A new movement within the Republican Party threatens to displace the historic roots of conservatism with obsessive fear of secret plots.
If the rash of 'Tea Party' protests planned for Tax Day 2009 is any indication, the Right Wing in American politics may finally abandon all pretense at what Barry Goldwater once called the "conscience of a conservative." Instead of that lofty, albeit tattered ambition, the Right Wing of 2009 is rapidly embracing a wild-eyed, media manipulated, and self-destructive "conspiracy theory conservatism."
If I were a Republican leader, I would be very worried about this change. Should it come to pass that conspiracy theory conservatism wins out once and for good over Goldwater conservatism, the Republican Party will be doomed, broken, kaput.
The shift to conspiracy theory Conservatism is not hard to spot, even if a ready description has only just begun to rise through the din of the 24/7 news chatter.
Conspiracy theories of politics are not new. Writing in 1945, philosopher Karl Popper once described the "conspiracy theory of society" problem this way:
It is the view that an explanation of a social phenomenon consists in the discovery of the men or groups who are interested in the occurrence of this phenomenon (sometimes it is a hidden interest which has first to be revealed), and who have planned and conspired to bring it about (The Open Society and Its Enemies, p. 104)
Popper bends over backwards to acknowledge that conspiracies do in fact exist--such is the nature of power and society. But his point is that the explanation for crises are rarely, if ever, as simple as "this powerful individual or group plotted in secret, fooled everyone, are the sole cause of this disaster." What we may see as conspiracies, are always the product of many and various social forces unfolding despite what individuals plan and plot. Even a plot as seemingly conspiratorial as Bernie Madoff's fraud scheme could not have been carried off were it not for the willful ignorance of those investors who placed 100% of their trust in a single fund that produced impossible returns year after year, contrary to market trends and common sense.
Conspiracy theories of society, in other words, are not unique to the Right, Left or any place in between. Wherever there are simplistic theories of a crisis that blame hidden groups and secret plots, conspiracy theory abounds.
Unfortunately for the Republican Party, conspiracy theories started to grow apace amongst the Right Wing faithful during the 2008 Presidential election. From 2007 to 2008, the Right Wing media pressed the following theories relentlessly:
Barack Obama says he is a capitalist, but he is really a socialist working with a secret group to fool the public and take over the American government.
Barack Obama says he is American, but he is really a foreigner working with a secret group to fool the public and take over the American government.
These accusations--repeated endlessly on cable TV and radio-- gave rise to conspiracy theory conservatism in the election aimed less at rallying voters to support the Republican ticket and more at shining a light on these supposed secret plots by Muslim, socialist, and foreign cabals. Whether or not politicians and media figures exploited Right-Wing conspiracy theory conservatism during the election for votes or profit, when the election was over these theories survived unchecked in the minds of millions of Americans.
Why so many Americans believe theories based on the existence of secret plots and never-before-seen groups is not entirely clear. There have been famous conspiracies in political history (Italy's mind-boggling Propaganda Due scandal comes to mind), but even when these plots come to light, the tales of their power and design are far more fantastical than anything that actually happened.
What makes some people more susceptible to conspiracy theory than others? I am not psychologist, but I am sure there are many causes: fear, ignorance, sudden loss of a sense of power of control.
Ultimately, to believe in a conspiracy theory requires a kind of mindset that views the world that can actually be seen, touched, and described as just an illusion--a veil. Those susceptible to conspiracy theory are willing to believe that the "real" world--the world where real political and economic power is exercised and real consequences are set in motion--is entirely hidden from us on an everyday basis. Once we believe that these all powerful forces exist in secret, the work of bringing them to light becomes an endless pursuit of justice on which the future depends. Conspiracy theorists, in other words, are deadly serious and they believe--they really believe--that unless the hidden conspirators are brought out into the full light of day, the consequences will be dire and far reaching.
When the economy dropped, the conditions for growth in the conspiracy theory adherents became optimal.
Here was a crisis with vast causes that seemed ready made for simplistic explanations. The stock market dropped, unemployment rose, and--conspiracy theory conservatism took off.
Even before the 'Tea Parties' took shape, Right-Wing media had reached back to the conspiracy theory with the broadest support from the 2008 election: the theory that Barack Obama was secretly working in the interest of a well-concealed socialist movement.
For weeks on end, the leadership of the Republican Party, together with key figures in Right-Wing radio and cable TV pushed the conspiracy theory that Barack Obama--and everyone who supported him--was a secret socialist. In other words, every other socialist revolution in history was advanced by actual socialists who called themselves 'socialists' in public, but Barack Obama's socialist revolution was a conspiracy, a plot by socialists who dared not say the word. The only people using the word socialists, where the conspiracy theorist conservatives determined to cast light on the plot and stop it before it was too late.
When the Right Wing failed to bring any credible socialist cabal to light and President Obama passed recovery and reinvestment legislation with substantial public support, conspiracy theory conservatism pushed a new plot: Barack Obama's secret plan to impose totalitarianism.
Again, the idea that Obama worked for hidden forces with a plan to seize control of the government had its origins in the 2008 election, but this time the key media figure pushing the conspiracy theory infused the plot with a new source.
Picking up an old rumor that spread during the Bush administration about a series of 'secret FEMA prisons' to be set up on the pretense of deporting illegal immigrants, Beck began to repeat during live broadcasts on FOX News air that 'he could not disprove' President Obama plan to use the prisons to round up ordinary Americans.
Beck's conspiracy theory fused the conservative antipathy for environmental reforms with prior complaints about George W. Bush's anti-constitutional infractions into a grand theory of Barack Obama's hidden plan to use federal spending and seemingly innocent government programs to bring American democracy to an end.
Following Beck's on air theorizing, House Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN)--who, during the 2008 election, had pushed the idea that Barack Obama answered to a secret anti-American cabal that had infiltrated Congress--advanced another theory of totalitarian conspiracy, claiming that a federal program to train inner-city kids to weatherize windows was actually a secret plot to turn American citizens into a totalitarian vanguard, using gulag-style "re-education programs" to eliminate by force all dissent from liberal ideology.
When the 'Tax Party' movement finally broke through the surface of media coverage, the essentially Libertarian idea had already begun to fuse with conspiracy theory conservatism.
Where Libertarians had previously argued against the constitutionality of federal taxes--using dubious, albeit historical, arguments inspired by the campaign former Presidential candidate Ron Paul--Republicans who flocked to the 'tea party' movement arrived with conspiracy theories in tow.
By the time this video was recorded this past week, the 'Tea Party' movement had been taken over by the conspiracy theory conservatives, such that it was no longer just about cutting taxes, but had become a Glenn Beck inspired crusade to bring a series of secret cabals to light before they crushed the Republic:
It may seem pathetic at first to watch a man exhort a room of strangers to stop a secret Liberal cabal before it destroys the country--but the real problem displayed in the video goes far beyond one person and one theory.
Conspiracy theory conservatism has rapidly become the dominant modus operandi of the most vocal and most motivated Republican activists. Five years ago, when Democratic Party activists felt the same sense of crisis after catastrophic loss at the polls, the grassroots rallied to on-line organizing and generated a far-reaching discussion about how to win elections. Now that the Republican Party has suffered a similar defeat, Right Wing activists are gathering in bars and sounding the alarm over secret plots and the threat of covert dual identities amongst our highest-profile national leaders.
The danger for the Republican Party is not that these theories will be disproved or that the flamboyant adherents of conspiracy theory conservatism will garner even more unflattering media attention than they already have. The problem is that conspiracy theory conservatism might be the first new habit strong enough to displace the old 'conscience of a conservative' Goldwater ways.
Goldwater conservatism thrived in a world dominated by larger-than-life Republican leaders--Western senators and governors--and a party structure that could control the movement by controlling the purse-strings and the message. That world is quickly fading. The new world in which conspiracy theory conservatism thrives consists of snap organizing, small donors, on-line activism, and Right-Wing media figures capable of pushing political debate with stunts verging on political burlesque.
If the old Right-Wing icons were Goldwater, Reagan, and Bush, the new icons are Limbaugh, Beck, and Hannity. If the old Right-Wing "conscience" was that human nature is part economic and part spiritual, the new "conscience" is that government is a vast secret plot that Liberals use to defraud the public. If the old Right-Wing message was 'low taxes, small government, strong military,' the new message is 'A storm is gathering! Beware of Socialism! Wake up before it's too late!'
In short, Goldwater conservatism was the stuff of books and campaigns that inspired a generation to see themselves as the leaders of a movement that could change America. And that generation did, for better or worse, change America. Conspiracy theory conservatism, by contrast, is the stuff of YouTube and prime-time blooper segments that could inspire a generation to shake their heads and mutter,"Yikes," then devote themselves to avoiding public life at all costs for fear of ridicule.
Who will pull the party out of this conspiracy theory tailspin? It certainly will not be John McCain, Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, or Bobby Jindal. Each heir apparent to the Republican crown have all chosen to dabble in conspiracy theory conservatism rather than actively work against its growth.
More likely, there will be a split in the Republican Party that will begin to take shape this year, and give rise to new leadership--possibly even a new splinter party movement--by the 2010 elections. Everyone who thinks they can leverage the conspiracy theory conservatives to win elections will stay with the old guard. Those who see the conspiracy theory conservatives as a toxic influence will go their separate ways.
The big winners in all this? It will not be the Republican Party--either of them. The winners will be the Becks and Limbaughs of Right-Wing media. The more conspiracy theory conservatism abounds, the more listeners will stay glued to their radios and TVs, eager to stay abreast of the latest clarion calls that the end is neigh and the conspirators, as always, are well concealed.