This essay is an edited version of a lecture I gave in May of 2017 entitled Conspiracy Theories as Lazy Political Science. What follows will be a multi part essay providing what I hope to be a primer on how to spot conspiracy theories. It is my understanding that conspiracy theorists seem to be either unaware of or unwilling to deal with the complexity of societal power. Conspiracism (The belief in, or advocacy of conspiracy theories) tries to figure out how power is exercised, but ends up oversimplifying the complexities of modern society by blaming societal problems on manipulation by a handful of evil individuals, and not understanding the real world is much more chaotic than they believe it to be. They think they live in the world of The X-Files and that there are nefarious individuals with a national or global reach that continuously plot to enslave or kill the entirety of the human population. According to some “they” already have total power, to others they may be close to absolute power.
Political Science and Power
In the age of the internet, the popularity of conspiracy theories has grown in no small part as a result of the proliferation an innumerable amount of alternative “news” websites offering the supposed truth behind any number of events, misleading YouTube videos and by having a presence on every social media platform. As stated, at their core, conspiracy theories are the result of poor institutional analyses. They are an attempt to understand existing power dynamics without the proper tools. Political science, for those that might be turned off by such a drab name, is a discipline that focuses on the theory and practice of government and politics at the local, state, national, and global levels. In political science both local and global institutions are examined. The movers and shakers of local municipalities are studied just like the most powerful people in international politics.
It’s important for students that are new to the discipline to understand that political science and politics are not the same thing. Political science is not politics, it is the study of politics. To study politics one does not need an emotional attachment to a particular politician, party or ideology. A virologist need not like the virus that she’s studying. And generally, I don’t like most politicians. Political science is predicated on empiricism and scientific rigor rather than just emotions or partisanship.
Political science examines a number of institutions ranging from K-12 school districts, city governments and the presidency to unions or even religious groups. The discipline of political science is a large one, and has under its umbrella a number of subfields: Political Theory, International Relations, Comparative Politics, U.S. Government, State and Local Government, Public Administration, Constitutional Law and Public Policy. Political Science is a wide ranging discipline and it doesn’t end there. It is related to and often overlaps with other disciplines like, Sociology, History, Geography, Demographics and Psychology. The good student of political science understands this.
There is a theme among conspiracy theorists, pseudo-scientists and new age types that academics are just sitting in their ivory towers making pronouncements about what is real and what isn’t. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Research is being done almost every day, in every discipline, and the realm of peer review can be tedious and at times very confrontational.
But at its core, political science is the study of power. When I talk about power here, I am referencing what’s called distributive power. The power of one over another, the ability of A to get B to do what A wants. If you are wondering where political power comes from, there are a number of competing explanations:
Biological explanations suggest that humans naturally form political systems and that obeying is innate to human behavior. Aristotle called people “political animals”, or the zoon politikon. The idea being that we as humans need to come together for survival. Humans are like herd animals. We have leaders and followers like animals. Looking to primates and many other animal groups as examples, there is strength in numbers. Politicians, like the current president and many of his other macho peers tend to think they are “alpha males”. Two early political philosophers, social contract theorists Thomas Hobbes and John Locke argued that humans form societies to escape the very brutal state of nature. The real world is vicious, communities are a figurative wall that protects us from nature.
Psychological explanations for power are similar to the biological. People respond to authority figures. The Milgram study and the Stanford Prison experiment highlighted this understanding. There are people who will inflict pain and much worse on others as long as an authority figure ok’s the procedure. Psychological studies show people can be surprisingly conformist. Examples include gay men joining the KKK to fit in, Republicans of color and the the rise of authoritarianism.
Cultural explanations argue that political behavior is not innate but rather it is learned by individuals through socialization. We know that if the political system gets out of touch with culture it can lead to disaster. This was the case with the Shah of Iran, and the last Russian Tsar. The cultural explanation provides hope because unlike the biological and psychological theories of political power, it means that behavior learned through socialization can be changed if it is “bad”.
Rational explanations of power suggest that people know what they want most of the time and that they act to get it. The idea being that if I vote for said candidate, I can get what I want. Irrational explanations of power however suggest that people are driven by emotions. This makes them easily manipulated by symbols and mythologies which are used ad nauseum by fascists, nationalists and religious fundamentalists. People are emotional and will often vote and act against their own interests. This is best exemplified by the 2016 election and every time a poor person caught in the “culture wars” votes Republican.
In truth, power is a composite of all these competing explanations and as such can be difficult to understand. This is the linchpin of the conspiracy theorist’s misunderstanding of power. They don’t understand it’s complexity.
Chip Bertlet who writes on right-wing populism says, “This is not an analysis that accurately evaluates the systems, structures and institutions of modern society. As such, conspiracism is neither investigative reporting, which seeks to expose actual conspiracies through careful research; nor is it power structure research, which seeks to accurately analyze the distribution of power and privilege in a society. Sadly, some sincere people who seek social and economic justice are attracted to conspiracism. Overwhelmingly, however, conspiracism in the U.S. is the central historic narrative of right-wing populism.” In other words, conspiracy theorists tend to gloss over, or just not understand the fact that power is dispersed among millions of individuals, families, corporations and other interests. There is no inner circle, no Illuminati (not anymore). Being a kingmaker in Vermont doesn’t guarantee you any power in Oregon. Running one industry doesn’t mean you have power in any other.
In Part Two, which will be available later this week, I will explain the difference between conspiracies which are very real, and which have molded the course of human history and conspiracy theories which are the result of an improper understanding of power. That’s where it gets interesting.