The Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences

Professor Russell Muirhead Discusses “Conspiracy Without the Theory” in First Rocky Watch Event of the Spring Term

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Russell Muirhead, the Robert Clements Professor of Democracy and Politics, kicks off the first episode of Rocky Watch with a Zoom public event "Conspiracy Without the Theory.” (Photo by Eli Burakian ’00)

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On Wednesday, April 8th, Dartmouth’s Robert Clements Professor of Democracy and Politics and Interim Director of the Rockefeller Center, Russel Muirhead, spoke at the Rockefeller Center’s first Rocky Watch event of the spring term. Rocky Watch is a weekly series of live broadcasts that the Center hopes will foster a virtual common space for community discussion in this time of social distancing and remote learning. The digital event began with Deputy Director of the Rockefeller Center, Sadhana Hall, expressing enthusiasm and hope about this term of remote learning, before introducing Professor Muirhead.

Muirhead’s most recent book, coauthored with Harvard Professor Nancy Rosenblum, is “A Lot of People are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy.” It explores the rise of conspiratorial thinking across the world, and Muirhead shared many of the book’s key findings during Wednesday’s discussion.  

First, Muirhead noted that we think that “conspiracy and theory always go together.” Well-developed conspiracy theories like those of the 9/11 truthers, for example, are based on real events and try to make sense of them. Often, they have the aim of holding power to account and hope to restore democracy to its proper functioning. “The Declaration of Independence is a conspiracy theory,” Muirhead emphasized, pointing out that it was full of accusations against and suspicion towards England. Conspiracy theories, while often far-fetched and counterproductive, exist to make sense of the world and sometimes can reveal truths about it. Today however, Muirhead believes a highly destructive form of conspiratorial thinking has taken hold over society, something that he calls “conspiracy without the theory.”

Conspiracy without the theory, Muirhead says, is “conspiratorial talk with nothing to be explained,”; it is merely an assertion. Unlike traditional conspiracy theories, the aim of conspiracy without the theory isn’t to explain, it is to make the world more “opaque, befuddling, and confusing.” Examples of it can be found in the use of the word “rigged” by politicians to delegitimize their opposition, or the completely unbacked assertions made by President Trump that President Obama wiretapped his phones in the 2016 election. These kinds of conspiracies don’t clarify any existing phenomena, but instead sow chaos, make people unsure of what to believe, and are often intended to advantage the spreader of the misinformation. As conspiracism becomes even more widespread during the confusion of the coronavirus crisis, it is making Americans less informed and more polarized. 

The impact of conspiracy without the theory on democracy is deeply worrisome because it fans the fires of partisanship and de-legitimizes the political opposition. Muirhead cites the example of Pizzagate, the entirely fabricated claim that Hillary Clinton was operating a pedophile ring from the basement of a pizzeria, to prove this point. Falsehoods like Pizzagate are used to enrage voters and portray the political opposition as evil and illegitimate, making good governance and power transition more difficult. Moreover, Muirhead points out that conspiracy without the theory undercuts “all those parts of government that are staffed by experts,” often portraying them as tools of a deep state and working against ‘real’ Americans. By casting doubt on institutions and expertise, today’s conspiracism undermines knowledge and democracy.

Asked why conspiracism and political misinformation have worsened recently, Muirhead points to two causes. The first is that a “conspiracist (Donald Trump) has moved to the White House,” making conspiracies and falsehoods a much more regular part of our day to day lives. The second cause is that the world has had a “revolution of communications technology,” meaning that the way in which we get our information has become radically democratized. A would-be conspiracist can reach millions of people by doing something as simple as sending a tweet, increasing our exposure to conspiracies. These two factors have normalized and perpetuated misinformation on a scale never before possible. 

So, what to do about it? Although a daunting challenge, Muirhead is hopeful that we can overcome it. He argues that our best way of confronting this new conspiracism is to “name the unnamed,” that is, to say loud and clear that these new conspiracies don’t have a speck of evidence. But, Muirhead acknowledges that the problem of misinformation and conspiracy could require more structural solutions. Speculating that an increase in conspiracies could be related to dissatisfaction with government, he believes that we must “fundamentally reform democratic institutions and put them into a state that causes citizens to believe in them.” Hopefully, the American people are up to the task. 

-Written by Ben Vagle  ’22, Rockefeller Center Student Program Assistant for Public Programs

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