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24.12.03

Conspiracy Theory

The capture of Saddam Hussein set off the latest round of conspiracy theories among some opponents of the administration. Some people wondered whether it was really Saddam, and others speculated about whether he had been located some time before and only officially captured now, when it was politically useful. There has been concern, offered in all seriousness, about whether we will "just happen" to catch Osama bin Laden this coming October. This builds on a longstanding perspective that explains every move of the administration as a political calculation, engineered by the shadowy tendrils of Karl Rove.

I think this sort of conspiratorial thinking has a particular appeal for people who feel their power threatened or lost. Liberals in America today are understandably frustrated when they see conservatism ascendant. Seeing conservatives' rule as devious and Machiavellian provides a tempting explanation for our lack of power. If the other guys work in such crafty ways, it's no wonder they've managed to get and stay in control. Further, it gives a sheen of illegitimacy to conservative power, as they're seen to hold it through less-than-forthright means despite their claims to be serving the nation's interests. This reassures liberals that their powerlessness is unfair, and hence that there's something righteous in fixing the situation.

My sense is that liberals are currently more prone to conspiratorial types of thinking than conservatives due to their lack of power. But what of the conservative conspiracy theorists? We got a good dose of such thinking when Wesley Clark's entry into the presidential race was described as a secret plot of the Clintons, and again when commentators on the right deconstructed Al Gore's complex political calculations in deciding to endorse Howard Dean. What we see here is, I think, evidence of insecurity about the power they have. Bill Clinton is a guru to the left and a bane to the right because he so effectively captured federal power. The possibility of a return to a Clintonian situation -- particularly if engineered by Slick Willy himself -- is a threatening prospect. Conventional wisdom held that Clark's entry into the race and Gore's endorsement of Dean were big victories for (parts of) the left, just as Saddam's capture was supposed to be a major coup for Bush. Such moments of victory for the other side heighten the motivation for taking a conspiratorial view. Conspiracy theories are a good indication that the theorist feels vulnerable.

My use of the term "conspiracy theory" should be read in a value-neutral way. It seems obvious that you don't get to be a politician of national note without some ability to scheme and subtly play things to your advantage. Anti-conspiratorial forms of explanation can work to mystify the real process of securing political advantage. On the other hand, too much focus on conspiracy theorizing reduces politics to a power struggle.

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