January 30, 2023 | Reading Time: 5 minutes

Conspiracism isn’t infecting America. It is America

It’s easier to deny the truth, though.


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It’s articles like this one by Brian Klaas that have me despairing for the republic. Not because he identifies “a particularly insidious disease … that is not present to the same degree in other rich democracies,” which he calls extreme conspiracism. I despair, because articles like this one choose abstraction over the historical conditions in which “extreme conspiracism” is a feature.

Articles like this one deny the truth.

Battling with ourselves
Klaas is by all appearances a wunderkind. He’s 36 and already the author of four influential works of scholarship. A native Minnesotan, he was educated at the University of Oxford before becoming a professor of political science at the University College London. Among members of the commentariat, especially observers of US foreign policy, his work is highly regarded. His reputation climbs steadily upward. His success is made more successful by perch as a contributor to The Atlantic

We are the truth. America is us. We are America. There is no disease. There is no infection (the pandemic notwithstanding). What you see is what we are. What we are is what you see. America is no more or less than the obvious. 

So Klaas is no schlub. No matter how he might identify himself, he’s an elite who writes for other elites. There’s my despair. If Klaas does not see the truth, perhaps many, or most, or all, elites don’t see it either. What’s the truth? It’s right in front of us – if we’re willing to see it. We can’t make good choices if we, but especially elites, keep denying it. 

We are the truth. America is us. We are America. There is no disease. There is no infection (sans covid). What you see is what we are. What we are is what you see. America is no more or less than the obvious. Some wanted a peaceful transfer of power on J6. Some wanted insurrection. Some wanted democracy, some anarchy. Some wanted order, some chaos. That’s America: a neverending violent paradox. 

Is greed a virus? Is cruelty an illness that can be cured. These are personality traits, innate psychological structures. They are not treatable. Gluttony, fear, pride, etc. – these help constitute the multiverse of characteristics that constitute the American character. 

These characteristics are not going away. They will be with us. The question isn’t whether we are X. The question is, given that we are X, and given that we have determined that we are X, what are we going to do with that truth? “The battle for American democracy will be a battle over reality,” Klaas wrote. It won’t. We’ll do what we always do.

Battle with ourselves.

Not an infection
I read a lot of commentary, mostly by elite voices. (That’s the nature of it.) So I have come to suspect something about writers who gaze down from misty heights onto the open, gritty, tangy mundane of American life. To them, America isn’t just another country. It can’t be. If it were, it would fall short of their vision of it, especially their place in it. How can elites be elite in a country that’s just like any other country?

Or they want it to be like another country whose eliteness is indubitable, because deep down they know that the United States will never be what they want it to be, a democracy whose politics is befitting of their place in the orders of power, a country whose culture won’t give space to just anyone. For Klaas, that’s Britain. 

Comparing the two underscores his point about extreme conspiracism. Other countries have polarized politics, he said, but America is exceptional in that its polarization is “irrational.” “One political party [the GOP] has fallen under the spell of conspiratorial thinking.”

Polarization is one thing, he wrote. But adding conspiracism to it is another. “Polarization plus this conspiracist tendency risks turning run-of-the-mill democratic dysfunction into a democratic death spiral. The battle for American democracy will be a battle over reality.”

While in America, the conspiracy theorists have a dedicated place at the table of democracy, thanks to the Republican Party providing a place for them to sit, in Britain, “conspiracy theorists are ostracized by the political establishment,” Klaas said. “Politicians may disagree about policy, but those who disagree about reality face real consequences.”

Klaas wrote: “What’s really troubling about this political moment in America, though, is not merely the spread of conspiratorial thinking in the general population. It’s also that the delusions have infected the mainstream political leadership. The crackpots have come to Congress.”

No, it has not been infected.

It’s the way it is.

The body politic
I don’t want to reduce Klaas or his essay to cartoons. I’m sure many see his way of seeing things, and agree with him, even if they’re not elites. There’s much to be said about “irrational polarization,” especially how dangerous it is. The coming fight over the debt ceiling is an example. 

But the GOP doesn’t stand apart from the voters whom they pander to. Political leaders are not separate from their followers. We all eat, sleep and breathe in the same air in the same country with the same history whose multiverse of details slowly accreted to become the present.

The Republicans, and leaders generally, are part of the cultural status quo, same as everyone. The cultural status quo in America is exceptional when compared to other countries, but not in the way Klaas would have us believe. In America, race and racism – dominance and suffering – constitute everything, especially what we consider to be normal. White power is the beginninng and the end of our politics.

White power is, in other words, irrational.

It is conspiratorial.

It asks us to believe some people are inherently better than others due to the wealth they possess or the dearth of melanin in their skin. It asks us to turn away from categorical suffering on account of those who suffer surely deserving it. It asks us to look at the sky and say it’s green. It asks us to punish dissidents. It asks us to nod in agreement with those rationalizing generational poverty. It expects us to overlook, or dismiss outright, the moral abominations of mass death and genocide.

Conspiratorial thinking has not infected the body politic of America.

It is the body politic of America.

A heavy lift
Perhaps this is why elite opiniontalkers work so hard to talk about anything but the thing that’s the root of all things in America. 

It’s easier to worry about conspiratorial thinking “becoming” a “defining feature” of the GOP instead of a defining feature of America. 

It’s easier to fret over the “lonely and bored” who are “particularly vulnerable” to thinking in terms of “good and evil,” and to bedazzle other elites by using five-dollar words like “Manichaean,” instead of recognizing that thinking in terms of “good and evil” is how virtually everyone thinks to some degree or another, good and bad. 

It’s much easier to brood over the likelihood of polarization merging with “deranged conspiracy theories” to spark “democratic breakdown.” 

Klaas said that “one purpose of democratic government is to allow citizens to solve problems through compromise without resorting to violence,” apparently forgetting the indelibly linked aspects of American political life: democratic government coexisting with political violence.

Ultimately, it’s about asking the right questions. Klaas asks whether we can overcome the “particularly insidious disease” of “extreme conspiracism” but without acknowledging, or even mentioning, the historical conditions in which “extreme conspiracism” is a feature. 

Instead of asking how the United States is going to overcome a feature of an underlying and historical condition, we should admit that that’s the condition, underlying and historical. Then we can work from there. 

But that’s a heavy lift, even for elites who have the resources necessary for heavy lifting. White power, after all, is how elites continue to be elite. Why question that when they can ask whether democracy survives now that “the crackpots have come to Congress”?

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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