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Whence Conspiracy Theories? The Nation’s Founding From Fabric of Suspicion

Lance deHaven-Smith, Matthew Witt

President Obama’s recent appointment of Harvard Professor, Cass Sunstein, to head the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, would have gone largely uncommented upon were it not for Sunstein’s position, established in 2008 working paper for Public Law & Legal Theory Research Paper Series, University of Harvard, University of Chicago and a 2009 article for the Journal of Political Philosophy co-authored with Adrian Vermeule, finding that public belief of so-called “conspiracy theories” poses a grave threat to confidence in government and, as such, “raises significant challenges for policy and law.” Following a quizzical path of reasoning, the paper calls for government conspiracies to target citizens who voice suspicions of government conspiracies. Sunstein and Vermeule claim that the popularity of conspiracy theories warrants a kind of domestic intelligence counter-insurgency to disrupt such speculation through “cognitive infiltration of extremist groups.” The authors attribute conspiracy theorizing to “identifiable cognitive blunders, operating in conjunction with informational and reputational influences.” The authors further find that such thinking abides a “self-sealing” quality making their adherents resist any evidence not in synch with a “crippled epistemology.”

Sunstein and Vermeule focus primarily on the 9/11 Truth Movement, thus suggesting, by exclusion, that this strand of suspicion is mostly an anomaly on the American political scene. In fact, a long pedigree of popular suspicions against elite dominance of American politics has historically been a key feature of the country’s political ontology, if not epistemology, beginning with the founding of the nation itself. To understand this nation’s popular propensity for suspicion–and how to incorporate such suspicion through healthy channels of discourse and inquiry–is matter warranting closer scrutiny than it has so far received.

The American Revolution was based on a conspiracy theory buttressed by claims about universal political rights. The theory was that “a history of repeated injuries and usurpations” by King George proved that the King was trying to establish “an absolute tyranny over these states.” In light of the King’s actions, the representatives of the states said they had a right to “alter,” “abolish,” or “throw off” the established government. This was and still is an explosive proposition; it adds to the discourse of accusation a threshold for revolution.

For the founders, the greatest threat to the constitutional order, aside from “insurrection,” was “factions.” As Madison proclaimed in Federalist 10, “By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” In contemporary parlance, a faction is a conspiracy. Addressing this threat, the “practice” of the founders was to enforce the Constitution with oaths of office, prosecutions of treason, impeachment for high crimes, etc. This practice might be called a “discourse of accusation.” It is based on reverence for a constitutional order from which a public interest is derived via the subtraction of factional interests.

The U.S. Constitution simultaneously fulfills and fundamentally contradicts the nation’s democratic aspirations. The Constitution safeguards the people’s unalienable rights by placing limits on the powers of the national government, but it also contradicts democratic principles by, for example, delimiting the franchise (beginning with black Americans under slavery and Jim Crow, extending to immigrant waves generally), ignoring institutionalized oppression and inequities, and allowing widespread governmental secrecy.

This proclivity inevitably produces decisions and actions with anti-democratic characteristics that have sparked revolutionary, pro-democracy movements, the catalog of which includes: Andrew Jackson’s election in 1830; abolitionism and the Civil War; the women’s suffrage movement; the Grange movement; the labor movement; the civil rights movement; the women’s movement; the student movement; and the environmental movement. Such movements have fueled expansions of suffrage along various dimensions: property qualifications, race, gender, and age. At the same time, a steady stream of innovations in communication–political pamphlets, mass newspapers, postal service, the telegraph, radio, television, and the Internet–have facilitated large-scale collective action. The scale of mass movements for democratization has grown from the Boston Tea Party and Shay’s Rebellion to the Bonus Army and the Civil Rights March on Washington.

The tension between the Declaration and the Constitution, or between mass and elite or demos and aristoi, is recapitulated in the conflict between the nation’s dominant political parties. The Democratic Party’s eponymous emphasis on democracy is based, implicitly, on concerns that the government will serve minority interests rather than the interests of the majority. This fear spiked during the presidency of Andrew Jackson, whose populist political philosophy epitomized the tension between elite dominance and the enfranchisement of working classes in the country.
By the same token, the Republican Party’s stress on republicanism reflects fears of majority tyranny; in the first instance, the subordination of elite interest to the working classes. Today, the Parties’ political programs are simply the flipside of these fears. Democrats generally see the national government as a means for collective action, whereas Republicans look to it as a restraint on collective action.

Distrust of government is nothing new to the United States. Although the Parties differ on the role of government vis-à-vis the citizenry, they are in agreement that the national government needs constant oversight and periodic reform for the very reason that factions exist and are always working to manipulate the system for their own benefit. With distrust of government built into America’s civic culture and a discourse of accusation enabled by the Constitution’s provisions for oaths, impeachment, and trials for “high crimes,” the United States has a long tradition of conspiracy theorizing. In the 19th Century, famous accusations about plots involving top officials were made by Alexander Hamilton, Andrew Jackson, and Abraham Lincoln. In a variety of statements that led to his death in a duel with Aaron Burr, Hamilton implied that Burr, who was Thomas Jefferson’s running mate in 1800, had conspired with members of the opposing (Federalist) party to secure the Presidency for himself after he and Jefferson had ended up with an equal number of votes in the Electoral College. In the 1830s, Andrew Jackson’s suspicions were directed at the Second National Bank, which he warned was a danger to our liberty and independence because it was controlled by foreign agents and those in “the richest class.” In 1848, Abraham Lincoln was serving in Congress when, in a statement to the House of Representatives, he accused the Polk Administration of provoking the Mexican-American War while claiming to the public that the war had been started by Mexico. Lincoln’s speech parsed the President’s messages to Congress to show that Polk had cleverly distorted the truth.

By the early 20th Century, the idea that American democracy had on more than one occasion been subverted from within had become a theme in academe, notably in the scholarship of Charles and Mary Beard (1927) that exposed the “hidden hand” of financial interests in many of the nation’s institutions and policies. The Beards’ pioneering work was followed in the 1950s with similar theorizing by two of America’s most respected scholars: C. Wright Mills (1959), who wrote about the “power elite,” and Harold Lasswell (1941; 1950; 1962), who argued that America might be turning into a “garrison state.” The influence garnered by Mills and Lasswell is evident from the Farewell Address of President Eisenhower, which included explicit warning about the rise of the “military-industrial complex.”

However, following the assassination of President Kennedy, a quizzical thing happened: elite theory quickly became passé in academia. At the same time, powerful norms emerged among political elites against openly speculating about elite political criminality; any such speculations came to be derided as “conspiracy theories.” Somehow the founders’ fears of despotic factions and high crimes were replaced by concerns about mass cynicism, which was viewed (quite self-servingly) by elites and their auxiliaries as groundless paranoia.

For most of American history, governing powers, dominated by the well healed classes, were grudgingly responsive to popular pressures for democratization. To be sure, political elites tended to react defensively to mass movements when they have first appeared. Certainly, abolitionism, the labor movement, the civil rights movement, and the student movement were met initially with shrill opposition and state violence. Over time these and other movements sustained significant–if never definitive–success over the oppression and exclusion they decried, and American government was forced to accommodate greater plurality of interest and values orientations; if not de facto then at least de jure; never in a straight line, but with distinctive movement nonetheless.

In seeking to explain rising hostility to government, it is no minor elision/oversight by those concerned with “conspiracy theories” to ignore or give only passing account, for instance, to: the Pentagon Papers, Watergate, Iran-Contra, Plame-gate, warrantless wiretaps, contested forensic science of the Warren Commission and 9/11 Commission reports (by respected scientists and board certified engineers, not amateurs), false claims about Iraqi WMD and propagation of aggressive war, kidnapping and torture in the war on terror, bogus terror alerts in the run-up to the 2004 presidential election, and banking deregulation and financial crises not once but twice in twenty years (in the 1980s and the 2000s).

While conspiracy theorizing will remain endemic to the American constitutional fabric, its more unhealthy ramifications could be mitigated to a great extent by following a few judicious practices, including: assigning independent investigative committees for un-blinkered inquiry into suspected high crimes; requiring testimony before such committees be given under oath; assuring that scientists are authorized privileged court standing with amicus briefs and testimony (as in matters like the disputed 9/11 claims for how the Towers could have collapsed, or with the disputed trajectory of assassin bullets); and requiring standardized forensic procedures for collection and secure storage of crime scene evidence.

Lance deHaven-Smith is a professor of public administration and policy at Florida State University.

ASPA member Matthew Witt is an associate professor in the department of public & health administration at the University of La Verne. Email: [email protected]

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