Elites and Conspiracy Theories
Elites are often the enemy in conspiracy theories, yet history and current events are awash with elite actors espousing conspiracy theories to explain social events. Many infamous leaders such as Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler, used conspiracy theories in order to justify their actions and garner public support (Aaronovitch 2010, 44-86). During the Red Scare era of the Cold War, many Americans had their basic rights violated and public lives ruined by elite actors, based on conspiracy theories about communism (Rogin 1987, 63-77). The same communism based conspiracy theories evolved into the John Birch Society’s New World Order conspiracy theory that still serves as the basis for many current conspiracy theories (Stewart 2002, 435-437).
More extreme American politicians, such as Pat Buchanan and Lyndon LaRouche, have practically built their political careers by using conspiracy-laden rhetoric (James 2001, 86) (Macky 2009). A variety of groups, such as white supremacists, fundamentalist Christian militias and to some extent the Tea Party, are controlled by leaders espousing conspiracy theories to help support their ideological stance (Burack and Snyder-Hall 2013, 443-446) (James 2001, 66-70).
Further, prominent religious leaders, such as televangelist Pat Robertson, Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam, and leaders of many fundamentalist religious groups (regardless of their faith) weave narratives that explain the perceived evils of the world through conspiracy theory (James 2001, 72-74) (Bartlett and Miller 2012, 8-10). Although the above examples are of elite actors who are often at the extreme end of a political or religious spectrum and perhaps less descriptive of more mainstream elites, one can also see a large influx of conspiracy theories throughout the Republican Party since the election of Barack Obama and the growth of the Tea Party. This can be seen in the discourses surrounding very prominent conspiracy theories such as “Birther” conspiracies, and the conspiracies surrounding the Affordable Health Care Act (Contantini 2013) (Eichelberger 2013). Further, one can see this trend in other debates, such as the UN Small Arms Treaty and the UN Treaty for the Disabled (Kane 2012) (Beauchamp 2012).
When looking at elites using conspiracy theory one should not look at just the depth of the conspiracy or how paranoid and fantastical their beliefs appear. Leaders may show different levels of belief in conspiracy theories. As Daniel Pipes points out, leaders such as Joseph Stalin or Louis Farrakhan, incorporated nearly every concept into existing conspiracy theories, while other elites may only “brush the surface of conspirator thinking” (Pipes 1997, 22-24). Further, a person who subscribes to some conspiracy theories is accepting the basic tenets of a different ideology and others have no real method of determining how deeply they subscribe to all the tenets of that ideology (Pipes 1997, 25). This concept has been described as an ideological “funnel” in which many people may be at the large end of the device. Some believers may stay at the top and represent people who identify with conspiracy narratives in very broad terms.
While a smaller group of people will fall deeper into the funnel and only accept an ideology derived completely from conspiracy theories (James 2001, 64). This occurs as the conspiracy theorist develops a deeper understanding of conspiracy theories and incorporates the ideas into their understanding of the world (James 2001, 64-65). Additionally, if we understand conspiracy theorizing as a form of ideology and that conspiracy theorists often realize they are following unpopular and possibly embarrassing beliefs that most of the population would reject, they have an interest to self-censor their public opinions in order to make them more palatable to the general public (Pipes 1997, 20-24) (Bacon 2012, 783). This creates a situation in which one cannot truly evaluate how deeply a person who expresses a belief in some conspiracy theories accepts an ideology based solely on conspiracies. A conspiracy theorist has already accepted some aspects of a narrative that is counter to dominant ideological concepts within a society unless conspiracy theories are the norm for the society, such as the USSR under Stalin or
Germany under the Nazi Party. However, unless the person is very open about their beliefs we cannot accurately appraise how deeply one has gone into the “funnel.”
This point is relevant in the fact that if we have powerful elected officials who embrace conspiracy (even smaller, less “paranoid” conspiracies), they are essentially functioning within a belief system that often sees the political structure they serve as the enemy. However, one must understand that there are differences between a conspiracy theorist and a leader that may see an actual problem within their government. The non-conspiracy theorist leader is fighting within a system against observable moral or legal wrongs that take place in the “chaos of history “ (James 2001, 83-88). While the conspiracy theorist beliefs are based on a good vs. evil dialectic that assumes some type of nefarious agency at the roots of social problems (James 2001, 83-88).
It may seem easy to dismiss elites who use conspiracies in their political rhetoric as paranoid or members of a fringe ideology. Many of these political groups work closely with the Republican Party or are simply part of the GOP. Additionally, this problem is not based on the efforts of a few individuals within the GOP. The Republican National Committee (RNC) has officially joined in accepting the conspiracy narrative when discussing Agenda 21. Despite the erroneous nature of many conspiracy theories, there is a real effect when leaders communicate in this manner to their followers. Some of the more extreme examples above such as Hitler and Stalin need little elaboration. However, the leaders in question do not have to reach these extremities in paranoia in order to shape the behavior of their followers.
The British think tank Demos has released a paper on extremism and conspiracy theories that analyzes the effects of groups when their leaders use conspiracy theories as an explanatory method for events (Bartlett and Miller 2012). The study explains several important factors as to how groups are shaped by leaders using conspiracy theories as the basis of the group narrative.
Conspiracy theories often function by “demonizing” the enemy (Bartlett and Miller 2012, 6). This process helps create a cohesive identity for the group, but also constructs villains as a side effect (Bartlett and Miller 2012, 6). This leads to a situation in which non-believers or those who question the ideology can be easily labeled as sympathetic with the enemy or “part of the
conspiracy” (Bartlett and Miller 2012, 6). This factor can weed out “moderates” and other “voices of dissent” within the group (Bartlett and Miller 2012, 6). Further, groups that use conspiracy narratives as a key part of their ideology have a tendency to justify and embrace the use of violence for their cause (Bartlett and Miller 2012, 6).
As these groups define themselves through their resistance to whatever conspiracy they believe and the villain in their narratives is often the government, they cannot healthily work within an established political system (Bartlett and Miller 2012, 6-8). Further, the Demos study suggests that as these groups grow they can form their own political entities, which can lead to
greater recruitment of marginalized people (Bartlett and Miller 2012) The authors further explain that these are the basic steps that led to the creation of groups such as al-Qaeda and militant white power groups (Bartlett and Miller 2012, 7).
It is important to state that the groups in the Demos article are much more extreme (regarding violence and their use of conspiracy narratives) than groups such as the Tea Party or Republicans who support GOP- issued conspiracy theories. The inclusion of this information is not meant to suggest that groups who identify with the Agenda 21 conspiracy theory will coalesce into an international terrorist group. However, one of the key points of the Demos article is that conspiracy theories can serve as a “radicalization multiplier” within a group (Bartlett and Miller 2012, 3).
Even if groups do not become violent, conspiracy theories exacerbate the problems of dehumanizing one’s enemy and not being able to function well in a political environment based on democracy, compromise and multiple diverse viewpoints still exist (Sunstein and Vermeule 2009, 216-218). Further, believers in the Agenda 21 conspiracy theory share anti-government and anti-international viewpoints with extremist right wing groups (Bartlett and Miller 2012, 3-10). This is not to say they have similar behavior or will eventually turn into extremists. But it is important to realized that many of the concepts that form the basis of the Agenda 21 conspiracy also form the basis of the ideology followed by right wing militias, violent Christian fundamentalists and white separatists/ white supremacists groups which have little ability to function in a normal political system (Bartlett and Miller 2012, 3-5) (James 2001, 74-75). Looking at the situation using the “funnel” metaphor describe earlier in this work, one can realize that followers of conspiracy based ideology can cause damage to a political system by how their belief shape their political behaviors without reaching the extremities of the ideology such as people like Timothy McVey or members of al-Qaeda.
As one can see, conspiracy theories are not just the domain of paranoid recluses, draped in tin-foil hats as many people assume from our current social narrative involving conspiracy theorists. We must understand that conspiracy theorists are a broad group of people who may fit the preconceived notion of a marginalized paranoid type, but also there are conspiracy theorists in positions of power. In turn, this allows conspiracy theories, despite their often-fantastical nature, to be a very real factor in politics, often to the determent of less powerful groups and society in general.