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Charges of conspiracy do three broad types of damage to liberal democracy: they disorient citizens by claiming to own reality; they delegitimate political opposition and with it regulated party rivalry; and they disparage knowledge-producing experts and institutions. This is the terrain on which “rigged election,” “deep state,” and ungoverning flourish.
Disorientation may be a familiar personal experience. Indeed, our own disorientation startled us into thought and launched our earlier study of conspiracism. The day after President Donald Trump’s inauguration, the National Park Service published photographs that showed a modest number of celebrants on the National Mall, fewer than those in attendance at President Barack Obama’s inauguration, provoking Trump’s angry claim that the photos were doctored. This was a conspiracy charge: unnamed civil servants in the National Park Service were plotting to undermine him. His press secretary repeated the absurdity. We had seen the inauguration on television. “Doctored photos” insulted our common sense. It assaulted our understanding of reality.
Disorientation is personal and individual—with collective consequences. It can be stupefying and politically paralyzing. We are transported into a world of “epistemic polarization”: polarization over how we know what we know. What does it mean to know that former president Trump’s inaugural crowd was the biggest in history or that it was Democrats—not right-wing extremists—who engineered the deadly 2017 conflict between White nationalists and protestors in Charlottesville?
This divide over what it means to know something fractures the political world. It is a chasm no translation can bridge. It makes it impossible to analyze, argue, persuade, negotiate, even disagree. When conspiracism shapes political life, democratic politics becomes impossible.
The second damage conspiracism inflicts is to the defining institution of representative democracy: legitimate political opposition and regulated party rivalry. Democratic politics requires winners who refuse to use their power to harass, intimidate, jail, exile, or eliminate their opponents, and it requires officials who lose elections to peacefully leave office. True, political opposition depends on regulations, which can be changed, and on adherence to rules, which can be elastic. Still, legitimate political opposition requires a framework of rules and their formal and informal enforcement. More, it depends on a demanding political ethic: it takes self-discipline to acknowledge that one’s party is just a part, to resist the urge to claim to represent all “real” Americans, and to reject steps to elude rotation in office.
Rejection of legitimate political opposition is inseparable from conspiracism, here in the United States as it is everywhere. Democratic officials, voters, financial backers (even Republican opponents of Trumpism) are cast as enemies conspiring to turn America into an alien country: to alter America as a Christian nation, dilute America as a White nation, impose a “woke” culture on the nation, cede sovereignty to a “new world order.” Not even intense partisan polarization prepared us for repeated accusations of treason aimed at elected representatives. “The Democrat Party,” Trump said, “is held hostage by far-left activists, by angry mobs, Antifa, by deep-state radicals and … I will tell you, they’re so lucky that we’re peaceful.” The treasonous opposition is now cast as a violent enemy: a collection of “left-wing hit squads.” Adherents of conspiracist reality turn to threats, intimidation, and rogue violence themselves, and to organized efforts to ensure that only Republican votes count.
Trump, with the silence or active complicity of his party, took us back to a time before the age of modern representative democracy, when party opposition was by definition seditious. He reoriented us toward a future of antidemocratic, personal rule. Before his supporters trashed the Capitol on January 6, 2021, Trump trashed the idea of legitimate opposition every day for four years.
Finally, conspiracism targets knowledge producers and the universe of institutions we turn to for specialized knowledge, expert judgment, and reliable information. The conspiracist assault on knowledge-producing institutions follows decades of charges of partisan bias and the creation of ideologically warring research centers, publications, and media. Conspiracists take things further, for “fake news” is more than a label applied to reporting that is said to be deceptive, partisan, or self-serving. It is an accusation of conspiracy, conveying that the mainstream media are “absolute scum,” a cabal colluding to weaken the nation. The price of rejecting mainstream reporting, one repentant conservative observed, “turned out to be far higher than I imagined.… We thought we were creating a savvier, more skeptical audience. Instead, we … found an audience that could be easily misled.”
Delegitimation of specialized knowledge was exhaustive and unchecked. Whole areas of research vital to governing were cast off. Climate science was labelled a hoax: “The White House has removed the scientist responsible for the National Climate Assessment, the federal government’s premier contribution to climate knowledge and the foundation for regulations to combat global warming” (Flavelle, Friedman, and Davenport 2020). The Environmental Protection Agency uses “secret science”. The acme came in 2020 when President Trump publicly proposed treating coronavirus infections by irradiating patients’ bodies with ultraviolet light and injecting bleach. He dared Dr. Deborah Birx, his White House coronavirus response coordinator, to publicly disagree as he scorned and unraveled sound policies. “I’m not a doctor,” he said pointing to his head, “but I’m a person who has a good you-know-what”. Disparaging experts exhibits contempt for knowledge, disregard for regular processes of making and implementing policy, and bald indifference to consequences.
Conspiracism, in sum, attacks the legitimacy of the two foundations that make democracy work: knowledge-producing institutions and regulated political rivalry. Because these are the very institutions that bring pluralism into political life, they must be delegitimated by those who claim to own reality and brook no contradiction.The term “delegitimation” is often used promiscuously today, and understanding what it means to delegitimate political opposition and specialized knowledge is essential to understanding the damage conspiracism does to democracy. It is not the equivalent of opposing or discrediting or sowing doubt and mistrust. After all, government often fails to keep promises or to enforce laws fairly or to fight corruption; it squanders trust and the result is mistrust. To delegitimate a democratic institution takes us beyond mistrust. It drains offices and institutions of meaning, value, and authority so that they no longer have a claim to consent or even compliance. That is conspiracism’s distinctive work.
Russell Muirhead is the Robert Clements Professor of Democracy and Politics at Dartmouth College. He is the author of Just Work (2009), The Promise of Party in a Polarized Age (2014), and (with Nancy L. Rosenblum) A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy (2019).
Nancy L. Rosenblum is the Senator Joseph S. Clark Professor of Ethics in Politics and Government emerita at Harvard University and coeditor of the Annual Review of Political Science. Her books include On the Side of the Angels: An Appreciation of Parties and Partisanship (2008), Good Neighbors: The Democracy of Everyday Life in America (2016), and (with Russell Muirhead) A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy (2019). She was the guest editor and contributor of the 2020 special issue of Daedalus “Witnessing Climate Change.”