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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
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
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