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Rebuking Conspiracism

Conspiracism makes it more difficult to have a serious constructive political debate in the US because it demonizes political opponents, making dialogue, and compromise far more difficult.

As rumors about President Clinton swept across the nation, the destructive power of conspiracism was amply illuminated. Many commentators have noted the attacks on Clinton came from the political right. There has been scant attention to the institutionalization of a robust alternative media in the Christian Right and Xenophobic Right. This conspiracist media network spreads prejudice, scapegoating, and conspiracism within a subculture that then votes its sincere beliefs based on misinformation.

The formula for democracy has several related components: over time, the majority of people, given enough accurate information and access to a free and open debate, reach the decisions needed to preserve liberty. Thus democracy depends not only on ensuring freedom of speech, but also on ensuring the ability for all of us to carry on serious debate based on accurate information rather than conspiracist misinformation. Informed consent-the bedrock of democracy--relies on accurate information.

Conspiracism is essentially a narrative form of scapegoating that demonizes the scapegoat as plotting against the common good and valorizes the scapegoater as a hero. Demagogues that compete to see who can best vilify the latest scapegoat increasingly shape our political debate, and they frequently conspiracism. As tolerance of conspiracist claims has grown, the peril to civil society largely has been ignored.

Politicians, religious leaders, and journalists need to repudiate the conspiracist subculture before it does further damage to civil discourse. Some conservatives dismissed criticism of undocumented conspiracist charges against Clinton as coming from partisans in the White House. They ignored warnings of the dangers to civil society caused by populist scapegoating and conspiracism; warnings that came from conservative, mainstream, and progressive authors.215

On the positive side, a major conservative critique of conspiracist thinking was recently published.216 There is a thoroughly-documented critique of conspiracism in the Christian evangelical movement written by an evangelical who objects to the trend.217 Some progressives have not only criticized conspiracism on the right, but its appearance in left circles as well.218

We all need to spend some time considering how best to defend liberty and freedom, and what unites us as a nation concerned with democratic values. In doing so, we need to commit to a process that respects civil liberties, civil rights, and civil discourse. At the same time we must rebuke those who peddle prejudice, demonization, scapegoating, and conspiracism.

The real challenge is to craft ways to rebuke demagoguery while honoring vigorous political debate and dissent; and to respect spiritual devotion while rejecting attempts to codify religious belief in law and regulation without convincing secular evidence of a compelling public interest. Faith-based assertions should not automatically trump secular skepticism in the public square. Yet faith and spirituality will always be part of the public square, which is why they have a special clause in the First Amendment to the US Constitution.

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