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The full extent of the conservative movement’s radicalization is becoming more apparent after nine months of the Obama administration. Increasingly, reactionary media pundits and much of the rank-and-file of the Republican Party are taking the American right down a dangerous path, marked most ominously by the abundance of conspiracy theories directed against the Democratic Party and mainstream liberals.
Prominent writers have long warned about the rise of the reactionary right into the national spotlight. Thomas Frank leads the way in many of these charges with bestselling books like The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule, and What’s the Matter with Kansas: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. Frank’s warnings are particularly insightful in light of the rise of right wing conspiracy theories.
A conspiracy theory is defined as a secret plot by powerful officials to take part in some action that would be strongly opposed by the people if the plot were to become public. Conspiracy theories are tremendously dangerous because they eschew institutional analysis in favor of exotic and outlandish descriptions of government behavior. Nowhere is this extremism better seen than in the “9/11 truth movement.” In the classroom, I have a standard response for students who inquire about 9/11 conspiracy theories. I point out that the difference between an argument and a conspiracy is crucial: the existence of evidence. Any great conspiracy theory requires a complete lack of tangible evidence, since conspiracies by definition are “secret” endeavors which the public knows little to nothing about. This lack of evidence is all the more reason why we should reject these conspiracies as lacking in seriousness and intellectual rigor.
Many conservatives, no doubt motivated by racism, xenophobia, and contempt for multi-party politics, have made use of conspiracy theories in attempts to derail the Obama administration. Furthermore, conspiracy theories are now one of the primary means – perhaps the primary means – by which conservatives attempt to discredit their political opponents. A review of some of the most prominent conspiracies places the radicalization of the conservative movement in perspective.
Limbaugh’s Bid for the Rams
Rush Limbaugh was recently excluded from a bid by the SCP Worldwide group to bid on the St. Louis Rams football team. Limbaugh’s attempt to buy his way into the NFL was met with apprehension by a league that is 75 percent African American, and in light of Limbaugh’s history of racism. It’s not hard to understand why Americans would think Limbaugh is racist considering his comments:
– “Look, let me put it to you this way: the NFL all too often looks like a game between the Bloods and the Crips without any weapons. There, I said it.”
– “The NAACP should have riot rehearsal. They should get a liquor store and practice robberies.”
Limbaugh is fond of playing a song by the name “Barack the Magic Negro” on his radio program, though he strongly resents the claims of those who conclude that this is racist. Still, charges of racism effectively drove Rush out of his commentator role at ESPN in 2003 when he suggested that Philadelphia Eagles Quarterback Donovan McNabb was overrated and was only allowed to keep his job because the NFL wanted to see black quarterbacks succeed. The comments didn’t go over well with the sports world, which immediately recognized Limbaugh’s racist “reverse racism” charges as the bigotry they are. Presumably, Limbaugh would have us believe that there’s some corporate conspiracy against white quarterbacks, despite the fact that African Americans make up 19% of the league’s quarterbacks, but 75% of all players.
Limbaugh’s conspiracies don’t stop with charges of reverse racism. When denied the bid for the Rams by his fellow investors, Limbaugh responded that the incident was an example of “Obama’s America on full display.” Of course there was no evidence that some conspiracy was at work against Limbaugh in the NFL, or that Obama and his aides had intervened to pressure the SCP group to drop Limbaugh from the bid.
Far from being a bastion of liberal America, the NFL has long been known as politically conservative. NFL owners, for example, gave nearly twice as much in campaign contributions to Republicans than Democrats in the 2008 election. The real reason for Limbaugh’s rejection has nothing to do with a pro-Obama conspiracy, but with the fact that Limbaugh represents a controversial face for a league that’s interested in maximizing profits and minimizing controversy. This is hard to accomplish by catering to racists when the majority of NFL players are black. NFL commissioner Roger Goddell, for example, explains the league’s turn against Limbaugh as a result of the “polarizing” comments he made in the past regarding African Americans. NFL player’s executive director DeMaurice Smith explained that the NFL is “at its best when it unifies, give all of us reason to cheer, and when it transcends. Our sport does exactly that when it overcomes division and rejects discrimination and hatred.”
Obama as a Kenyan, Muslim Terrorist
Racist propaganda about Obama’s citizenship and links to radical terror simply will not go away. The “birther” movement has gained great public visibility this year – its members appearing at local town hall rallies and alleging that Obama is not an American citizen, and that he is a fanatical Islamic fundamentalist. The media’s attention to the birther conspiracy movement has been particularly harmful to Obama’s image, as the following statistics suggest:
– Prior to the 2008 election, nearly 80% of Americans had heard rumors claiming that Obama is a Muslim. One in ten Americans believed that Obama was a Muslim, while one in three stated that they did not know what his religious beliefs were.
– As of 2009, conservatives are generally two and a half times more likely to think Obama is a Muslim. More than half of Republicans either believe Obama is not an American citizen, or are unsure of his national citizenship.
Attention to the birther movement gained steam in media venues such as Lou Dobbs Tonight and Fox News, and was the emphasis of Congressional attention from Republican Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann. The absurdity of the birther movement has been debunked numerous times, as Obama’s birth records have been made widely available by the state of Hawaii, and been verified by non-partisan groups like Factcheck.org.
Other attacks on Obama don’t explicitly argue that he’s a Muslim; they simply indirectly associate him with favoring Islamic fundamentalism. This favorite tactic of the reactionary right was recently utilized by Sean Hannity, who attacked Obama after making a speech in Egypt that addressed the 9/11 terror attacks. Hannity lambasted Obama for having “decided to give 9-11 sympathizers a voice on the world stage” after Obama stated that “I am aware that there are still some that would question or even justify the events of 9-11. But let us be clear: al Qaeda killed nearly 3,000 people on that day. The victims were innocent men, women and children from America and many other nations who had done nothing to harm anybody…These are not opinions to be debated; these are facts to be dealt with.” Readers can be forgiven for being confused at how Hannity arrived at this conclusion, considering Obama’s actual statement. When one views the world through the eyes of a conspiracy theorist, facts are malleable, existing to be manipulated to further preexisting prejudices.
Obama, ACORN, and the Economic Crisis
The organization that John McCain conspiratorially attacked for “destroying the fabric of democracy” just won’t leave the headlines at Fox News. The most recent case was Glenn Beck’s October 28th program, in which he blamed ACORN for causing the 2008 economic collapse and recession. The power of conservative conspiracy theories is in full display in Beck’s comments, reproduced below:
“A year ago, we had the problem with the banks, because people took out too many bad loans. But this is the home and the car that we couldn’t afford that we were promised by the people in Washington that you could. ‘Don’t worry, you can have it all. You can have this house. Why live in [a] crappy house, you should live here with two of these cars, wouldn’t that be great?’ Well, who told us that? These people [‘the government’] and the ACORN people, OK? They pressured banks to make loans to people who could not afford them, and then the whole thing melted down, because the bank said to these people, ‘No, no, these people cannot afford this home…’ In light of the banks’ alleged resistance to granting sub-prime loans, Beck concludes that “special interest” protests from ACORN were enough to bring Wall Street to its knees, forcing them to loan to sub-prime customers who they otherwise would turn away.
Again, readers can be forgiven for being confused by Beck’s bizarre illogic. Anyone familiar with public policy reform knows that the 2008 housing crisis was not the result of some conspiracy in which ACORN and the government forced banks to loan to risky borrowers. Rather the government neutered itself by repealing any legal restrictions on regulating risky lending, and Congress repealed limits on banking mergers and acquisitions (see the 1999 repeal of the Glass Steagall Act for more on this) that allowed risky speculative banks to merge with banks engaged in less speculative loans. This withdrawal of government regulation allowed for Wall Street Banks to engage in the very sub-prime borrowing (without government oversight of derivative investments) that eventually contributed to the 2008 collapse and recession. Beck, however, would rather blame ACORN than greedy bankers who made a fortune on predatory lending to poor people – those who could never realistically afford no-money down, variable interest rate mortgages.
Obama the Socialist
Probably the most popular conspiracy theory is the claim that Obama is a closet socialist. This claim is clearly the most insulting and absurd charge against a president who has led the charge to rescue American capitalism from itself. Obama has promised to rejuvenate American banks, investment firms, and housing industry from their own destructive investments and speculation. Obama has granted hundreds of billions in bailout money and promised another $1 trillion for investment firms and banks to wipe out their toxic investment derivative assets. None of this is enough for conservatives, who cling to Obama’s half-hearted support for a “public option” in health care as evidence of his secret socialism.
For the record, the public option has nothing to do with socialism, considering that it is merely covering those individuals who have fallen through the massive cracks of the private health insurance industry. The public option is about as socialist as any other non-profit public service, including public education, public roads, police forces, fire fighters, and public libraries. All of these public services co-exist with private education, roads, security, etc. without threatening the foundation of capitalism. Then again, these “socialist” services have long been a target of conservatives who would prefer to deny the poor access to such services in the name of the “right” to private profit. It will not be surprising then, when we hear more about the devious “socialist” threats to children’s minds from public libraries, as well as attacks on the “tyranny” of organizations providing public education to the disadvantaged.
There are plenty of other conservative conspiracy theories one can cite: the FEMA “concentration camps” story promulgated by Glenn Beck, the “death panel” health care warnings from Sarah Palin, and the biggest conspiracy theory of all – the claim that Iraq threatened the U.S. due to its possession of weapons of mass destruction and ties to al Qaeda. Almost all of the theories above have one major thing in common: they cynically capitalize on the public’s distrust of government in order to divert public attention away from institutional analysis. They are particularly dangerous in that they convince Americans to chase false phantoms, claiming that liberty is under assault from secret conspiracies planned and implemented by the Democratic Party. Subscription to such fanciful theories makes civilized discourse literally impossible, as anyone who has argued with a 9/11 truth conspiracy theorist can attest. In their book, At War With Metaphor: Media, Propaganda, and Racism in the War on Terror, Erin Steuter and Deborah Wills argue that propaganda assists in constructing imaginary enemies. The authors argue that “propaganda is not concerned with disseminating information but with rallying emotion…propaganda’s intent is not to educate but to generate and direct emotion, to boil the blood to ensure that public emotion dominates public discussion.” It is easy to see how such propaganda endangers public dialogue in light of ideologically incoherent conspiracies claiming that Obama is a socialist, Nazi, Islamic terrorist. Employing alarmist propaganda, conservative activists have promoted some of the worst fear mongering possible – completely divorced from empirical evidence of any sort.
Steuter and Will’s insights greatly further our understanding of conservative conspiracy theory propaganda. The Republican Party and the conservative movement have been moving further to the right for many decades now, and the extremism this has fostered (much of it religiously driven) is increasingly relevant in the public commentary and vitriolic rhetoric directed against the Democratic alliance in power in Washington. Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson chronicle this increasing extremism in their work: Off Center: The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of American Democracy. They remind readers that Republican Party activists characterize themselves as twice as intense in their ideological beliefs as Democratic Party activists. Furthermore, the move to the right by conservatives grew nearly two times more quickly from the mid 1960s to 2000 than did the movement to the left by liberal Democrats. Democratic activists’ liberalism has grown far more slowly, and even declined significantly since the late 1980s to the post-2000 period. In other words, the Republican Party activists have grown increasingly reactionary in recent years, while Democratic Party activists have become more mainstream in their ideology. In light of this polarization, conservative conspiracy theories are becoming incredibly prominent. We would do well to keep this in mind when evaluating the quality of our democracy today and into the future.
ANTHONY DiMAGGIO teaches American and Global Politics at Illinois State University. He is the author of Mass Media, Mass Propaganda (2008) and the forthcoming When Media Goes to War (2010). He can be reached at email@example.com