The Origins of Conspiracy Theories

What drives conspiracy theorizing in the United States?…For purchase on this problem, we attempt the first systematic data collection of conspiracy theories at the mass and elite levels by examining published letters to the editor of the New York Times from 1897 to 2010 and a validating sample from the Chicago Tribune. We argue that perceived power asymmetries, indicated by international and domestic conflicts, influence when and why conspiracy theories resonate in the U.S. On this reasoning, conspiracy theories conform to a strategic logic that helps vulnerable groups manage threats. Further, we find that both sides of the domestic partisan divide partake in conspiracy theorizing equally, though in an alternating pattern, and foreign conspiracy theories crowd out domestic conspiracy theories during heightened foreign threat.

From a new paper by political scientists Joseph Uscinski and Joseph Parent, and Bethany Torres, an undergraduate at SUNY-Buffalo.  A conspiracy theory is defined using four criteria:

…the letter had to include four elements: (1) a group who (2) acted in secret to (3) alter institutions, usurp power, hide truth, or gain utility at (4) the expense of the common good.

Uscinski and colleagues find that during the Cold War and when the U.S. was threatened by another “great power,” conspiracy theories emphasized foreign actors.

They also find that conspiracy theories about domestic actors depend on the party of the president.  When the president was a Democratic or the congressional majority was Democratic, conspiracy theories emphasized left-wing actors and communists.  When Republicans controlled the presidency or Congress, conspiracy theories emphasized right-wing or business interests.

They conclude:

Paradoxically then, democracy is both a source and a remedy for conspiracy theories. Groups across the political spectrum have leveled conspiracy accusations at others and been subject to the same accusations themselves because the regular vicissitudes of power in a democracy mean that sooner or later everyone plays the loser.

[Photo credit: Robert Simmons]

4 Responses to The Origins of Conspiracy Theories

  1. Scott Monje August 29, 2011 at 12:38 pm #

    “The main hypothesis here is that personality traits and political predispositions are the root of conspiracy theorizing. But personality traits and political predispositions change more gradually than the waxing and waning of conspiracy theories.”

    Does it bolster the personality-based explanation if the same group of people migrates from one conspiracy theory to another? One of the country’s first grassroots political movements and one of its first “third parties” (briefly the second-largest party in Congress) was the Anti-Masonic Party, which arose out of western New York in the 1820s. Basically an organized conspiracy theory, it started the political careers of some people who later gained prominence as Whigs and Republicans, e.g., Thurlow Weed, William Seward, Horace Greeley, Millard Fillmore. (Weed led the Anti-Masons and founded both the Whig Party and the Republican Party in New York.) I haven’t examined this systematically, so I should probably shut up now, but it seems that a lot of them became vocal abolitionists, and a lot of abolitionists were less concerned about the welfare of enslaved African Americans than they were about the prospect of slave owners using free labor to win political control and/or gain advantages over “real Americans.” Would a link between anti-Masonic conspiracy theories and anti-“slave power” conspiracy theories strengthen an argument that a certain kind of person in just prone to believe in conspiracies?

    By the way, couldn’t that definition of conspiracy theory cover a lot of lobbyists?

  2. Tk August 31, 2011 at 2:24 pm #

    Crazy bastards. Right wing groups and business interests influencing the GOP? The very idea! OK, sure there are the undisclosed meetings between Cheney and his buddies in the energy biz. And various no bid contracts by the same collection of scumbags who use the revolving door between the various right wing groups and the GOP. But c’mon! All of that is just as ridiculous as the idea that a lifetime civil servant is a secret jihadist out to destroy the very country that made him the most powerful man in the world. Stupid leftists.

  3. Bill Harshaw September 4, 2011 at 1:41 pm #

    Gordon Wood in The Idea of America republishes an essay: “Conspiracy and the Paranoid Style: Casuality and Deceit in the Eighteenth Century in which he discusses conspiracy theories in the Revolution. Such theories were surprisingly common among the Revolutionary generation. (The date of the essay isn’t clear, but he refers to Hofstadter and David Brion Davis.)

  4. Jeremy Pressman October 5, 2012 at 10:49 am #

    Could look at the work of Matthew Gray on conspiracy theories in the Mideast: