Conspiracy theories in United States politics are beliefs that a major political situation is the result of secretive collusion by powerful people striving to harm a rival group or undermine society in general.

Such theories draw from actual conspiracies, in which individuals work together covertly in order to unravel a larger system.[1][2][3] Often, the struggle between a real conspiracy theory and a misconception of one leads to conflict, polarization in elections, distrust in government, and racial and political divisions.[1][4]

Many political conspiracies begin and spread from politically charged circumstances, individuals' partisan affiliations, and online platforms that form echo chambers with like-minded individuals.[1][5] Belief in American political conspiracy theories applies to all parties, ideologies, races, ethnicities, socioeconomic levels, and genders.[6][7][8]

Contributions

Circumstantial fear

Conspiracy theories often arise during new political or social circumstances in which one group of people feels threatened by another group that is politically, religiously, ethnically, racially, or economically different from them.[1][8][9][4] Theories began as early as the European colonization of the Americas when colonizers deemed Native Americans as threats.[10] As a result, many colonizers, including Cotton Mather, speculated that Native Americans were controlled by the devil.[1] Some even believed in the "myth of the super-chief," in which every Indigenous attack was orchestrated by a tribal chief, who controlled thousands of Native American fighters and strived to wipe out the whites.[1]

Northern Republicans in the mid-1860s believed President Andrew Johnson was conspiring with ex-Confederates to undo the abolition of slavery.[11]

Theories also arose in response to the counterculture, feminist, and anti-war era of the 1960s.[1] Many conservatives felt threatened and began to believe that the movements had been formed with communist motivations to undermine the U.S. government.[1] During the 1990s, many right-wing conspiracy theorists also feared that the Clintons were involved in drug cartels and assassinations.[1] Some have theorized that the government is planting drugs in predominately-black neighborhoods to breed a greater rate of incarceration and crime in the community.[1][9][7][2] In 2020, many conspiracy theories circulated during the coronavirus pandemic partly because of the increased anxiety, larger number of people staying at home, and greater focus on the Internet and social media outlets.[12][13] One such conspiracy that proliferated from the 2020 Presidential election was QAnon.[14][15][12]

Conspiracy theories exist because of fear of the other or frustration with one's own disenfranchisement.[9][8] They correlate with an increase in social, political, or economic changes in society and are often responses to rationalize anxiety about such events. Conspiracy theories tend to be brought into context with the country's ideals and laws.[2][1] Frank Donner, a 1980s civil liberties lawyer, claimed:

Especially in times of stress, exaggerated febrile explanations of unwelcome reality come to the surface of American life and attract support. [The new conspiratorial movements] illuminate a striking contrast between our claims to superiority, indeed our mission as a redeemer nation to bring a new world order, and the extraordinary fragility of our confidence in our institutions. [That] has led some observers to conclude that we are, subconsciously, quite insecure about the value and permanence of our society.[1]

Conspiracy theories arise among all races and parties because of the fear of a society and a country destabilizing and how that would affect one's own life.[1][6][9] Conspiracy theories, according to Benedictine University Professor of Psychology James Davis, come in three related types:

A recent review proposes three categories of motivations underlying belief in conspiracy theories.... The motivation people have to seek causal explanations to reduce uncertainty... and to feel in control and safe in their lives.... A third motivation for conspiracy theory endorsement is the desire for individuals to see themselves and their group in a more positive light.[2]

Class structures and lack of trust in government

The class structure is also likely to influence one's belief in a political conspiracy theory. Those with a low income, a lack of higher education, or a lack of secure employment are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories due to a general feeling of helplessness.[8][16] This lack of control is correlated with class: individuals from higher classes have been proven to feel more in control of their lives, employment, education, and standard of living.[8][16] A low socioeconomic status can generate political and economic anxiety and a desire to explain the dire circumstances. That helplessness may lead several to find a psychologically-soothing explanation: the idea that a group of government actors is plotting against them.[8]

Those with higher education or a higher IQ level still engage in conspiracy theories. In fact, many conspiracy theories require substantial mental effort to understand.[6] Believers are defined by more than just their class; they also engage in the psychological phenomenon of confirmation bias in which they accept information validating their beliefs and reject information that is inconsistent with their theories.[6][17]

Many individuals also live-in positions in which specific government policies may cause economic distress. For example, many Americans believe that the government is forcing health industries to hide the cure for cancer.[1][18] They also have been taking drugs that are not approved by the Food and Drug Administration because they do not trust the medical industry.[1] This likely stems from a fear of and frustration with current U.S. policies on public health. Many ill Americans cannot afford healthcare and may look to sources that blame the medical industry, including conspiracies.[8][1] This may also originate from a history of fear about the government's lack of transparency or truth in terms of medication since American doctors once approved mercury, radioactive material, and cigarettes and falsely deemed them to be healthy.[1][19][20]

Partisan affiliations

Partisan affiliations sometimes help determine belief in conspiracy theories, but this depends on the theory.[3] There is a correlation between political parties and beliefs in the "birther" conspiracy, the Kennedy assassination conspiracy, the "truther" conspiracy, the "levee branch" theory, and the "death panel" conspiracy. Partisanship loyalty affects beliefs in some theories, and "conspiratorial thinking," a general paranoia about the government,[21] determines others. Conspiracies directly affiliated with the Obama administration (e.g., the "birthers" and "death panel" conspiracies) leaned politically to the right,[22] and Democrats were less likely to believe in theories that lobbied against Obama and his policies.[3] As for the "levee breach," "truther," and Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories, both political parties had a similar number of people believing in them.[3] Individuals who believed in those specific theories also had a previous affinity for conspiratorial thinking or questioning the credibility of governmental actors.[21] However, it has also been studied that conspiratorial thinkers may be more focused on an anti-governmental mindset because of their lack of trust for higher authority rather than a specific theory or party.[21]

Each partisan group is partial to believing in conspiracies that target the opposite party because it disbelieves the other party's ideologies and policies.[3][23][22] Therefore, conspiracies can come from both political affiliations.[6][3] In fact, the University of Miami political scientist Joseph Uscinski stated that "both sides are equally conspiratorial in their thinking... No one has a monopoly."[6]

Intuitionist versus rationalist model

University of Chicago Political Science Professor Eric Oliver has created a theory that intuitionism and rationalism are two psychological patterns of thought that can shape specific conspiracies and perhaps even catalyze partisan divisions.[17] Intuitionism is individuals relying on their emotional responses to current events and then using heuristics to create an explanation for why the events are happening. Rationalists instead determine the causes and effects of events based on quantitative evidence.[17] Both intuitionists and rationalists believe in conspiracies, Oliver argues, but intuitionists more commonly associate themselves with conspiracies for their association with more qualitative emotional data stemming from anxiety about society.[17]

Polarization

Olivers speculates that the current polarization occurs because of increasingly far-right and far-left thinking, but it also might come from the conflict between intuitionists and rationalists.[17] Throughout history, the right-wing has become intuitionist increasingly, often using Biblical or Christian themes to justify political beliefs[24] or trust in conspiracies.[17] The left-wing has been commonly associated with basing belief on quantitative thought rather than religious affiliation.[25] Conspiratorial beliefs may stem from a misinterpretation of numerical data.[17]

Often, political parties engage in an us versus them mentality when understanding theories and believing that the opposite party started the conspiracy.[4] By tying specific theories to. political affiliation, many party members become polarized.[4] In fact, Steven Small page, Adam Enders, and Joseph Uscinski, political researchers and authors of Research and Politics, explained:

Although conspiracy theories are often attributed to cognitive hiccups, psychological traits, or psychopathologies, they actually follow the contours of more familiar partisan battles in the age of polarization... Many conspiracy theories function more like associative partisan attitudes than markers of alienated psychology.[4]

Political ignorance

Lack of awareness of political issues may also perpetuate belief in conspiracy theories.[23] Often, because individuals believe that they have "just one vote" with little impact, they have little motivation to look at politics objectively or to discover credible information about current events.[23] Individuals apathetic towards politics may remain ignorant about issues. As voters latch onto ignorance and apathy, some may care little whether political information is biased or sometimes even true.[23] Lack of knowledge about how political systems function or about a given political candidate makes people much more likely to believe extreme or false claims, such as conspiracy theories.[23]

Echo chambers and spread

Conspiracy theories have evolved with the media. YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, and other social media sites use algorithms to bring up posts, videos, and news that correlate with past searches and interests. Conservative users commonly receive conservative information, liberal users usually receive liberal news, and every opinion in between likely receives likewise.[5][26] Social media is a key element in creating echo chambers for conspiracy theorists.

Alex Jones, the creator of InfoWars

One example of echo chambers is Alex Jones, the talk show host of InfoWars. A far-right host who discusses and analyzes political issues, Jones has frequently brought up information that was deemed extreme and sometimes even false, several times with little evidence to back up his claims.[5][27] Because of the ability of YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and other social media platforms to connect individuals with similar thinking and beliefs,[26] InfoWars and its community grew quickly, and like-minded individuals were given extreme information that they were more likely to believe because of their political affiliations.[5]

Nationalism and multiculturalism

The fear of a divided nation, or the definition of what it means to be "American" also causes several conspiracies. Often, whenever a nationality, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender differs from specific identities with which someone already affiliates, fear of national overthrow, oppression by a separate group, or attack on one's own way of life form a distinct "us versus them" mentality.[1] As such fears and mentalities proliferate within like-minded groups, conspiracy theories form on the opposing party to justify the group's existence and beliefs.[5][23][28][9][3]

For example, conspiracies have been perpetuated in the African-American community that the U.S. government instigated AIDS or cocaine into the population, which follows the fear of one group oppressing another (in this case, white Americans).[9][2][1][29][30] Conspiracies have also been created concerning Native Americans that either argues against or advocates for them.[10]

Robert Alan Goldberg, a University of Utah professor of history, also states that both stigmatized and more privileged groups struggle with conspiracy theories about the other:

"Recall a uniquely American word – Un-American. There are no unFrench, or UnSwedish, or UnIsraeli counterparts. Americans harbor this suspicion, the danger of betrayal from within...."[31]

Americans are afraid of having their identity as "Americans," compromised by the "other" group that is different from them culturally, ethnically, racially, or religiously.[31] Thus, several conspiracies have affected the social life of the Indigenous, blacks, and whites.[1][7][10]

Impacts

Elections

Several conspiracies have been generated out of elections; one election-specific conspiracy is the belief in election fraud. The fear that ballots may have been faked or cast incorrectly spans political parties, genders, and races.[32] Partisan affiliations and conspiratorial thinking are both to blame.[3] Before the election, a belief in widespread voter fraud influencing the election outcomes commonly came from conspiratorial thinking and distrust in higher authority.[32] After the election, belief in fraud was likely to come from partisan affiliations and usually originated from the losing party.[33] While both Democrats and Republicans believe in election fraud, they generally mean different types of fraud. Republicans often fear illegal ballots, such as from noncitizens, and Democrats worry that their supporters will be prevented from voting by voter suppression.[32] Conspiracy theories, the fear of an opposite party, and their influence as a result may also drive citizens to vote and influence the outcomes of an election.[4]

2016

During the 2016 presidential election between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, many conspiracy theories developed and spread on social media about the opposite candidate, particularly theories against Clinton or Trump's other opponents.[34] As a result, social media, especially Facebook, came under fire for fanning the flames of fake news.[35] Because 44% of Americans receive their news from Facebook, some claim that if Facebook does not filter disinformation in extreme posts, the conspiracies could be dangerous.[35] Many also argue about the potential conflicts censorship has with the First Amendment.[36]

2020

Symbol of QAnon

In response to the 2020 presidential election from fears generated out of whether Trump or Joe Biden would win, several conspiracies spread on social media, particularly on Facebook and Twitter.[37] The QAnon conspiracy theory originated in the U.S. and alleges that Trump is fighting against a deep state cabal of "child sex-abusing" and "Satan-worshipping" Democrats.[37][38][39][40][41][42] QAnon is a conspiracy with a massive following and has generated over 100 million comments and likes on Facebook in the year 2020 alone.[12]

The number of QAnon adherents is unclear,[38][39][43] but the group maintains a large online following.[38][39] Many have expressed the fear that QAnon's influence and its belief that Donald Trump will save the world make it support Trump's threats to prevent a peaceful transfer of power.[12] Since the Associated Press declared Biden the winner of the 2020 presidential election,[44] however, QAnon followers have experienced a crisis of faith or been in denial and believe that Trump is working behind the scenes to defeat the "shadowy forces" that determined Biden's win.[45]

Facebook has banned over 790 QAnon-related groups, 100 pages, and 1,500 advertisements in an attempt to dispel it.[46] Instagram has also taken action by restricting over 10,000 accounts for which QAnon could affect population and the election.[12][46] To avoid the creation of echo chambers and further political polarization, Facebook prevents QAnon groups from forming but allows individuals to post their support occasionally. Facebook has also prevented followers from organizing fundraisers and selling merchandise to raise money for the organization.[46] After Trump lost the election to Biden, updates from Q declined dramatically, with the last post by Q made in December 2020.[47] QAnon beliefs became a part of attempts to overturn the election and culminated in Trump supporters attacking the United States Capitol. That has led to a further crackdown on QAnon-related content on social media.[37][48][49][50][51]

The stolen election conspiracy theory claims that the 2020 United States presidential election was "stolen" from Donald Trump, who lost that election to Joe Biden. It justifies attempts to overturn the 2020 United States presidential election, including the 2021 storming of the United States Capitol. A particular variant of this theory is the "Soros stole the election" conspiracy theory that claims that George Soros stole the election from Trump.[52] Polls conducted since the aftermath of the 2020 election have consistently shown that the majority of Republicans believe that the election was "stolen" from Trump.[53][54][55][56]

Harm

Conspiracy theories in the United States have been known to cause harm.

List of conspiracy theories

Peter Knight, ed. Conspiracy theories in American history: an encyclopedia (2 vol. ABC-CLIO, 2003) contains 300 entries by 123 experts in 925 pages.

The Moon landing is one of the most commonly-known conspiracy theories. It theorizes that the government staged the landing.

Historical conspiracies

Colonial era

With slavery operational in all the colonies, owners often showed anxiety about slave conspiracies that drew on older English fears about Catholic political plots in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. However actual slave revolts were not politically motivated and typically bore little resemblance to the highly structured plots that those involved in these trades believed they would be.[85][86] Settlers on the frontier often connected isolated incidents to indicate Indian conspiracies to attack them, but these lacked a French diplomatic dimension after 1763, or a Spanish connection after 1820.[87]

American Revolution

Thomas Hutchinson, the royal governor of Massachusetts, was a leader of the forces loyal to the King and focused his attention on uncovering Patriot conspiracies by the likes of James Otis Jr. and Samuel Adams.[88] The Patriot cause through speeches, pamphlets and newspapers presented a well-developed hyperbolic rhetoric focused on the conspiracy of Parliament to deny Americans the rights of Englishmen.[89]

In 1783, after the war ended, unpaid officers met with General George Washington and asked him to force Congress to satisfy their demands. Washington squelched the threat, which historians have called the Newburgh Conspiracy.[90] According to a reviewer[91] of A Crisis of Peace: George Washington, the Newburgh Conspiracy, and the Fate of the American Revolution, (2019) by David Head, the book:

casts doubt on the existence of any conspiracy, at least in the sense of an organized challenge to Washington's command of the army. Head believes the appearance of conspiracy was the product of gossip and private conversations among officers and members of Congress intent on using the officers' demands to promote a stronger national government. If Head discounts the conspiracy of legend, he makes clear that the disputes over officers' pay and pensions threatened the legitimacy of the Confederation Congress and the balance of state and federal power, and that Washington sought to protect both. "

19th century

Freemasons and Anti-Masons

Main article: Anti-Masonic Party

The Freemasons are a secret fraternal society. It still exists but in the 1820s it became a target of politicians who denounced it as a conspiracy to control politics, and alleged it murdered an opponent. In 1826, William Morgan disappeared from Batavia, New York, after threatening to expose Freemasonry's secrets, causing some to claim that he had been murdered by Masons. What exactly occurred has never been conclusively proven. However, Morgan's disappearance – and the minimal punishment received by his kidnappers – sparked a series of protests against Freemasons throughout the United States, especially in New York and neighboring states. The protracted backlash led to many masons quitting.[92]

Under the leadership of Thurlow Weed, an anti-Masonic and anti-Andrew Jackson (Jackson was a Mason) movement grew to become the Anti-Masonic Party and made the ballot for the presidency in 1828 while gaining the support of such notable politicians as William H. Seward. Its influence was such that other Jackson rivals, including John Quincy Adams, denounced the Masons. In 1847, Adams wrote a widely distributed book titled Letters on the Masonic Institution that was highly critical of the Masons. In 1832, the party fielded William Wirt as its presidential candidate. Wirt was secretly a Freemason, and even gave a speech at the Anti-Masonic convention defending the organization. The party only received seven electoral votes. Three years later, the party had disbanded in every state save Pennsylvania. Most activists joined the new Whig Party.[93]

Slave Power conspiracy

A main theme of the antislavery and abolitionists movements was that the Southern slave owners had combined to exercise a dominant control over national policy. They largely controlled the White House, the nation's foreign policy, the Supreme Court and the westward expansion. Historians have examined the claims and agree that although there were some exaggerations, the Slave Power was real. The new Republican Party formed in 1854 in reaction to the repeal of the anti-slavery provisions of the Missouri Compromise of 1820, thereby allowing slavery into Kansas and Nebraska territories. Thus by 1854 for the first time a major party was built around the principle that slavery can not be allowed to expand into fresh lands—a program that won majority support among the voters of the North by the late 1850s, along with almost no support in the South.[94][95]

The term Slave Power thus referred to the supposed political power held by American slaveowners before 1860. Historian David Blight states, "The idea of a Slave Power conspiracy was at least as old as the 1820s, but in the 1850s it became the staple of antislavery rhetoric. [Frederick] Douglass plied these waters before the Republicans made it their own."[96] Antislavery campaigners, led by Frederick Douglass bitterly decried what they saw as disproportionate and corrupt influence wielded by wealthy Southerners. The argument was that this small group of wealthy enslavers had seized political control of their states and were trying to take over the federal government illegitimately to expand and protect slavery. At the time antislavery speakers said the Slave Power caused the War with Mexico, but historians emphasize that President Polk and the expansionist Democrats were not concerned with slavery but with California. Whig pro-slavery spokesmen opposed the war.[97]

The term was popularized by antislavery writers such as Frederick Douglass, John Gorham Palfrey, Josiah Quincy III, Horace Bushnell, James Shepherd Pike, and Horace Greeley. Politicians who emphasized the theme included John Quincy Adams, Henry Wilson and William Pitt Fessenden. Abraham Lincoln used the concept after 1854, but not the term. Through a combination of passionate argument and hard statistical data, they showed that the South had long held a disproportionate level of power in the United States.[98]

20th century

21st century

See also

References

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Further reading

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