Why are Conspiracy Theories so Popular in America?


We’ve all heard the stories. Was JFK assassinated by the government? Was 9/11 a black ops operation? Is Obama a Socialist Kenyan Lizard? Conspiracies are almost the norm rather than the exception in American political life. This begs a few questions. Why are there so many conspiracy theories, and why do so many of them focus on the United States? There is something very American about conspiracy theories. Explanations range from the American values of Democratic openness and anti-elitism, to the legacy of the paranoid pilgrims of yesteryear. Conspiracies have been with American culture from the beginning. The first English settlers in America were extreme hard-line protestants, who saw the devil behind every dark corner. Not only did this result in seeing the pope as the anti-christ, but also witch hunts against their own flock. That’s not metaphor, I mean literal witch hunts. Elements of this paranoia carry to today as the list of anti-christs and apocalypse dates increase year by year. Along with religious fear, there was a massive distrust of secretive groups. One of the favourite targets from the earliest days of the American republic to today are the freemasons. Anti-masonry exploded after a murder in the 1820s of someone who supposedly leaked freemason secrets. It went as far as inspiring an anti-masonic political party. The cast of boogeyman grew as anticommunist paranoia swept the US. Seen as a threat to American culture, everyone just a bit too left of center would be suspected of being a Communist spy or secret agent. Organizations like the John Birch Society and politicians like Joseph McCarthy stoked these fears for their own ends. Historians consider this anti-communist red scare of the 1950s as the reason why social democracy, and other leftist politics seem to be absent in American political discourse. How do these carry forward to today? Many of the old favorites are still around, with a few new gems. The 1990s added many of the more sci-fi conspiracies to the mix. Some would argue that today, conspiracies run the gamut of American culture. In 2015, nearly half of American believe in at least one conspiracy theory, and popular conspiracies make the mainstream news. Just think about Donald Trump’s secret evidence of Mexico sneaking people into the US, or the oncoming martial law from war games in Texas. What are the major themes of conspiracies? Many use control-through-debt to build their theories. Often corruption is assumed on the part of the government or corporate controllers. Conspiracies act as a form of counter-subversion, attacking targets already subjugated by mainstream society. Other big targets tend towards internationalist organizations like the United Nations, the World Bank, or the International Monetary Fund. Let’s not forget our favorite big fat cat capitalists! Major deaths tend to spawn new theories. Every major death in American history from Abraham Lincoln to Marilyn Monroe have a conspiracy behind them. One ironic aspect is that groups trying to expose conspiracies tend to become conspiratorial. The Know Nothing Society that attempted to expose the evil plots brought by immigrants became cloistered, exclusionary, and secretive in their own right. The Ku Klux Klan often warned about conspiracies to strip real Americans of their constitutional freedoms while conspiring behind white sheets to deprive black, jewish, and catholic Americans of their rights. Conspiracies are now big business. It is a thriving industry of books, magazines, symposiums, and radio shows. It has built up a subculture of intellectual dissent to the mainstream. Why do people believe in these theories? Psychologists attribute it to many causes. The search for meaning in life might make combating conspiracies life affirming. Confirmation bias, where we disregard evidence that doesn’t fit preconceived notions strengthens the connections. These are further reinforced by conspiracy communities. It also makes the world understandable, taking ambiguity and turning issues into simple understandable moral struggles. Some psychologists see the theories as projection. Often the undesirable characteristics of the theorist are projected on to the conspirators. One of the common evil attributes of these conspirators is sexual freedom. Christopher Hitchens had an alternative claim. He called conspiracies the ‘exhaust fumes of democracy’ and simply the end result of free and open discourse. It seems that America with it’s story of a grand national mission leads to theories that go alongside with that mythology. It’s dedication to individualism, and anti-elitism are powerful cultural catalysts. Add in some pilgrim paranoia, xenophobia, and racism in the states’ history and you have a perfect recipe for a population that sees conspiracies in every dark corner. Regardless of why people believe them, conspiracies are as American as apple pie, and are likely to shape the political landscape of their quirky country for years to come. What’s the craziest conspiracy you know of? Be sure to let us know about it down in the comments. Thanks for watching, and check out the channel for more episodes of Step Back.