American Conspiracy Theories

October 30, 2020
American Conspiracy Theories

We are living in an age of conspiracy theories, whether it'senduring, widely held beliefs such as government involvement in theKennedy assassination or alien activity at Roswell, fears of apowerful infiltrating group such as the Illuminati, Jews,Catholics, or communists, or modern fringe movements of varyingpopularity such as birtherism and trutherism. What is it inAmerican culture that makes conspiracy theories proliferate? Who istargeted, and why? Are we in the heyday of the conspiracy theory,or is it in decline?Though there is significant scholarly literature on the topic inpsychology, sociology, philosophy, and more, AmericanConspiracy Theories is the first to use broad, long-termempirical data to analyze this popular American tendency. Joseph E.Uscinski and Joseph M. Parent draw on three sources of originaldata: 120,000 letters to the editor of the New York Times andChicago Tribune from between 1890 and 2010; a two-wave survey frombefore and after the 2012 presidential election; and discussions ofconspiracy theories culled from online news sources, blogs, andother Web sites, also from before and after the election. Throughthese sources, they are able to address crucial questions, such assimilarities and differences in the nature of conspiracy theoriesover time, the role of the Internet and communications technologiesin spreading modern conspiracy theories, and whether politics,economics, media, war, or other factors are most important inpopularizing conspiratorial beliefs. Ultimately, they conclude thatpower asymmetries, both foreign and domestic, are the main driversbehind conspiracy theories, and that those at the bottom of powerhierarchies have a strategic interest in blaming those at thetop-in other words, "conspiracy theories are for losers." But these"losers" can end up having tremendous influence on the course ofhistory, and American Conspiracy Theories is anunprecedented examination of one of the defining features ofAmerican political life.