The Paranoid Style in American Politics

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130 Responses

  1. greginak says:

    People are built to find patterns. People have been telling stories and weaving myths since we started to be people. Making a good story that shows have things make sense is, in a way, comforting. The story might be of evil forces and conspiracies, which is bad obviously, but it implies not only an Evil but a Good. It can provide hope and mostly it holds off something even worse: meaningless chaos. It is better to be subject to a seamy conspiracy, which can be understood and is essentially human (unless we are talking lizard people kind of crazy) then be victim of random, purposeless chance.

    I used to work with seriously mentally ill people. People so devastated by schizophrenia or the like that they make the Rodgers douche look sane. Very very few were even remotely dangerous, but many had paranoid delusions. One day while walking with a one of those guys, who was usually marginally homeless, tortured by voices and paranoid delusions of the CIA and gov messing with him i sort of figured something out. It must be terrible to think the CIA is screwing with you. But its far worse to think you are a homeless nobody whose life was crippled by some mysterious disease that isn’t understood nor can anybody even say why he has it. It’s better to be the target of powerful forces then have an innocent with a life f’d over by chance.Report

    • Saul DeGraw in reply to greginak says:


      SF also has a substantial portion of marginally to chronically homeless schizophrenics and other mentally ill people. One of them saw me as a confessional sort on the bus and told me about how the SF Park Rangers used the De Young Tower to summon 500 year old Nazi-Demons into Golden Gate Park. These Nazi Demons then do horrible things and of course he said he was the only one that could see this threat and had the interjection of Darj Danger into the story.

      A few years later I saw him on the same bus route, also heading towards home after work. This time he was literally barking mad and scaring people on the bus.Report

  2. Glyph says:

    Exene has MS. I wonder if she’s self-medicating and if so, with what.

    My cousin has exhibited her art before, next time I talk to him I’ll have to remember to ask if she’s always seemed off.Report

    • greginak in reply to Glyph says:

      Often it is better to not know too much about icons. They are just people. In any case John Doe has had a far more productive post- X career. So good for him.Report

    • Saul DeGraw in reply to Glyph says:

      I know she has MS but she also seems to have a longish history of the crazy. You are not the only person to wonder this BTW.

      I just know this from Internet hearsay but apparently Billy Zoom had these two thoughts when Doe introduced him to Exene.

      1. “Great, she is going to want to be in the band.”

      2. “Great, she’s nuts!”

      Zoom himself is right-wing from what I’ve heard.Report

  3. dand says:

    What about the paranoid people who claimed the Saddam didn’t have any WMD, or that Spain didn’t sink the Maine?Report

    • Saul DeGraw in reply to dand says:

      Notice how I didn’t use those as examples.

      I don’t claim that government or the media tells the truth all the time. Far from it. The government and media are filled with people and people lie. Lying is innate to human psychology probably.

      There is such a thing as a healthy level of skepticism which is good. The problem is that a lot of people seem to skip the healthy level and go straight into the paranoid level.Report

      • dand in reply to Saul DeGraw says:

        How do you differentiate between the two? How many conspiracy sound more crazy than what happened in Iran Contra?Report

      • Saul DeGraw in reply to Saul DeGraw says:

        I would say Sandy Hook and UCSB as false flag operations sound demonstratively more crazy than Iran Contra.

        Iran Contra at least involved going after commies which was always US policy. We can’t have socialism near our borders and all that.Report

      • greginak in reply to Saul DeGraw says:

        What sounded crazy about Iran/Contra? All the elements were simple things that had been done before: we had sold arms to douchebags and negotiated with all sorts of bad actors. Supporting various murderers was a policy for a long time. There was nothing crazy in terms of unreal or out of the bounds of our past behavior.Report

      • James K in reply to Saul DeGraw says:


        we had sold arms to douchebags and negotiated with all sorts of bad actors.

        For one thing, you just described US foreign policy toward the USSR in WWII.Report

      • Damon in reply to Saul DeGraw says:

        Gee, maybe if the press and the gov’t didn’t LIE to us continually the amercian public might not get so paranoid. Maybe if our gov’t didn’t have a long history of overthrowing legitimate gov’ts that it didn’t like. Maybe if our gov’t didn’t actively support people it labels as terrorists when it’s convient. Maybe if our gov’t didn’t actively kidnap and torture people. Maybe if our gov’t didn’t claim to right to kill anyone, even it’s own people, for “secret” reasons inside or outside our country in violation of existing laws.

        Yeah, no reason to be paranoid….Report

      • Kim in reply to Saul DeGraw says:

        The government has revealed at least one hoax perpetrated on the American public: Area 51.Report

  4. Mike Schilling says:

    Stan Freberg used to claim that rock’n’roll was a conspiracy by the record companies to replace relatively scarce and well-paid jazz musicians with an endless supply of kids who could barely sing or play their instruments. I don’t know how serious he was, but he made some hilarious comedy records in which random youths were pulled off the street and Svengali’d into rock stars.Report

    • Saul DeGraw in reply to Mike Schilling says:

      That just sounds like an old person trying to be funny but ending up saying “Get off my lawn” to me.Report

    • Saul DeGraw in reply to Mike Schilling says:

      Though this is an argument that also goes for changing technology. People blammed the advent of the phonograph and the radio for the death of the well-paid local professional musician.

      You would probably like a book called How the Beatles Destroyed Rock n’Roll which notes that it was the Beatles who really made music a generational issue more than anything else.Report

      • James K in reply to Saul DeGraw says:


        People blammed the advent of the phonograph and the radio for the death of the well-paid local professional musician.

        I think this is one of the important characteristics of the paranoid style – an overabundance of purpose. Things don’t just happen or have unintended consequences, no if something happened its because they made it happen.Report

      • Road Scholar in reply to Saul DeGraw says:

        @james-k , this is a great point. Much the same way primitives ascribed all manner of natural events as well as good or bad fortune to the workings of the gods.Report

      • James K in reply to Saul DeGraw says:


        Yes, I agree this is all likely the result of a single cognitive bias – a tendency to project personhood onto the events that affect our lives.Report

      • zic in reply to Saul DeGraw says:

        Well, I heard that video killed the radio star.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to Saul DeGraw says:

        James K, I don’t think thats exactly fair. The ability to record music did have a lot of effects on musical ability. Some of these can be described as detrimental. Before recorded music became widespread, if you wanted to listen to music than you needed a musician around. This led to more people learning how to play an instrument or sing so they could have musical fun with them and their loved ones. People weren’t necessarily great musicians or singers but they were better on average than most people now. There was still a demand for professioanl musicians. The local dance hall simply couldn’t put on records. They needed to have a band or orchestra that could play. This meant that more people could earn a living from music.

        How the Beatles Destoryed Rock’N’Roll:An Alternative History of American Popular Music by Elijah Wald outlines how technology changed music among other things.Report

      • Kim in reply to Saul DeGraw says:

        TechView: We now have music that would have been completely impossible for those early musicians to play.
        Also, the use of electronic music generation has opened the world of music to many people with kinesthetic learning difficulties.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to Saul DeGraw says:

        a tendency to project personhood onto the events that affect our lives.

        That’s an interesting way to view it, one I’d never thought of before. I think you’re right about this insofar as the paranoid mindset attributes intentionality to actions and events and states of affairs that would otherwise by viewed as resulting from unintentional processes (accidents, mistakes, etc.). The strange thing folks who think this way is that they begin with the premise that the complexity of the world we live in is fundamentally flawed/obviously morally wrong, which is a judgment inconsistent with actual real evidence, and moves very quickly from that judgment to the conclusion that those outcomes could only have resulted by design. So it’s an inherently anti-empirical world view, one based on a closely held, highly internalized view of what constitutes right action and right outcomes. I’d say it’s one of the really dysfunctional aspects to taking a priori thinking too seriously since it requires individuals to construct evidence-free and question-begging accounts of the way things are rather than merely describing them.

        Granted, sometimes a description lacks completeness. But the conspiracy-minded person views the absence of a complete description as further evidence that reality is determined by malevolent forces beyond their control. It’s certainly a strange dynamic, and paradoxical in many respects.Report

      • Burt Likko in reply to Saul DeGraw says:

        I see a link between @james-k ‘s observation and that off @leeesq ‘s description of conspiracy theories as having religious roots. Apocalyptic religious prophecy is the culmination of teleological religious thought. It is a short step from there to import teleology into inchoate political frustration.Report

      • James K in reply to Saul DeGraw says:


        It’s not the causal mechanism I object to, but the intentionality.

        I’m entirely on board with the hypothesis “recorded music made a handful of superstars rich at the expense of the average musician”, I take issue with “someone invented recorded music so as to impoverish the local musician”. Just because a thing happens doe snot mean someone deliberately planned for it to happen.Report

      • Matty in reply to Saul DeGraw says:

        How many of those musicians were professionals? I’ve heard that before radio and records became widespread it was common for bars to have a piano where anyone could sit down and play.Report

      • zic in reply to Saul DeGraw says:

        @matty the days you’re talking about, sheet music was the hit song. People ran out and bought sheet music the same way they bought vinyl, CDs, and download mp3s now.Report

  5. Ohioan says:

    Read Carl Oglesby, you feckless inverted penis.Report

    • greginak in reply to Ohioan says:

      “feckless inverted penis” is great name for a hardcore band. If there aren’t any X tours going on Exene might be free to sing.Report

    • Dave in reply to Ohioan says:


      Read the commenting policy and maybe you’ll get to keep yours.Report

      • Ohioan in reply to Dave says:

        You’re gendering me in a way that’s both triggering and inaccurate.

        As to the commenting policy, I admit I might need a refresh. I last visited this site back when it was good, so it’s possible I’ve forgotten all sorts of particulars about how to talk and act!Report

  6. Alan Scott says:

    It’s weird that you call this out as an American thing, though. Conspiracy theories may take slightly different forms in different cultures, but they’re pretty universal.

    See, for example, the people in the UK that believe Princess Diana was assassinated. Or the people in sub-Saharan Africa who don’t believe AIDS is caused by HIV. Or the countless anti-Semetic conspiracies of Europe, from Blood libel to the Protocols of Zion to Holocaust Denial. Or The cargo cults of the Southern Pacific.

    They’re a predictable outgrowth of cognitive dissonance.Report

    • @alan-scott

      I agree. Even Hofstadter, if I read him right, says pretty much “hey, I’m studying America, but that doesn’t mean this doesn’t happen elsewhere.” (I paraphrase.) Actually, I don’t remember if he said it in that particular essay, but I believe he at least said it in something else he writes.

      I’m not a big believer in American exceptionalism of the sort that attributes some uniquely paranoiac visions to the US.Report

  7. Kolohe says:

    “The State Department was filled with Communists,”

    By the mid 50s sure, it was an exaggeration to say ‘filled’ with Communists. And the odious recklessness of the McCarthy investigation cannot be denied.

    But there was significant Soviet penetration of the State Department (and a few other Cabinet septs, e.g. Treasury) throughout the 20s to the 40s, and certainly a willful ideological blindness to the realities of the Soviet Union endemic in the Roosevelt administration.Report

    • scott the mediocre in reply to Kolohe says:


      Excellent inadvertantly meaningful typo in “Cabinet septs”. Though there is not much tanistry in the septs, at least not compared to the equivalent ministries in most Westminster system govts.

      Somewhat more seriously, you correctly note that the Soviet penetration of the federal govt peaked in the late 30s/mid 40s. Actually, you said “there was significant Soviet penetration … throughout the 20s to the 40s”. I’m unaware of any Soviet agents actually in the Fed govt pre FDR, and would greatly appreciate your cites. The first US GRU rezident wasn’t here until something like 1934-35. I don’t think FAECT really counts as much other than a feeble attempt.

      Similarly, effective penetration was definitely on the decline after 1946 or so, before much in the way of effective counterespionage on the FBI’s part. Though some of the in-place agents carried on through the late 40s, and the Soviets kept trying hard. Still, by the time McCarthy’s rants started going, it was largely after the fact. The contrast with continued highly effective Soviet penetration of the UK apparat through the 50s and beyond is striking.

      • Kolohe in reply to scott the mediocre says:

        I stand corrected. I thought Chambers and Hiss and that gang started in the 20s, (they starting dabling in Communism then, but weren’t working for the US government yet), plus, obviously wouldn’t have been able to start working for the USSR until after relations were normalized, which off the top of my head I also thought was in the late 20s, not early 30s.Report

    • Barry in reply to Kolohe says:

      “But there was significant Soviet penetration of the State Department (and a few other Cabinet septs, e.g. Treasury) throughout the 20s to the 40s, and certainly a willful ideological blindness to the realities of the Soviet Union endemic in the Roosevelt administration.”

      This is why McCarthy found none?Report

  8. Kazzy says:

    “…JFK was not really murdered by Lee Harvey Oswald, The American Government staged the Moon Landing, 9/11 was planned by the government because planes could not have brought down the WTC…”

    I don’t think these are limited to the right side of American politics and I’m pretty sure the last one is a left side phenomenon.

    Dare I say that you yourself may be exhibiting some of what you discuss here. Conspiracy theories are a function of humanity. Always have been, always will be. Yet because you have now been touched by it — seeing an icon go down the rabbit hole — you’re positing that there is something bigger at play.Report

    • Glyph in reply to Kazzy says:

      Coming this summer: The Omega Conspiracy

      What if all conspiracy theories were generated by THEM?Report

    • Saul DeGraw in reply to Kazzy says:


      There are left-wing conspiracy theories. Hoftstadter says as much in his piece but the dominant form in America for the past few-years has been right-wing conspiracy theorists and theories. Anti-Vaxx seems to be bipartisan.

      Also the 9/11 truther crowd does not hold any sway in Democratic politics like the Birth Certificate truthers did and can still hold sway in GOP politics.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Saul DeGraw says:

        But isn’t that just a function of who is in power? People are more likely to be skeptical of their opponents than their allies.Report

      • Saul DeGraw in reply to Saul DeGraw says:

        I don’t think so because the GOP controlled Congress during the Clinton years so they were in partial power or joint power and they still found ways to be nuts.Report

      • @saul-degraw

        I don’t think so because the GOP controlled Congress during the Clinton years so they were in partial power or joint power and they still found ways to be nuts.

        But Hofstadter was writing in 1964-ish, and the Dems had controlled the Congress through most of the period since 1949, and the presidency except for the Eisenhower interlude since 1933. What’s more, the Dem’s would control both houses of Congress until 1981, and the HR until 1995.

        On your main point, I think I agree that the GOP “in recent years” is much more beholden to conspiracy theorists than the Dems. I’m not sure what things will look like 10 years from now, however.Report

      • Barry in reply to Saul DeGraw says:

        I think that this is because right-wing conspiracies are useful tools; left-wing conspiracies are dangerous.Report

    • Matty in reply to Kazzy says:

      You know where I first came across the claim 9/11 was an inside job? It was an English language newspaper in Malaysia reporting what they said was the common view in Afghanistan. This was around mid October 2001 not long after the US military response started.

      I have no idea if it really was common but it kind of makes more sense to me that people who were actually attacked by the US government might come to believe it made up excuses to do so than that the idea originated in America.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to Matty says:

        I don’t consider myself a “conspiracy theorist” – who does?? – but I have some serious questions about the timelines, the response, and the collapse of the buildings. Especially WC 7, which the gummint report attributed to deisel generator fires or some such. WTC 1 and 2 fell – vertically! – at a speed of free fall, which is sorta engineeringly impossible.

        Where I’m at is that the gummit’s official report doesn’t square with the evidence. Doesn’t necessarily mean gummint complicity, of course.Report

  9. I must admit that conspiracy theories always perplexed me especially right-wing conspiracy theories. [my emphasis]

    Why “especially right-wing” theories? I mean, I get the paradox of “the same people” claiming incompetency and unique omnicompetency to the same entity, but that’s not much different to some people I knew in the 2000s who called Bush II a bumbling idiot and totalitarian mastermind. I also think one can consistently believe that government workers at the lower and middle levels are exceptionally incompetent but that the reins are controlled at the top by bureaucratic authoritarians. The possibility of consistency does not at all mean that they’re right, but it can explain the paradox.

    And as @kazzy points out above, 9/11 trutherism is probably more congenial to leftism. As I recall, part of Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11strongly hints that Bush had *something* to do with the attacks. I’d also say the Rothschilds myth can be congenial to a certain kind of leftist who opposes corporate capital that’s supposedly dominated by a few Kochs-like malefactors.*

    I realize later on you point out that conspiracy theories can come from or appeal to the left. “Confessions of an Economic Hit Man,” which came up a short while ago in a thread here, can be another example to the ones you mention. You might also have added that the same conspiracies can appeal to either side of the spectrum. The claim that munitions manufacturers conspired to get the US into WWI is an example. And the Rotschilds example, too, has a right-ist appeal.

    I’d also point out that conspiracy theories or rhetoric informed by the appeal to a conspiracy has also happened on the left. Think of FDR’s “economic royalists” speech, or the “dragons of reaction” trope that sometimes arises when someone opposes some “progressive” reform. That’s not pure-and-simple conspiracy theorism, but it’s a style of political discourse that many of us engage in.

    Finally, that point about style leads me to what I see as the broader import of Hofstadter’s essay. I think he’s actually trying to look at how sometimes real concerns are addressed in a political style that appeals to conspiracy theories. In other words, the essay, in my view, is more than just American exceptionalism and more than just about the unfortunate existence of people whose descendants would later nominate Goldwater in 1964.

    *As an aside: I agree that the Rothschilds myth has a lot of antisemitic resonance and emerges out of a tradition of antisemitism. But I’m not sure that all purveyors of that myth necessarily are consciously aware of that aspect of it. I’m not particularly trying to excuse them, especially after the relationship to antisemitism has been pointed out, but I can understand why your friend might be at first “flabbergasted.”Report

    • Well, there certainly is such a thing as left wing paranoia. I can recall in the waning days of Bush the Younger’s Administration that a number of my more lefty friends were deeply concerned, some genuinely apprehensive, that the Bush administration would declare martial law. I seem to recall something about active-duty military conducting an operation somewhere in Colorado as evidence that “it’s already happening!”

      Now, that administration is appropriately charge with a variety of civil right abuses, overuse of a wartime lens through which to view its powers and legal abilities, and a deep and enduring infatuation with assuring the public that it possessed secret knowledge that it could not dispense and was acting on the basis of such secret knowledge, which turned out to actually be well known around the world. So the Administration, and the President at its helm, were hardly beyond reproach. But those things are substantively different than a desire for overt dictatorship.

      The parallels to paranoia concerning the purported dictatorial intent of the Obama Administration should be obvious. Some have suggested that this is evidence that the political spectrum is actually a circle, that when one goes to a far enough extreme, one’s opinions wrap around and meet the extreme members from the other end of the spectrum. I have never truly believed this. Rather, I think it is evidence that the further one gets away from the moderate center, the more likely one is to encounter people whose view of the world is lensed and polarized.

      And that is why we see paranoia manifest on both ends of the traditional spectrum. It may not originate in polarization of world view, but it is abetted by that intellectual lensing. So, I find myself resisting the notion that this sort of phenomenon has always been present in American politics, at least to the extent that we see it today. Rather, while it has always been an element of the culture, my suspicion is that there really is more of it today, because of the prevalence of polarized partisan media, and because of the existence of the Internet as a medium for proselytizing the emotionally-charged fever dreams of the paranoiac.

      That is to say, My working hypothesis is that our enhanced communication abilities as compared to times past has caused more people to think this way, rather than revealed what had been there all along. This problem will persist for so long as it remains profitable to sell intellectual product of this nature.Report

      • Kim in reply to Burt Likko says:

        *jaw drops*
        You’re listening to way different leftwingers than I am.
        Yeah, there were plans on the books for hitting martial law.

        Not because President Bush wanted a dictatorship, but because if
        money ceases to have monetary meaning, you might have issues
        with folks “doing what’s normal” in the middle of a crisis.

        These are relatively minor (but they’re quicker to cite). The whole commercial paper market freezeup could have led to REAL issues (who is still solvent? I dunno. Who will actually give you money in return for credit? I dunno. Who is refusing to give out the money you deposited, on the grounds that they’ll go broke if they do?)

        I held a decent amount of cash during those days, as a reasonable precaution to the banks suddenly “going down” for an extended period of time.
        A reasonable precaution on the part of the Government is to prepare for martial law. If you don’t, you get Argentina.Report

      • Burt Likko in reply to Burt Likko says:

        Exhibit “A,” ladies and gentlemen.Report

      • Saul DeGraw in reply to Burt Likko says:


        Concurred. Next she will tell us about slavery and the Koch Brothers and I don’t even like the Koch Brothers very much but that makes my eyes roll.Report

      • Kim in reply to Burt Likko says:

        all due respect will be given to you, but my opinions on the Kochs are guided by the people I know (and trust) who have worked for them.
        You need not trust me, nor them…

        (in fact, I encourage you not to trust random strangers on the internet.
        Are you dumb or something?
        Imagine if everything I said on here was cold-blooded truth.
        Right. Now you might understand why I encourage a little bit of disbelief.)

        So long as you, unlike wardsmith, don’t ascribe to them (or myself) membership in some Grande Conspiracy, well, I ain’t got much beef.Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to Burt Likko says:

        The parallels to paranoia concerning the purported dictatorial intent of the Obama Administration should be obvious.

        Clinton too. I can’t recall the last administration where there wasn’t paranoid nonsense about it cancelling elections to stay in power.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to Burt Likko says:


        Re: the Koch Bros: it depends on what you’re talking about. Most of the Koch Bros rhetoric I’ve read isn’t an example of a conspiracy theory – it’s based on evidence that they fund all sorts of conservative PACs and campaigns and whatnot. I mean, if the theory is that the Koch’s are behind the scenes (but not behind the curtain!) pulling some self-serving levers, then that’s not a conspiracy theory. It’s just descriptive. But maybe I don’t know what you have in mind.Report

      • Kim in reply to Burt Likko says:

        I still chuckle about Hillary’s “vast rightwing conspiracy” basically amounting to one person.Report

      • Saul DeGraw in reply to Burt Likko says:


        Kim has a long history of mentioning the Koch Brothers and slavery in the same breath. I am tired of her inanities.Report

      • veronica dire in reply to Burt Likko says:

        Well, you know, the Koch brothers are probably horrible people whose influence far outstrips their wisdom or value. So, yeah, I guess they’re a bad thing.

        (The ghost of Steve Jobs forced me to say this using a chip implanted in my brain.)Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to Burt Likko says:

        (The ghost of Steve Jobs forced me to say this using a chip implanted in my brain.)

        Naah, if it was him you’d be called Margaret.Report

      • morat20 in reply to Burt Likko says:

        In all fairness to Bush, and well every other President — the government has plans on the books for everything, including declaring martial law — which seems a no-brainer to have an updated plan on.

        Generally on the theory that if you NEED to declare martial law, you’re probably very busy with something very important and it’d be really nice to have the bulk of the ‘martial law’ part worked out so you can focus mostly on the ‘reason you had to’ part.Report

      • Burt Likko in reply to Burt Likko says:

        From @kim ‘s source:

        The Bush administration and Congress discussed the possibility of a breakdown in law and order and the logistics of feeding US citizens if commerce and banking collapsed as a result of last autumn’s financial panic, it was disclosed yesterday.

        Paul Kanjorski, a Pennsylvania Democrat, asked Mr Paulson to reveal details of officials’ concerns, which were relayed to Congress in hasty conference calls last year. The calls included discussion of law and order and whether it would be possible to feed the American people, and for how long, according to Mr Kanjorski.

        Not quite the same thing as preparing to declare martial law, given that Congress is involved. Nor is this the same thing as planning for the contingency of the convention of money evaporating. (Although personally, I would like it if the government had at least some preliminary thoughts about what to do if that happens, too; there are contingency plans for what to do if Canada invades, after all, and that’s pretty damn unlikely too.)

        At most, this is evidence that there was some level of panic seeming in to the thought of some government officials, which recalling the rapidly-deteriorating economic conditions of late 2008 is hardly surprising.

        But I really don’t get “martial law” out of this. I get someone asking “What is the worst-case scenario and what do we do then?” and someone else responding to that inquiry. That such a conversation occurred is not cause for concern. It is cause for relief.Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to Burt Likko says:

        there are contingency plans for what to do if Canada invades

        1. Be rude. The enemy will not know how to respond.Report

      • Kim in reply to Burt Likko says:

        There are multiple reasons for declaring “martial law.”
        1) An attempt to circumvent most legal organizations.
        2) Civil unrest.

        The second was the contingency being discussed, and it was in fact the reason martial law was declared during Katrina:

        [Simply because the discussion happened between Congress and the Executive does not invalidate the possibility/probability of the latter case coming into play.]

        I agree, this is not AT ALL a reason to panic. The government being prepared is a GOOD THING.Report

      • Glyph in reply to Burt Likko says:

        When they politely request directions to the capitol, feign hearing difficulties, catching them in a recursive loop of meaningless interjections.

        “Which way to D.C., eh?”


      • @burt-likko

        y working hypothesis is that our enhanced communication abilities as compared to times past has caused more people to think this way, rather than revealed what had been there all along. This problem will persist for so long as it remains profitable to sell intellectual product of this nature.

        I can’t deny that you may very well be right and the communications media we see are in some ways a new thing.

        But my own bias is to see continuity and persistence over time where others see change over time. I think people develop stories to explain a lot of things and sometimes those stories involve conspiracies, regardless of whether it’s peddled by broadsides or pulp pamphlets, or daily newspapers, or internet news aggregators. Frankly, it’s hard to know for sure what an illiterate farmer in the “western frontier” of Kentucky in 1837 really thought about freemasonry or the Bank of the US.

        However, when I say “bias,” I mean “bias.” It’s a slant toward which I approach history, and as a result, I often refuse to “see” what might be right in front of me.Report

    • Saul DeGraw in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:


      See my response to Kazzy. The right-wing conspiracy theorists seem to hold much more control over GOP politics than the Left-wing conspiracy theorists exert over Democratic politics.Report

    • morat20 in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

      9/11 Trutherism is weird. (It is — along with claims that Kerry really won Ohio — one of the two things that’ll get your flat-out banned from the Great Orange Satan himself, Daily Kos).

      My only complaint is I’ve seen people called “9/11 Truthers” whose entire belief is Bush had been warned that AQ was ‘up to something’ and that instead his administration focused on other priorities. (IIRC, around that time Ashcroft was pushing to tackle the problem of internet porn).

      I don’t view that as a conspiracy theory — at worst, it’s armchair quarterbacking coupled with hindsight bias. About as far as I’ll go on criticizing Bush is that the White House had enough warnings (from his predecessor and from current information at the time) that they should have considered it a higher priority than they did. IE, “Bad judgement”.

      Getting lumped into “9/11 was deliberately allowed to happen” and “9/11 the towers involved bombs and whatnot, false flag” with that belief is a bit annoying, but half the time you see stats about “how many people believe Bush let 9/11 happen” it includes people like me because of vaguely worded questions.

      Poor judgement is not a conspiracy and is not culpability.Report

      • Kim in reply to morat20 says:

        Bush did, apparently, rescue bin Laden’s family directly after 9-11, by flying them out of the country despite a “no fly” order on everyone else.

        Doesn’t help, does it?

        (Took some metereologists noticing the contrails for the truth to come out).Report

      • Burt Likko in reply to morat20 says:

        “Do not attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.” Allegedly, Napoleon said that. I suspect he was quoting someone else. Whoever first said it was on to something.Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to morat20 says:

        The The Bush 43 administration was so filled with both malice and incompetence that they became hard to distinguish.Report

      • morat20 in reply to morat20 says:

        I think the running joke there was Bush was the incompetence and Cheney the malice, and which was ‘the decider’ that day depended on how rock-paper-scissors that morning went.Report

      • Glyph in reply to morat20 says:

        Malincompetence: when you WANT to do evil, but are just sort of bad at it.Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to morat20 says:

        More like “When the unintended consequences are even eviller than the intended ones.”Report

      • Chris in reply to morat20 says:

        Kim, there’s no such thing as contrails! #conspiracytheoristsuniteReport

      • veronica dire in reply to morat20 says:

        @glyph — “Malincompetence” — OMG the perfect word!Report

      • Gabriel Conroy in reply to morat20 says:


        I agree that what you describe is not really a conspiracy theory, and that it can and probably does get lumped into what is called ‘trutherism.” I think Michael Moore crosses the line, but I have no problem in principle with someone saying, “hey, the evidence was there and there were warnings from the security apparatus…..Bush II dropped the ball.”

        I do suspect that some of what you describe is true of many other “conspiracy theories.” There may be some whackos to espouse the conspiracy theory, but others who have at least a facially reasonable critique of whatever. I believe that some of the talk against the “Rotschilds,” the “Guggenheims,” and the “Eastern Establishment,” for example, are directed against capital networks that allegedly play an outsized role in people’s lives. (That doesn’t make the references less antisemitic, and it’s somewhat different than the “criticisms of Bush branded as trutherism,” but it’s less whacko.)Report

      • Matty in reply to morat20 says:

        @Kim you might want to have a look at the 9/11 Commission Report Chapter 10, boxed text on pages 329-30.


        First, we found no evidence that any flights of Saudi nationals, domestic or international, took place before the reopening of national airspace on the morning of September 13, 2001.24 To the contrary, every flight we have identified occurred after national airspace reopened.
        Second, we found no evidence of political intervention…..
        Third,we believe that the FBI conducted a satisfactory screening of
        Saudi nationals who left the United States on charter flights.


    • Mike Schilling in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

      some people I knew in the 2000s who called Bush II a bumbling idiot and totalitarian mastermind.

      That’s crazy. Bush II was the bumbling idiot and Dick Cheney was the totalitarian mastermind. (The second one isn’t that far off. Cheney was a genius at isolating people who disagreed with him (Colin Powell, Condoleeza Rice) and making sure his ideas, many of them horrific, prevailed and got implemented.)Report

  10. I’ve said before on these pages that my father sometimes adopted conspiracy theories. He believed that Waco was part of a conspiracy to take his guns. He believed the Clintons had Vince Foster and Ron Brown murdered. He believed there was no way the Nazis could have murdered nearly as many as has been claimed for the Holocaust. He believed the currency standard would crumble and therefore we needed to invest in gold.

    In part, some of that might have been a function of his Alzheimers before it was bad enough to be diagnosed as Alzheimers.

    In part, there’s an ambiguity and loadedness to my rendering things he said as “he believed.” I honestly don’t know what he “believed” as opposed to what he found sensible to say. Sometimes people say things, and they say them sincerely, without fully believing them or what they logically would logically imply. I think on some level he wanted to believe a lot of those things, but I also don’t think he believed them all the time, if that makes sense. He could live his life without succumbing to his own theories (or those that had been sold to him). He invested in gold, but he also kept most of his money bank accounts. He was afraid of government anti-gun activism and he hated the Clintons,* but he limited that position more to statements at the dinner table than really living as if the government were after him. I won’t say he never was antisemitic, but I really don’t think his Holocaust denialism was necessarily rooted in a strong animus toward Jewish people (that might sound ridiculous and my perspective is kind of biased…..I just ask for enough suspension of disbelief to acknowledge that my view might to some extent be defensible.)

    *I wasn’t there to witness it, but apparently after one of his seizures, he was in the hospital, hooked up to some heart monitor, when my mom and my brother visited him. Someone said something about Clinton, and as a sign of how angry he got, the monitor started going crazy.Report

    • I suppose I can see someone engaged in denial of the Holocaust who was nevertheless not biased against Jewish people. That person would have to believe that the “myth” of the Holocaust was propagated by particular Jewish people for some sort of political agenda, which was not shared by all Jewish people. Such a person, I suppose, would be an anti-Zionist rather than an anti-Semite.

      Which does not make the denialism that much less offensive, or any more worthy of intellectual respect.Report

      • Glyph in reply to Burt Likko says:

        Burt, have you ever seen the Errol Morris film Mr. Death?

        The subject is a Holocaust denier (or at minimum, minimizer) but not really due to anti-semitism or -zionism (IMO).

        Just someone who’s way out of his depth, and has gotten his ego fed by people who ARE anti-semitic.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to Burt Likko says:

        I suppose I can see someone engaged in denial of the Holocaust who was nevertheless not biased against Jewish people.

        In the same way a person could deny the civil war was about slavery without harboring animus against black people?Report

      • Saul DeGraw in reply to Burt Likko says:


        I thought that Mr. Death’s problem was that he was so full of himself that he didn’t think designing the system was possible because it was clearly above anything he imagined. He was the best death penalty engineer in the world and nothing was going to take that from him.Report

      • Burt Likko in reply to Burt Likko says:

        @stillwater yes, and I believe that Confederate apologists are not necessarily racists, too. Their apologia ultimately whitewash racism, but they need not be racists themselves. Recall that much Confederate apologia includes the arguments that Southerners recognized, on their own initiative, the moral evil of slavery, and that they were working towards an economically and politically viable way of phasing slavery out of existence. One could actually believe such tripe to be true, not for the underlying purpose of espousing a belief in the superiority of white over black, but rather out of a desire to defend the honor of one’s (perceived) heritage.Report

      • @burt-likko

        I agree. But to be clear, I’m not saying he wasn’t antisemitic or that antisemitism didn’t inform his views, and I actually think Holocaust denialism/minimalization is at its core an antisemitic position, at lest when we we’re talking about the larger cultural forces that inform it (nothing happens in a vacuum). I’m just saying that he didn’t spend any time, as far as I remember, ranting about “the Jews.”Report

    • Glyph in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

      We have mental defenses, “immune functions” if you will, that are there to help our minds stay healthy, just as our immune system does for our bodies.

      When it’s working properly, it’s a BS detector, letting in good nutritious ideas from outside sources, and rejecting bad ideas, and attempts at undue subjugation of our own wills to the will of others.

      Some people ARE out to get you, and when that’s the case, as noted philosopher Dr. Johnny Fever once said, “paranoia’s just good thinking”.

      But like allergies of the body, sometimes that mental immune function gets compromised and panicky and overactive and fixated on strange, inappropriate threats.

      Instead of “oh no, peanuts!”, it’s “the Clintons!”

      If it gets bad enough, it can kill you (and even others, if you lash out based on that paranoia).

      But it wasn’t the peanuts, or the Clintons that did it.

      It was overactive immunofunction of the mind.Report

  11. Kim says:

    You wouldn’t believe the Capacitor Plague if I couldn’t cite you chapter and verse on it, either.Report

  12. LeeEsq says:

    The paranoid style in Anglo-American politics is religious in origin. After the Reformation, you had a lot of people in the British isles that were scared to death of the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church re-imposing Catholicism on them. They developed elaborate theories on how and why this would happen that are remarkably like modern day conspiracy theories in style even if the language they used was different. As fear of Catholicism receeded and new fears emerged the target of the paranoia change but the fear remained.Report

    • Burt Likko in reply to LeeEsq says:

      I think this is a point worth reflecting on. So many of the traditions, ideas, and partisan alignments that persist in the United States today can be overtly traced back to the declining days of the Stuart monarchy, the Glorious Revolution in England. The United States was not born during the British Civil War, but it was probably conceived then as a cultural, intellectual, political, and legal potentiality.

      And the Stuarts’ loss of the strength to hold the throne securely was ultimately the result of seventeenth-century Englishmen being unable to tolerate a King who was either more or less Catholic then the Englishman in question.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to Burt Likko says:

        Our Constitution is something like an idealized or misremembered version of the English government after the Great Revolution but with an indirectly elected President rather than a hereditary King and no court. After the Great Revolution you had an executive King, an elected legislature in Parliament with a conservative upper House to act as a check on the more representative Lower House, and an independent judiciary. The King was supposed to exercise his executive power in accordance with the wishes of Parliament. In our Constitution we get a similar division of powers.Report

    • Pinky in reply to LeeEsq says:

      That would be a more credible position if people weren’t reliably paranoid across all cultures and degrees of religion and non-religion. Would you argue that pre-Reformation England didn’t have conspiracy theories?Report

  13. Kim says:

    links in mod.Report

  14. Chris says:

    What surprises is me is that the United States has not collapsed and broken despite the constant history of conspiracy theorists.

    Because they are utterly harmless.

    When I think about it, just about everyone I know believes something that, to someone else, might look a bit like a conspiracy theory. Some of them are trivial, some of them are grand, but 99.999999…% of them are harmless except, perhaps, to the holder’s social status.

    By the way, I suspect that the people attributing conspiracy theories entirely to cognitive biases (or one cognitive bias! there’s actually a fair amount of research on this, you know? it ain’t one thing) are ignoring the social, cultural, and power/political dynamics that interact with conspiracy theorizing. It’s not a coincidence, for example, that you tend to find more conspiracy theorizing among more marginalized groups.

    Anyway, they’re harmless.Report

    • Burt Likko in reply to Chris says:

      Until they get elected to Congress, that is.Report

      • Chris in reply to Burt Likko says:

        Yeah, even in Congress they can’t do much more than waste time, for the most part. I suppose the McCarthy hearings are an exception, to the extent that they were fueld by conspiracy theorizing, but for the most part conspiracy theorists, even within the government itself, are pretty harmless.

        And besides, most people in Congress are just wasting time anyway.Report

      • Glyph in reply to Burt Likko says:

        Or appointed Chancellor of 1930’s Germany.

        [gets dragged off by the Ghost of Godwin]

        (wait, Godwin’s not dead)


      • Stillwater in reply to Burt Likko says:

        Actually, I’d go a step further, Burt contra Chris’ view. Seems to me we’ve got a congress comprised of a bunch of people who attribute the theory of evolution to a liberal conspiracy; deny global warming as a liberal conspiracy; view public education as promoting a liberal conspiracy. George Will wrote an op-ed recently where he claimed that liberal’s advocacy for public transportation is an attempt to indoctrinate Americans with individuality subverting collectivist ideas. Hell, just the other day a GOPer said, without evidence, that the Democrats were intending to repeal the first amendment.

        None of these claim make any sense without a really huge anti-empirical set of explanatory beliefs in place, beliefs reinforced every time a nutjob merely asserts something consistent with the belief set.

        I’d say it’s far from harmless.Report

      • Chris in reply to Burt Likko says:

        Glyph, I don’t mean that they are never harmful, just rarely. Like I said, I think pretty much all of us are conspiracy theorists to one degree or another. Most of us just don’t realize it, because what looks like a conspiracy theory to one person looks like an obvious explanation to another.

        Still, that’s a good point, but I wonder to what extent that is really the same thing as the sort of conspiracy theories we’re talking about. That sort of conspiracy theorizing is, in essence, just cynicism about your political opponents, believing that they are not being honest about their motives and are acting in indirect ways. This is actually true a lot of the time: political actors take indirect approaches and are less than candid about their motives. So, for example, people who believe that evolutionary science is false and harms Christianity will believe that the people who promote evolutionary science want it to do so and that’s why they promote it even though it’s false. This is just an attribution error, albeit a big one.

        To the extent that this is, in fact, conspiracy theorizing, it basically says that politics is the game of conspiracy theorizing and counter-conspiracy theorizing, because this is what everyone does all of the time.Report

      • Chris in reply to Burt Likko says:

        By the way, one of my arguments against the New Atheist approach to science promotion, which is to promote science as atheistic, was that if you want to convince a bunch of people that science is good and true, and those people already suspect that science leads to atheism, and therefore harmful to their very core beliefs and values, the worst way to do that is to constantly associate science with atheism. Clearly I lost that debate.Report

      • Patrick in reply to Burt Likko says:

        Like I said, I think pretty much all of us are conspiracy theorists to one degree or another.

        Yeah, people are messed up.Report

    • Saul DeGraw in reply to Chris says:

      How were middle class white suburbanites from Orange County and the rich folks attracted to the John Birch society marginalized people?

      I would argue that they felt marginalized but that was a perception and not a reality.

      I don’t have much sympathy for the “our way of life is dying” and/or “this isn’t our country anymore” line of arguments. Perhaps because I am Jewish but it does not really concern me that the United States is on its way to becoming majority-minority. But I’ve heard that telling this to some moderate whites or even left-leaning whites can rush them to the Republican camp according to studies.Report

      • Chris in reply to Saul DeGraw says:

        Saul, you tend to find more conspiracy theorizing among more marginalized groups.

        I have highlighted the key word in my statement, in reference to your question. Powerlessness and marginalization are not the only predictors of conspiracy theorizing. There’s also authoritarianism, anomie, political cynicism, and several other personality and situational predictors. Like I said, it’s not just one thing.Report

    • Mike Schilling in reply to Chris says:

      Right, Christians are more paranoid about Sharia law than Jews because we really run things.Report

      • Chris in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        If ya’ll ran things, I’d be able to get a decent potato pancake in this town.

        But I’m not pulling the “marginalized groups are more likely…” thing out of my ass. That’s actually a consistent empirical finding.Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        If ya’ll ran things, I’d be able to get a decent potato pancake in this town.

        No, I would.Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        Anyway, my point (to the extent that I have one) is that there’s a difference between objectively and subjectively marginalized. People who are the latter without being the former are already paranoid.Report

      • Glyph in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        Chris, I’m sure my “immune/allergy” analogy probably made you grit your teeth, but to run with it, would we expect groups that have *experienced* more pathogens (=real persecution) to have more active “immune systems” (=more conspiracy theorizing); but *also* their “immune systems” might be less likely to go catastrophically overboard?

        I seem to recall reading speculation that allergies were more common in people who were raised in very clean environments, versus those raised in dirtier ones, because immune systems in dirty environments have more practice at identifying true threats.

        To run with it even further, *if* members of dominant groups are more likely to crack up and lash out (homicide or suicide) when getting a paranoid fixation on an idea, than members of already-marginalized groups (who just keep muttering darkly about the conspiracy but not acting on it), this analogy would work nicely.

        Or, I’ve just waterboarded it to death.Report

      • Chris in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        Glyph, I suppose that makes sense, and to some extent, anything people with power and influence believe is more dangerous than things that people who don’t have it believe. I’m not sure if there’s data on differences between conspiracy theorists who act on them and those who don’t, though. I’ll see if I can find something.Report

      • Glyph in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        Oh, I don’t mean to give you homework. Just thinking out loud mostly. Obviously I still have Rodger (and Lanza, and Klebold, and etc..) on the brain, and thinking about epidemiological approaches, if there are any.

        I know resorting to analogy is really annoying to some, because analogies are by nature imprecise, but it’s often just sort of the way my brain works. Try to see how different things are alike, to see if that yields any deeper insight.Report

      • Chris in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        As someone who’s spent a fair amount of studying analogies empirically, I love them.

        See also:

  15. Burt Likko says:

    The place where I grew up and presently live has always been something of a hotbed for paranoid political thought. The flat Earth Society was headquartered here for a time. I was preached to by members of the John Birch society as a teenager, and other lawyers in my firm looking to improve their speaking skills at Toastmasters frequently have found themselves subjected to lectures from the intellectual descendants of the Birchers who were more than willing to suspend the rules and time limits of the speech practicia because “this is so important you have to hear it.” (They dropped out, because they were going to learn how to speak to juries, not to be lectured to about distressing fantasies.)

    it doesn’t help that you can’t swing a dead cat by its tail in most neighborhoods around here without hitting somebody who holds a secret or top secret clearance. Such people are generally more annoyed with the uninformed preaching the improbable then they are amused by it. I wonder if the phenomenon of so many people being professionally obligated to keep national security secrets that are actually important somehow fertilizes the need for people to aggrandize their own importance by claiming to know “the truth,” truths about which those who actually do know what’s actually going on must remain silent.Report

  16. LeeEsq says:

    A reader on Fred Clark’s Slactivist blog posted an interesting theory on why people believe in conspiracy theories a few years ago. Fred Clark frequently wonders why people in general and Evangelicals in particular are attracted to conspiracy theories in his posts on the Left Behind series because in many ways it makes the world a lot darker place than it has to be because the problems facing society become impossible to solve because the conspiracy. A reader enjoyed that conspiracy theories also make the world a more exciting place because it allows for a clear good versus evil narrative and struggle that the real world lacks like a fantasy novel. Rather than have billions of humans trying to live out mutually contradictory versions of the good life, you have the forces of good and light in a battle against the forces of darkness. Naturally nearly everybody sees themselves on the forces of light. This makes things exciting like a fantasy novel where you get to be a soldier of Gondor marching against the forces of Sauron so Frodo can destroy the Ring. Conspiracy theories relieve people from the mundaness of life by providing a sense of adventure.Report

  17. zic says:

    There is plenty of conspiracy to go around, BSDI.

    When I wrote about land use issues, I found plenty of misinformation and conspiracy mongering on the left; and sadly, a press who’d take the claims as golden and not verify them. (And remember, I’m a liberal and environmentalist.) Both sides totally feared the EPA; the environmentalist constantly said the EPA was in bed with polluters, industry constantly claimed the EPA wanted to regulate them out of business.

    What always amazes me is the levels of confirmation bias in all this; we seek out the people who attractively feed us our own opinions instead of actual knowledge. And yes, I know I’m prone, too.Report

    • Jim Heffman in reply to zic says:

      It’s surprisingly easy to wind up with confirmation bias when your livelihood, family history, personal philosophy, and worth as a human being are called into question.Report