professed loyalty to England while assiduously working to destroy the bonds of authority."

After independence was won, the victorious patriots quickly found plots in their own ranks. If you didn't think the Jeffersonians were Jacobin pawns of the Illuminati, you probably fretted that the Federalists were conspiring to establish a monarchy. Nor did the hunt for subversive cabals end with the death of the revolutionary generation. The historian David Brion Davis has pointed out that the lead-up to the Civil War can be viewed as a clash between two conspiracy theories, one featuring a fearsome network of abolitionists and the other a hungry Slave Power.

And no, these passions haven't limited themselves to periods as violent as the war for American independence and the war between the states. It's telling that the 1990s, a time of relative peace and prosperity, were also a golden age of both frankly fictional and purportedly true tales of conspiracy. There are many reasons for this, including the not-unsubstantial fact that even at its most peaceful, America is still riven with conflicts. But there is also the possibility that peace breeds nightmares just as surely as strife does. The anthropologist David Graeber has argued that "it's the most peaceful societies which are also the most haunted, in their imaginative constructions of the cosmos, by constant specters of perennial war." The Piaroa Indians of Venezuala, for example, "are famous for their peaceableness," but "they inhabit a cosmos of endless invisible war, in which wizards are engaged in fending off the attacks of insane, predatory gods and all deaths are caused by spiritual murder and have to be avenged by the magical massacre of whole (distant, unknown) communities." Many bloggers with comfortable lives spend their spare time in a similar subterranean world.

Why all the paranoia? In part, of course, it's because there really are conspiracies out there. Power does attract the power-hungry. No, Hillary Clinton did not murder Ron Brown—but her explanations for her good fortune trading cattle futures do not bear close scrutiny. John McCain is not a deep-cover Manchurian Candidate, but he was a charter member of the Keating Five. Barack Obama is not a closet Islamist, but there are legitimate questions about his ties to the corrupt developer Tony Rezko. If politics is the art of compromise, then politicians will inevitably be compromised.

It also is often in a movement's interest to paint the opposition in the darkest possible colors, even when the stakes are small and even when the allegations involved are not completely true or relevant. More importantly, it is natural for the members of a movement to find such suspicions believable and to conjure up such theories themselves. It's always easy to think the worst about people outside your group, especially if they're already consciously working against your goals. This tendency becomes even stronger when a hierarchy is involved. The lower orders are inevitably suspicious of the elite, and the elite are always worried about the proles.

So it shouldn't be a surprise that one poll showed 15 percent of voters believing that Barack Obama is a Muslim. It shouldn't be a surprise that the stories anti-McCain conservatives used to whisper, that perhaps he collaborated with his captors in Vietnam, are now surfacing on the left as well. If Hillary Clinton somehow manages to take the Democratic nomination—an outcome that would probably require a conspiracy itself—you shouldn't be surprised when all the stories you heard about her in the '90s come roaring back, be they plausible or nuts.

Above all, you shouldn't be surprised when you hear these tales not just from that creepy-looking fellow manning the LaRouche booth near the bus stop but from ordinary, middle-class relatives and neighbors with ordinary, middle-class views. Welcome to America. Paranoia is a part of the political process.