Conspiracism: Toxic to Democracy

Contact: Jan Nunley
Political Research Associates

PRA releases new study, Toxic to Democracy

“Tools of fear”
build structures of violence, says Berlet

BOSTON – Charged with the fatal shooting of abortion provider Dr. George Tiller in a church in Wichita, Kansas, last Sunday morning, Scott Philip Roeder is a regular consumer of conservative talk radio, television, and websites. But did Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck—or any other commentator whipping up an audience with overheated demonizing rhetoric—actually help pull the trigger?

It’s not that simple, explains Chip Berlet, senior analyst for the independent think tank Political Research Associates (PRA), in a new study entitled Toxic to Democracy: Conspiracy Theories, Demonization, and Scapegoating. “They are not legally culpable for the assassination of Dr. Tiller, says Berlet, “but they must share some portion of moral responsibility for creating   a dangerous environment.”

According to Berlet:

Right-wing pundits demonize scapegoated groups and individuals in our society, implying that it is urgent to stop them from wrecking the nation. Some angry people in the audience already believe conspiracy theories in which the same scapegoats are portrayed as subversive, destructive, or evil. Add in aggressive apocalyptic ideas that suggest time is running out and quick action mandatory and you have a perfect storm of mobilized resentment threatening to rain bigotry and violence across the United States.

Demagogues and conspiracy theorists use the same four “tools of fear,” which Berlet identifies as 1) dualism; 2) scapegoating; 3) demonization; and 4) apocalyptic aggression. The basic dynamics remain the same no matter the ideological leanings of the demonizers or the identity of their targets. Meanwhile, our ability to resolve disputes through civic debate and compromise is hobbled. The study focuses on the history and dynamics of conspiracism, but argues that it is the combination of demagogic demonization and widespread conspiracy scapegoating that is so dangerous. In such circumstances, “angry allegations can quickly turn into aggression and violence targeting scapegoated groups,” writes Berlet.

Conspiracy theories are widespread among right-wing populists in the Patriot Movement, which spawned the armed citizens militias and the Freemen in the 1990s—networks from which Roeder seems to have emerged.

Tracing the roots of conspiracism throughout U.S. and European history, Toxic to Democracy challenges it as a form of political analysis. Modern conspiracism is rooted in bigotry, especially antisemitism and racism. Conspiracy theories encourage demonization and scapegoating of blameless persons and groups—distracting society and would-be agents of change away from the real causes of social and economic injustice. It’s practiced by demagogues on the Right and on the Left—and both inside and outside the corridors of power.

What Richard Hofstadter famously described as the “paranoid style” in American political rhetoric can quickly move far beyond the conscious intent of those who practice it. “People who believe conspiracist allegations sometimes act on those irrational beliefs, and this has concrete consequences in the real world.” writes Berlet. Thus the tools of fear pointed to Dr. Tiller, and what happened is now tragic history.


Chip Berlet, a PRA staffer since 1982, specializes in investigating right-wing social movements, apocalyptic scapegoating and conspiracism, and authoritarianism. His articles on right-wing activity and government repression can be found in the Boston Globe, the New York Times, TheProgressive, The Nation, The Humanist, and the St. Louis Journalism Review. Berlet edited Eyes Right! Challenging the Right-Wing Backlash, and is coauthor, with Matthew N. Lyons, of Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort .

Toxic to Democracy is available in PDF format from PRA at

For media interviews with Chip Berlet, contact PRA at 617-666-5300.

Political Research Associates is an independent, nonprofit research center that analyzes and monitors the Right and other anti-democratic movements, institutions, and trends. PRA is based on progressive values and committed to advancing an open, democratic, and pluralistic society.


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PRA Senior Analyst Chip Berlet on NPR's Fresh Air program in a half-hour interview with host Terry Gross.

For other articles that shed light on the complex relationships between thought and action behind the assassination of Dr. Tiller, click here.

Author Berlet and Public Eye magazine contributor Fred Clarkson speak about the murder on this Democracy Now video.


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