A Lot of People Are Saying

The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy

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A lot of people are saying this book is good. I was unimpressed. The book's general idea is that "democracy" is uniquely threatened by what they authors (Harvard prof Nancy L. Rosenblum and Dartmouth prof Russell Muirhead) call the "New Conspiricism". Which generates (they say) imaginary conspiracies that lack a conspiracy theory. Conspiracists (they say) make it up as they go along, tossing out dark allegations without the slightest effort at marshalling evidence, connecting the dots, not even setting up the corkboards with ragtag newspaper clippings, pushpins, and red yarn.

The paperback edition, which I read from the Portsmouth Public Library, is dated 2019. So it misses Covid, the 2020 election, and January 6. What a field day the authors could have had with those! As it is, their examples of "conspiricism" are kind of weak and repetitive. Exhibit A is Pizzagate, deserving of a dozen separate index entries. There's Jade Helm with six entries. And the authors take special care to mention the various plots alleged by the "conspiracist in chief", Donald Trump: birtherism, 2016 election fraud (denying him the popular vote win he thought he deserved), Ted Cruz's dad was involved in JFK's assassination, and more.

So many more.

The obvious thing about Trump is that he's a bullshitter, prone to throwing off self-serving evidence-free nonsense from the top of his head. The authors (to their minor credit) do mention Harry Frankfurt's classic On Bullshit, only to deny the obvious: it's necessary to their thesis to make Trump a conspiracist, not a mere bullshitter. I thought their argument here was unconvincing.

Muirhead and Rosenblum also go out of their way to distinguish the "new conspiracism" with "classic" conspiracy theorizing. The new conspiracism is (again) "conspiracy without a theory", which is a punchy, soundbite-friendly, allegation that is mostly (I thought) handwaving. It would be damned odd if (somehow) humanity's well-known mental foibles, evolved over millennia, suddenly developed an entirely new channel for fallacy and fabulism. And damned odd if that mind-virus infected only one political inclination.

But it's necessary for the authors to associate the "new conspiracism" with Republicans. In order to do that, they (more or less) hammer on the facts of recent history to make them fit their model.

They have to ignore (for example) Hillary Clinton's deeming Trump an "illegitimate president". (And the Republican National Committee compiled a helpful history of Democrat election denialism, equally ignored by the authors.)

What the authors seem to miss entirely is the cause of this sort of thing. The best explicator I've seen in recent years is Martin Gurri, whose thesis is that the public is increasingly fed up with the smug arrogance of "elites". Muirhead and Rosenblum are total fans of the elites, but (in plain fact) they have squandered whatever trust we once placed in them.

(Pun Salad blog posts referencing Gurri, most with quotes, may be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. That penultimate link observes that this book might have been a lot better if the authors had read Gurri first.)

But let's give the authors (some) credit. Their concluding chapter outlines a "worst-case scenario" of where this might all be leading. And their description is actually pretty close to what happened after the 2020 election. Their thesis is shaky, but their prognostication is strong.

Not that it matters, but the Dartmouth author, Russell Muirhead, is also a representative in the New Hampshire House. The latest ratings from the New Hampshire Liberty Alliance score him (with 103 other reps) as a "Constitutional Threat". So he's a fan of "democracy", fine, but liberty? Not so much.

And their institutions? Muirhead's Dartmouth is ranked #240 out of 248 colleges in the latest ratings from the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression. And Rosenblum's Harvard? Dead last at #248.

The authors probably don't have a lot of influence over their employers' speech policies. It would have been nice if they'd shown the slightest awareness of the censoriousness of elite institutions, as typified by their very own.

Last Modified 2024-01-11 4:47 AM EST