The Declaration of Independence was based on a conspiracy theory. The theory was that the King of England and his high ministers had secretly agreed to deprive the American colonists of their rights as English citizens and to impose tyrannical rule. The Declaration recites a long list of facts offered as proof of the theory. In retrospect, it is unlikely that this theory was actually true, but events at the time took on a momentum that made further proof then beside the point.
This type of conspiracism, which tries to make sense of a disorderly world by asserting that powerful people are controlling events behind the scenes, can be quite useful in a democracy – provided that a serious attempt is made to develop the factual proof. But this useful type of conspiracism has been replaced today by an insidious type not concerned at all with facts. Instead of factual validation it seeks only social validation, often through the number of people who follow or “like” a Facebook post or retweet some outrageous allegation. Repetition and affirmation are the currency. This social validation makes the conspiracy allegations “true enough” without more.
In their 2019 book A Lot of People Are Saying, Russel Muirhead and Nancy Rosenblum call this the “new conspiracism.” They argue that while people who engage in this new conspiracism allege plots against the constitutional order and national values, they do not offer solutions or prescribe practices or institutions that should replace the malignant ones. Their intent is simply to delegitimize the current order. Delegitimization is the cleaving of the public from the sense that government has rightful authority. It undermines leaders of government and institutions and seeks to deprive those institutions of any claim to our respect or consent.
Take the assertion made by Donald Trump before the 2016 election that the election would be “rigged.” He did not bother to explain how it would be rigged or by whom. He didn’t urge the adoption of a new system for fair elections. He simply characterized the whole presidential election process as corrupt, knowing that if that assertion couldn’t be proved entirely untrue, then it was true enough for people predisposed to believe him. And he made it true enough by constantly repeating it. If his intent had been to prepare his followers for an election loss, then Trump would have stopped claiming the election system was rigged after he won. But instead he continued making this claim.
In this way, Trump sought to use conspiracism to undermine a central democratic institution. Many historians of authoritarianism and the decline of democracy have cited undermining public faith in elections as a key strategy of would-be dictators. Now, of course, the 2016 rigged election claim has made way for the Big Lie – that Joe Biden was not legitimately elected President in 2020 because the election was stolen from Trump. Those responsible for this heist are never identified.
The Big Lie fits the new conspiracism construct in two important ways. First, it is not concerned with facts and its continued vitality doesn’t depend on facts. Indeed, all the facts that have been developed about the 2020 election show that it was one of the cleanest elections in modern history. Some 19 legal challenges were made to election results in various states. In order to survive, lawsuits require supporting facts but because the Big Lie has no supporting facts – only hyperbolic rhetoric – all 19 of these claims were dismissed.
The absence of supporting facts has not prevented a substantial slice of the public from accepting the truth of the Big Lie. On May 18, 2021 the New York Times reported on two opinion polls conducted by reputable firms. One poll in Arizona concluded that 78 percent of Arizona Republicans believe the Big Lie. A Monmouth University poll found that almost two-thirds of Republicans nationwide do as well. This may stem from the fact that we have sorted ourselves into like-minded communities. Republicans who believe the election was stolen from Trump might do so because they don’t know anyone who voted for Biden.
The Big Lie also fits the new conspiracism construct because it delegitimizes elections and related constitutional institutions. On January 6, 2021, our Capitol building was stormed by a violent mob for the sole purpose of interrupting the counting of Electoral College votes, the last step in confirming Biden’s election victory. This rabble, fired up by the Big Lie, had utterly lost faith that the national election had been fair.
One is tempted to include the new state laws in Georgia and Texas designed to restrict early voting and absentee ballots as among the products of the Big Lie conspiracy. But I think this would be a mistake. These restrictions on access to voting were part of the Republican playbook before Trump and the Big Lie came along. In truth, these restrictive new voter laws have not been proposed as a remedy for any deep state “conspiracy” responsible for stealing the election from Trump.
Republican leaders are hoping that making it harder to vote in communities of color will make it more likely their party will prevail in elections. While the ultraconservative demographic reliably turns out to vote, this older, white voting group is an increasingly smaller slice of the voting public. Found mainly in rural areas, that demographic is falling behind a more liberal demographic in the cities. The handwriting is on the wall and some other Republican strategy besides weak attempts at voter suppression must be devised.
Restricting access to voting is just a tactic that will not yield big results. What is the Republican grand strategy? Only a dramatic change in the way the public thinks about – or trusts – the electoral process can prevent the marginalization of the current Republican Party. If voters mistrust the electoral system, the effectiveness of the Democratic Party in the cities and among the educated might be derailed. Perhaps that dramatic change is what is the Big Lie really seeks to achieve — if we can’t beat them at the ballot box, let’s degrade the whole system. How’s that for a conspiracy theory?