Toward a Theory of Conspiracy Theories


The recent conspiracy theories surrounding the military exercise, Jade Helm 15, being planned by the U.S. Department of Defense in the summer of 2015 has led me to consider the place of conspiracies in American history.

There are a lot of conspiracy theories in the nation’s past, but what are their general attributes? A central issue, therefore, revolves around how to define a “conspiracy.” At its most innocuous a conspiracy is simply the planning and execution of some activity by a group of people. All actions require some planning with others and could be considered conspiracies. The dictionary definition of conspiracy, however, is “a joining secretly with others for an evil purpose” and most planning efforts, therefore, do not qualify.

One could argue that conspiracies do indeed exist, even when using the dictionary definition. Even so, much rides on what defines an “evil purpose,” for very often that is a matter of perspective. From the American perspective, whether or not Roosevelt was involved matters not, in the strictest sense of the term Pearl Harbor was attacked as a result of a conspiracy for the Japanese high command struck an evil plot against the U.S. From a Japanese perspective it was not so much a conspiracy as good strategic planning. The definition of a conspiracy, therefore, is subjective.

At least in the minds of conspiracy theorists, however, there is always a belief that there is or has been a vast and well-organized plot to carry out some sinister goal, often the very destruction of a way of life. At its extreme form the theorist might consider the conspiracy the vast and prime mover of history. Thus, Americans on the political right have interpreted many of the world’s events in the twentieth century as a “communist conspiracy” against which the “free world” had always to react. As a result, the opponents fighting a perceived conspiracy see themselves as the last bastion of what is good and just and true in the world. There is an especially powerful apocalyptic vision that motivates those who accept conspiracy ideologies. These opponents have often had an almost messianic belief in the rightness of their cause and that the time remaining to salvage whatever is at stake is running out.

This sense of imminent doom from the forces of the conspiracy frequently arouse much passion and militancy on the part of those who believe the theory. They hardly ever see the issues at stake as anything to be mediated and compromised. This makes them strikingly different from most Americans who usually view as critical to their work a give and take to hammer out a conclusion that most people can accept, if not fully embrace. In spite of whatever wishes individuals might have to the contrary, maintaining the system and one’s place in it has nearly always been an important ingredient in American society. Without a certain minimum level of stability, anyone’s position regardless of its justness would be undermined and could never be realized.

Those who believe that a conspiracy has been afoot do not have any interest in talking over differences. They are at war with a malicious, sinister, powerful, ubiquitous personification of evil. That evil is responsible for most of the negative events that happen. It makes crises, starts economic depressions, wars, and disasters; and enjoys the misery foisted upon the culture under attack. Advocates of conspiracy assign demonic omnipresence to whatever and whomsoever they have decided are a part of the conspiracy. They possess a special source of power which is used malevolently against others, especially those who have learned about the conspiracy and are seeking to combat it. Any suggestion from non-believers that a presumed conspiracy might be just as easily and accurately explained by some less diabolical method is met with a sharp rebuke that the non-believer is either a willing participant or a dupe being used by the conspirators.

This sense of “us” or “them,” has led to a belief that those accepting the conspiracy theory are at the barricades of the culture fighting a determined, resourceful, and merciless enemy. At the same time it creates an incredible paradox. Supposedly committed to high ideals—indeed, the very ideals that are under attack—against a powerful threat that has rejected those values, the opposition begins to take on the characteristics of the enemy.

Those manning the barricades themselves become increasingly like the supposed conspirators. Historian David Brion Davis summarized this phenomenon using the example of those seeking to halt immigration in the early nineteenth century:

As the nativist searched for participation in a noble cause, for unity in a group sanctioned by tradition and authority, he professed a belief in democracy and equal rights. Yet in his very zeal for freedom he curiously assumed many of the characteristics of the imagined enemy. By condemning the subversive’s fanatical allegiance to an ideology, he affirmed a similarly uncritical acceptance of a different ideology; by attacking the subversive’s intolerance of dissent, he worked to eliminate dissent and diversity of opinion; by censuring the subversive for alleged licentiousness, he engaged in sensual fantasizes; by criticizing the subversive’s loyalty to an organization, he sought to prove his unconditional loyalty to the established order. The nativist moved even farther in the direction of his enemies when he formed tightly-knit societies and parties which were often secret and which subordinated the individual to the single purpose of the group. Though the nativists generally agreed that the worst evil of subversives was their subordination of means to ends, they themselves recommended the most radical means to purge the nation of troublesome groups and to enforce unquestioned loyalty to the state.

Does those fighting a perceived conspiracy foment their own in the process? An interesting idea deserving of further consideration.

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