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Conspiracy Theories and the People Who Believe Them$

Joseph E. Uscinski

Print publication date: 2018

Print ISBN-13: 9780190844073

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: December 2018

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780190844073.001.0001

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Polls, Plots, and Party Politics

Polls, Plots, and Party Politics

Conspiracy Theories in Contemporary America

(p.298) 20 Polls, Plots, and Party Politics
Conspiracy Theories and the People Who Believe Them

Adam M. Enders

Steven M. Smallpage

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Conspiracy theories have always been fixtures of American politics and culture. Indeed, conspiracy theories have been used to explain major events from national tragedies, terrorist attacks, and mass violence to national accomplishments, election outcomes, and power structures. Rather than the incoherent ramblings of a “crazy” few, a majority of Americans endorse at least one conspiracy theory. Conspiracy theories also have an important political component: Where members of both parties engage in conspiratorial thinking, the actual conspiracy theories endorsed by Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives are very different, and oftentimes used to achieve political goals. Finally, conspiracy theories have consequences including declining trust in government, the exacerbation of social polarization, and the proliferation of the politics of disruption that have characterized recent electoral cycles.

Keywords:   conspiracy theory, partisanship, ideology, measurement, trust, survey

In the aftermath of the 2016 American presidential election, mainstream media outlets proclaimed that America entered a new “age of conspiracy.”1 Coincidently, the new age of conspiracy has a new “conspiracy theory President,” Donald Trump.2 For some, the age of conspiracy is the age of Trump: “This represents a historical milestone of sorts. Trump’s administration has fully erased the boundary between legitimate conservatism and the most disreputable paranoid discourse on the far right.”3 The blurred line between conspiracy thinking and traditional politics marks a new era of American political life.

While conspiracy theories and theorists have gained considerable publicity in the media, we should be clearer on the role recent conspiracy theories play in contemporary American culture. Conspiracy thinking does play a significant role in American politics, but not because we have entered a “new age of conspiracy” or because prominent political elites promote conspiracy theories.4 Rather, in light of the new ambiguity between traditional ideology and conspiracy theorizing, the recent focus on conspiracy thinking by social scientists provides us with an opportunity to explore a phenomenon that many have long ignored: political suspicion or skepticism, which drives conspiracy thinking and other non-ideological disruptive political attitudes. In this way, conspiracy thinking is more than merely believing in conspiracy theories—it is a common, significant feature of American public opinion that reaches far beyond any one conspiracy theory.

What is the role of conspiracy thinking in America? We highlight some of the answers to this question from recent academic studies on conspiracy thinking. Current research demonstrates:

  1. 1. Conspiracy theories and conspiracy theorists are pervasive.

  2. 2. Democrats and Republicans both hold conspiracy beliefs.

  3. 3. Measurement matters.

  4. (p.299) 4. Conspiracy thinking is an ideology.

  5. 5. Conspiracy thinking is disruptive politics.

Conspiracy Theories and Conspiracy Theorists Are Pervasive

Who believes conspiracy theories? Most Americans! Rather than musings of a few tinfoil-hatted loons, conspiracy beliefs are quite prevalent among even “ordinary” individuals. Consider Figure 20.1. Over 55% of Americans believe in at least one conspiracy theory about the Iraq War, 9/11, Barack Obama’s birthplace, the 2008 financial crisis, “chemtrails,” George Soros, or energy-efficient lightbulbs.5 Even among this small sample of conspiracy theories, many Americans believe in more than one. Approximately 27% of Americans believe two conspiracy theories, and 12% believe three or more.

Polls, Plots, and Party PoliticsConspiracy Theories in Contemporary America

Figure 20.1. Percentage of Americans Who Believe in 1, 2, or 3 or More Conspiracy Theories.

Source: Oliver and Wood, 2014.

Beliefs in some conspiracy theories also tend to persist over time, Figure 20.2 shows the average percentage of Americans who believe that Lee Harvey Oswald did not act alone in assassinating JFK. According to a host of polling houses, in 1963 about half of Americans believed that more than one person was involved in the assassination. That number climbs to 81% in 1976, remains stable through the early 2000s, and only begins to decline to about 60% in 2013, 50 years after the assassination. This means that more people today believe Lee Harvey Oswald did not act alone than did people in the weeks and years immediately following the assassination. In other words, looking at simply one salient conspiracy theory, we have evidence that somewhere between 50% and 80% of Americans believed in just this one conspiracy theory at any given time. Adding more conspiracy theories may well cover the entirety of the American population. Contrary to (p.300) narratives common in popular cultural and even journalistic circles, belief in conspiracy theories is common.

Polls, Plots, and Party PoliticsConspiracy Theories in Contemporary America

Figure 20.2. Average Belief that Lee Harvey Oswald Had Co-Conspirators in Assassinating JFK Over Time.

Sources: ABC News, ABC/Washington Post, CBS News, CBS News/New York Times Poll, Gallup, Harris, Time/CNN/Yankelovich, Clancy Shulman.

Democrats and Republicans Both Hold Conspiracy Beliefs

While most Americans may believe in at least one conspiracy theory, not all conspiracy theories are the same. People will accept or reject different conspiracy theories for reasons having to do with the content of the theory. Conspiracy theories cover myriad topics. The characteristics of a given conspiracy are presumably reflective of the motivations of its creator, and these characteristics increase the appeal and salience of the conspiracy theory for others who encounter it, assuming that motivations are shared between creator and endorser. The key point here is that motivation matters. We outline two general, and related, motivations below: ideological and partisan motivated reasoning, and feelings of political powerlessness.

Political Orientations Drive Belief in Conspiracy Theories

Certain factors do amplify, or at least publicize, the otherwise constant, low hum of American conspiracy talk. The most important factor driving conspiracy talk is political socialization and political context.6 While conspiracy talk may respond to particularly shocking events (e.g., a presidential assassination), it is also driven by elites: If elites are saying it, chances are many others will, too.7 Conspiracy talk is further driven by partisanship—an individual’s psychological attachment to a political (p.301) party.8 Combined, levels of conspiracy theorizing can be substantially increased through political socialization (thinking in terms of Democrat and Republican).

Why would partisanship increase conspiracy beliefs? As many conspiracy theories are about salient partisan figures and groups, they are often adopted by partisans to discredit or otherwise impugn the integrity of their political opponents. Conspiracy theories implicating Democrats—regarding Barack Obama’s birthplace and religious affiliation, for example—find higher levels of support among individuals identified with the Republican Party.9 The opposite is true of conspiracy theories that implicate Republicans, such as those about ties between Donald Trump’s 2016 U.S. presidential campaign and the Russian government, the role of the Bush administration in planning 9/11, or the levee breaches in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans.

Polls, Plots, and Party PoliticsConspiracy Theories in Contemporary America

Figure 20.3. Difference in the Proportion of Republicans and Democrats Who Believe that the Following Groups are Likely to “Conspire against the Rest of Us.”

Source: 2012 Cooperation Congressional Election Study.

From this perspective, belief in some prominent American political conspiracy theories is not indicative of unique innate psychological processes, but rather familiar political gamesmanship. Partisans hold, for instance, that the out-party and members of the out-party’s electoral coalition are more likely to conspire against the rest of us, regardless of any specific conspiratorial act. For example, Figure 20.3 presents differences in the groups that Republicans and Democrats are most likely to view as potential “conspirators.” The black dots represent the proportion of Republicans who see the associated group along the vertical axis as a conspirator minus the proportion of Democrats who believe as much. Democrats are more likely to view Republicans and corporations as potential conspirators, while Republicans are more likely to view (p.302) Democrats, communists, and labor unions as potential conspirators.10 The difference between partisans is not whether someone is out there plotting against the rest of us, but rather who those conspirators are.

Partisan political conspiracy theories function more like typical partisan attitudes than beliefs in other conspiracy theories do because partisan dividing lines are rigid. Figure 20.4 presents several different conspiracy theories by partisanship. For example, the idea that global warming is a hoax, a belief many more Republicans hold than Democrats, stems from strategic partisan considerations rather than the tendency to view the world in conspiratorial terms. That is, partisans hold these beliefs because they are motivated to intentionally discredit opponents or to further their own partisan interests, not because they are “conspiratorial.”

Polls, Plots, and Party PoliticsConspiracy Theories in Contemporary America

Figure 20.4. Percentage of Americans Who Believe in Several Conspiracy Theories, by Partisanship.

Sources: 2012/2016 American National Election Study, Public Policy.

Thus, partisan motivations can help explain why people believe in conspiracy theories: Believing that corporations are evil and secretly control the world is what it means to be a Democrat; believing that the communists are around every corner is what it means to be a Republican. In this way, the partisan content of a conspiracy theory—especially the central partisan figure or group impugned by the conspiracy theory or harmed by the conspirators—may trigger a set of subconscious psychological mechanisms: cognitive dissonance and motivated reasoning.11 When individuals are confronted with new information incongruent with previously held beliefs (e.g., a Democrat coming across positive information about a corporation’s recent attempts to go “green”), they experience mental discomfort called cognitive dissonance.12 One method of reducing this mental discomfort is through motivated reasoning, a subconscious psychological process whereby the information encountered by an individual is strategically ignored, avoided, or otherwise discredited.

(p.303) In short, where other predispositions, orientations, and attitudes—such as authoritarianism, paranormal beliefs, anomie, or distrust—may correlate with beliefs in particular conspiracy theories, they do not determine those beliefs. This is not the case with partisanship. When clear, salient partisan groups or figures lie at the center of a conspiracy theory, partisanship causes belief in a conspiracy theory.

This is easily demonstrated by noticing that belief in particular conspiracy theories are largely restricted to members of only one party. Looking at Figure 20.5, which is a breakdown of the birther conspiracy beliefs by partisanship, Democrats, for instance, simply do not believe in the birther conspiracy theory. Over 60% of Democrats say that the idea that Barack Obama was born outside the United States is “definitely not true.” Republicans, however, are much more supportive of the conspiracy theory. Indeed, nearly half of Republicans think that Obama was “probably” or “definitely” born outside of the United States. Simply put: partisanship drives belief in many conspiracy theories.

Polls, Plots, and Party PoliticsConspiracy Theories in Contemporary America

Figure 20.5. Distribution of Beliefs in “Birther” Conspiracy by Partisanship.

Source: 2012 American National Election Study.

We can obtain additional nuance in the relationship between partisanship and conspiracy belief by considering the strength of partisan attachments. In Figure 20.6, we plot the distribution of “birther” beliefs by partisanship and strength of attachments. As the strength of partisan attachments increases among Republicans, the distribution of birther beliefs shifts from exhibiting a positive skew (for “leaners” and “weak” Republican identifiers) to exhibiting a negative skew (for “strong” identifiers). Indeed, more than 50% of “strong” Republicans believe the birther conspiracy theory is probably or definitely true, whereas less than 40% of Republican “leaners” believe the same. Thus, not only does the “direction” of partisan orientations matter, but so too does the strength of individual attachments (p.304) to the political parties. The stronger the attachments to the major political parties, the more likely individuals are to receive strategic

Polls, Plots, and Party PoliticsConspiracy Theories in Contemporary America

Figure 20.6. Distribution of Republican Beliefs in “Birther” Conspiracy by Strength of Attachment to the Republican Party.

Source: 2012 American National Election Study.

elite communications about conspiracy theories, and the more likely individuals are able to make sense of partisan cues at the center of conspiracy theories.13 In other words, the more partisan one is, the more likely they will be to engage in the partisan motivated reasoning that promotes conspiracy belief.

Conspiracy Theories Are for Losers

Feelings of powerlessness and marginalization can also explain individuals’ predispositions toward conspiracy thinking. Partisans, often committed to winning an election, can also display feelings of powerlessness. In this way, partisanship itself may be a leading cause for a sense of powerlessness: when a party loses an election, members of that party are more susceptible to conspiracy theorizing as a rationale for that loss.14

Polls, Plots, and Party PoliticsConspiracy Theories in Contemporary America

Figure 20.7. Percentage of Americans Agreeing to General Conspiratorial Predisposition Survey Items Before and After 2016 U.S. Presidential Election, by Partisanship.

Source: New York Times.

In the 2016 presidential election, Republican Donald J. Trump won the Electoral College yet failed to win the popular vote by almost three million votes. Figure 20.7 shows the difference in conspiracy thinking between Democrats and Republicans before and after the election. Before the election, Democrats and Republicans were indistinguishable from one another. After the election, however, Republicans became less conspiratorial, while Democrats became more conspiratorial. As Nyhan notes, “Just as Republicans disproportionately endorsed prominent misperceptions during the Obama years (like the birther and death panel myths), Democrats are (p.305) now the opposition partisans especially likely to fall victim to dubious claims about the Trump administration.”15 Now that Democrats are out of power, their feelings of powerlessness—being the “loser”—have increased. In other words, one factor driving conspiracy beliefs in America is American democracy: Elections have winners and losers, and the losers tend to endorse conspiracy theories.

In Figure 20.8 we plot the proportion of individuals who believe that the most recent election (restricted to national elections) was stolen or that fraud was involved. We observe sharp increases in the proportion of fraud beliefs following (p.306) the 2000 and 2016 presidential elections, both of which resulted in incongruent popular vote and Electoral College vote winners. Note, however, that even after non-presidential and uncontested elections, approximately 20% of the mass public believes fraud was involved in the most recent election.

Polls, Plots, and Party PoliticsConspiracy Theories in Contemporary America

Figure 20.8. Average Belief that the Most Recent Election Was Stolen, or that Fraud Was Involved.

Sources: ABC News, CNN/Opinion Research Corporation, Farleigh Dickinson University, Gallup/CNN/USA Today, Quinnipiac University.

What do accusations or beliefs about electoral fraud tell us about conspiracy thinking in America? Whereas motivated reasoning is a subconscious psychological mechanism that may drive belief in some conspiracy theories, partisans can be consciously motivated to assert conspiracy theories, too. Indeed, some conspiracy theories may be promoted by partisan elites as part of a “strategic logic” to make the out-party look bad or shore up allied opposition.16 The fact that partisans “own” particular conspiracy theories—much like they are willing to cede ownership of particular public policy issues in theories of issue ownership (e.g., Republicans and the military, Democrats and education)—suggests that partisan conspiracy theories are partisan messages or communication strategies rather than markers of psychopathology or a predisposition to view the world in conspiratorial terms.17 Furthermore, partisans recognize which parties are the frequent promulgators of a given conspiracy theory. For example, approximately 86% of Republicans recognize the birther conspiracy theory as associated with the Republican Party, even though few Republicans actually believe it.18 The same goes for a conspiracy theory about “death panels” in the 2010 Affordable Care Act, and global warming as a hoax perpetrated by nefarious scientists.

Even the influence of partisanship on specific conspiracy beliefs can be partially explained by power dynamics. The “conspiracy theories are for losers” theory holds that partisans will support conspiracy theories that malign members of the out-party, and that these kinds of conspiracy theories will pervade among members of the party not in power.19 That is to say, members of the party not in power (admittedly an issue of perception) are more likely to construct and spread conspiracy theories impugning the party in power as an attempt to both regain power and explain their losses. But, nonpartisan individuals can also feel like “losers.” Indeed, Edelson and colleagues find that conspiratorial thinking predicts individual beliefs that fraud has affected election outcomes, even controlling for partisanship.20 Perceptions of loser status can stem from predispositions, orientations, and characteristics beyond partisan affiliations. Yet, in America, partisanship is a particularly salient identity regardless of other sociodemographic characteristics, which also has intuitive connections with politics and implications for political outcomes.

Measurement Matters

As with all matters of scientific inquiry, measurement matters. When it comes to conspiracy beliefs, the most practical and popular method of assessment is survey questions about specific conspiracy theories. Academics, pundits, pollsters, and (p.307) members of the media often conduct surveys to measure beliefs in conspiracy theories. The goal, of course, is to draw generalizable, reliable, and valid inferences about American public opinion. When it comes to sensitive topics like conspiracy theories, at least three elements of survey questions can influence the substantive inferences about the nature and level of conspiracy beliefs that we might make using such survey questions: (1) the conspiracy theory queried; (2) the question wording, especially the presence (absence) of partisan or political stimuli; and (3) the response options.

Specific Conspiracy Theories

While conspiracy theories surround all types of major sociopolitical events (e.g., wars, mass shootings, terror attacks, policy changes), sectors of society (e.g., pharmaceutical companies, political regimes, corporations, international organizations), and topics (e.g., vaccinations, GMOs, public policies, plane crashes), not all conspiracy theories are created alike. Conspiracy theories about the moon landing, for instance, are quite different than conspiracy theories about so-called death panels in the Affordable Care Act of 2010. While the former is well known and exists to explain a major cultural event, it does not receive much support by the mass public. Only approximately 6% of Americans believe that the moon landing was faked. In contrast, approximately 40% of Americans believe a “death panels” provision definitely or probably exists in Obamacare. On the one hand, choosing simply the most salient or popular conspiracy theories might further diminish the reliability of the estimates, since theories like a faked moon landing or a flat earth are not widely believed. Yet, on the other hand, choosing popular political conspiracy theories may drastically inflate the estimate of conspiracy thinking because it is tapping into partisan motivations and ideological reasoning—not conspiracy thinking. The question of which conspiracy beliefs to measure is a difficult one that does not have an easy answer.

Question Wording

Not only does choosing the specific conspiracy theory potentially influence our findings, but so too does question wording. First, questions may have partisan political cues in questions about conspiracy theories, which play a particularly large and measurable role in altering our estimation of conspiracy beliefs. Though the moon landing was associated with the Kennedy administration and was certainly a major political event, major partisan or ideological divisions are not cued by moon landing conspiracy theories like they are with regard to death panel conspiracy theories, for instance. Survey questions about death panel beliefs mention the Affordable Care Act (or, “Obamacare”), cueing partisan affect toward Obama and Democrats. It is precisely stimuli in the form of various political actors (Barack Obama vs. George W. Bush), political regimes (Republican vs. Democratic control), and economic (p.308) conditions (good vs. bad economy) that can alter conspiracy theory beliefs on surveys. Indeed, questions designed this way—employing partisan stimuli—elicit something approaching a standard partisan attitude rather than a belief in an elaborate plot on the part of a few powerful individuals toward the end of self-gain or mass oppression.

We provide an example of the power of partisan stimuli in Figure 20.9. In a survey experiment fielded in 2016 on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk crowdsourcing platform, we randomly assigned respondents to an experimental condition with one of two possible partisan stimuli embedded in a question about the Jade Helm 15 conspiracy theory.21 Each respondent was confronted with the same base question:

Some people believe that Jade Helm 15, a U.S. military training exercise which was ordered by President [Obama/Bush], was a scheme to (p.309) confiscate firearms from law-abiding citizens. Others do not believe this. What do you think?

Some respondents received the version of the question where George W. Bush was the Jade Helm 15 perpetrator, an externally invalid question since this conspiracy theory was developed in 2015 with respect to Barack Obama. Other respondents received the version of the question implicating Obama.

In Figure 20.9, the distribution of responses to the Jade Helm 15 questions are broken down by the partisanship of the respondent and experimental partisan cue (Obama, Bush). Considering the top row first, we can see that Republicans who received the Obama cue were more likely than Republicans who received the Bush cue to respond that the Jade Helm 15 conspiracy theory was definitely or probably true. Conversely, Democrats who received the Obama cue were less likely than those Democrats who received the Bush cue to respond that Jade Helm 15 was definitely or probably true. Put another way, Democrats were more likely to endorse the Jade Helm 15 conspiracy theory when Bush was the perpetrator than when Obama was the perpetrator, and vice versa for Republicans.

This example neatly underscores the power of partisan cues in questions about conspiracy beliefs. Even when a conspiracy theory is not, in reality, associated with a particular figure or group, just as Jade Helm 15 has nothing to do with George W. Bush, such stimuli are still capable of manipulating stated conspiracy beliefs on surveys. The details of a conspiracy theory in reality are, then, not as important as the details of a conspiracy theory as presented to survey respondents.

Polls, Plots, and Party PoliticsConspiracy Theories in Contemporary America

Figure 20.9. Distribution of Beliefs in Jade Helm Conspiracy Theory for Those Told that Bush Was Perpetrator and Those Told that Obama was the Perpetrator, by Partisanship.

Source: 2016 Amazon MTurk data collected by authors.

Second, the cues about the motivations behind a perceived conspiracy may affect survey responses. Consider, for example, Figure 20.10, which presents two questions about the Sandy Hook conspiracy theory. The first question references a more open-ended “political agenda” as a potential motivation, while the second question explicitly references “gun control.” This is similar to the differences in asking about “Area 51” and general belief in extraterrestrial life.22 The differences in recorded belief could be due to the difference in question wording, particularly the types of considerations that certain words cue respondents to make in considering their beliefs about a given conspiracy theory. Thus, the particular words in questions about conspiracy beliefs have the potential to complicate our understanding about the distribution of conspiracy beliefs and our ability to make valid inferences about the greater population.

Response Sets

Finally, observed conspiracy beliefs are highly sensitive to the responses available to survey respondents. In most of the conspiracy belief questions we have considered in detail thus far, respondents are provided with four response options: “definitely true,” “probably true,” “probably not true,” and “definitely not true.” The important (p.310) feature of this measurement strategy is that it allows for varying levels of certainty. One must neither be completely tethered to a conspiracy theory nor forced to wholeheartedly reject it. Rather, respondents are allowed to express directionality (belief vs. nonbelief) and uncertainty (probably vs. definitely). Hence, this strategy has the potential to elicit more information from respondents than simpler strategies.

Polls, Plots, and Party PoliticsConspiracy Theories in Contemporary America

Figure 20.10. Distribution of Beliefs in Sandy Hook Conspiracy Theory by Different Question Wording and Response Options.

Sources: 2013, 2016 Farleigh Dickinson University’s Public Mind Poll.

Consider the significant differences in the two poll results in Figure 20.11. Conspiracy theory questions on less scientific polls—the kinds of polls conducted by major news outlets or other commercial polling houses—oftentimes provide respondents with fewer choices. With many of these questions, respondents must simply choose whether they believe or don’t believe a given conspiracy theory. There are a number of undesirable consequences of this type of measurement strategy. First, most people are simply not completely sure about many attitudes about mainstream political objects, let alone about conspiracy theories. Forcing respondents to choose belief

Polls, Plots, and Party PoliticsConspiracy Theories in Contemporary America

Figure 20.11. Distribution of Beliefs in the Conspiracy Theory about the Link between Vaccines and Autism by Different Response Options.

Source: Gallup Poll, CBS News Poll.

or disbelief will result, for some individuals, in responses that do not accurately reflect their true attitudes, or cause other individuals to fail to answer the survey question (i.e., by refusing to provide a response, or saying “don’t know/unsure”). Notice in Figure 20.11 the differences in conspiratorial beliefs about the (p.311) link between childhood vaccines and autism across the two surveys. The dichotomous choices present respondents with a stark choice between affirming and denying a conspiracy theory, while the other survey presents degrees of (dis)belief. The former method overstates the difference significantly.

Second, the former measurement strategy is incongruent with scholarly consensus on the nature of conspiratorial thinking—the latent predisposition that (partially) causes specific conspiracy beliefs. As we will discuss below, conspiracy thinking is continuous, not dichotomous. We are all prone to conspiracy thinking to some extent; conspiracy thinking is a matter of degree. Since we know that conspiracy thinking is not as simple as “true” or “false,” it follows that we should not treat specific conspiracy theories in such a dichotomous, black and white manner.

Conspiratorial Thinking Is an Ideology

One might believe that conspiracy theories about governmental malfeasance and control of information are unrelated, since one could assume that people believe in conspiracy theories based on the content of those conspiracy theories.23 However, recent research shows that, aside from partisan motivations, the strongest predictor for believing a conspiracy theory is believing in another conspiracy theory—even if (p.312) the conspiracy theories are logically inconsistent. For example, some people believe both that Osama bin Laden is alive and that he had been killed before the U.S. military shot and killed him in a raid on his compound in 2011.24 While to some this contradiction may demonstrate that people often hold incoherent beliefs, to others it suggests that an underlying predisposition toward conspiracy thinking drives conspiracy beliefs. As the prevalence of conspiracy beliefs among the American mass public suggests, conspiracy thinking—the predisposition to see the world in conspiratorial terms—is a widely shared individual characteristic that leads individuals to impose conspiratorial intent, action, or general structure on the major political phenomena they observe.

According to the tradition started by the American Voter, an “ideology” is a cognitive structure with abstract ideas that help order otherwise unordered objects.25 The most salient ideological dimension in American politics is the familiar liberal–conservative or left–right dimension. We should note that an ideology is the cognitive structure, and the left–right variety happens to be the most parsimonious variant. Party identification and liberal–conservative ideology are classic and empirically validated mechanisms by which people filter information about politics and integrate that information into a psychological structure of beliefs that guide future reasoning in making political decisions, and future motivations in engaging in political behaviors.26

Conspiracy thinking, too, is an “ideology.”27 Though core ideas about the nature and role of government in society are most frequently thought to be guided by one’s partisan and ideological orientations, this might not be the case for some highly conspiratorial Americans. Rather, such fundamental ideas about government are likely guided more by a heated suspicion toward authority and a desire to distance oneself from the potentially oppressive powers of that authority. Just as liberal and conservative principles do, conspiratorial thinking provides structure to the political world. Some even liken it to narrative reasoning about unfolding events—a method for constructing a reality where clandestine, nefarious groups are exerting power over others for their own benefit or amusement.28

More than a new substantive type of belief system that many individuals possess, however, conspiracy thinking is at odds with traditional forms of political constraint in the American political context. Though specific conspiracy beliefs—especially about salient partisan groups and objects—are the joint product of conspiratorial thinking and partisan motivations, these psychological antecedents of conspiracy beliefs are, themselves, unrelated.29 In other words, Democrats are no more predisposed to view the world in conspiratorial terms than are Republicans, even though partisanship may drive them to believe in different conspiracy theories.

Though we do not wish to claim that everyone is a conspiracy theorist, we suggest that most individuals evince some of the characteristics that ultimately promote specific conspiracy beliefs. In this way, those who believe conspiracy theories are not necessarily psychotic, alienated “nut jobs.” Rather, they are individuals who (p.313) submit to the same psychological biases and possess the same orientations toward government and authority that many people do. Moreover, being a “conspiracy theorist” should be thought of as a continuous rather than a dichotomous trait: it not the case that some are and others are not conspiratorial; rather, everyone is more or less conspiratorial.30 This makes defining who is a conspiracy theorist difficult, though it should be clear that Americans believe conspiracy theories for many reasons, few of which are inherently unreasonable.

Conspiracy Thinking Is Disruptive Politics

With recent major elections across the world characterized by heavily populist sentiments, a seeming infiltration of conspiracy theories into mainstream political rhetoric, and record low trust in government, times seem ripe for fuller investigations of how people think about politics and how these ideas translate into political action. The picture of the effects of conspiracy thinking on American political behavior is not pretty: conspiracy theorists are likely to be more politically extreme, more supportive of violence, participate less in electoral politics, and shy away from supporting mainstream candidates.31 In other words, conspiracy thinking clearly has the potential to be very disruptive to the status quo and traditional, normative beliefs.

Polls, Plots, and Party PoliticsConspiracy Theories in Contemporary America

Figure 20.12. Predicted Probability of Favoring the Repeal of Gun Control Laws as Conspiratorial Thinking Increases.

Source: 2014 Cooperative Congressional Election Study.

Figure 20.12 shows the probability that someone wants to overturn gun control laws by level of conspiracy thinking, controlling for other traditional political predispositions like partisanship and ideology. The story from this figure (p.314) is clear: People high in conspiracy thinking are more likely to resist gun control laws, showing that conspiracy thinking is not simply about believing in conspiracy theories but has significant other effects on other political attitudes and behaviors.

Theoretically, how does conspiracy thinking relate to disruptive politics? Typically, Americans orient their political thinking through their partisanship and ideology, which implies that individuals have two independent but related considerations possible at any time: commitment to the group, but also a potential withdrawal of that commitment. As the authors of the American Voter note, “This is not to say that [the average American voter] could never be jarred from these loyalties. Quite to the contrary, we must suppose that he remains a perceiving, evaluating individual with a healthy suspicion.”32 At the core of the average American voter’s ideology is not necessarily the familiar left–right abstract concepts (which they get only by proxy of their group attachments), but a “healthy suspicion” that may at times lead the individual to actually suspend their psychological commitment to that group altogether. In other words, Americans often have two simultaneous psychological processes unfolding at the same time: partisan or ideological reasoning and political suspicion, or what we have called conspiracy thinking.

While being high on the conspiracy scales is often correlated with extreme behaviors that can be considered disruptive, the real issue moving forward is this: Political suspicion or conspiracy thinking is a matter of degree—while there are bad consequences at either end of the spectrum (too much and too little suspicion), there is seemingly a “healthy suspicion” in the middle somewhere. The line between healthy and unhealthy suspicion is constantly being negotiated in political life, making it very difficult to empirically trace. Yet, political suspicion of some kind is necessary, especially in American politics. As Samuel Huntington argued, American political life is best understood in light of an “antipower ethic”:

In the United States, however, awareness of power induces suspicion, hostility, and outrage. Because of the prevalence of the antipower ethic, awareness of power breeds its own reduction and hidden power is more effective. Because power is less legitimate in the United States than in other cultures, greater efforts have to be made to obscure it. It becomes necessary to deny the facts of power in order to preserve those facts. Yet the opportunities and the pressures to expose and publicize power pervade American public life. Consequently, because its visibility is its greatest vulnerability, the most effective exercise of power is the concealment of power; to cover up power is the first imperative of power.33

Upon observing the extent to which most Americans were preoccupied with “moralistic themes like mudslinging and chicanery” and a thorough political “cynicism” that politicians are “slick,” the authors of The American Voter concluded that the mass public generally lacks a sophisticated understanding of politics. However, for (p.315) Huntington, these attitudes are not evidence for a lack of understanding of American politics, but (albeit crude) expressions of the “antipower ethic.”34 For Huntington, there is a recognition—a healthy suspicion—in the American public that things are not what they seem, and that most of us must be ready to evaluate the world on our own terms. This is why in the American political environment “in which secrecy is salvationary, conspiracy theories are heuristically indispensable.”35 Far from being a product of a diseased psychopathology, conspiracy thinking plays a functional role in our everyday American political lives.

As Barack Obama, himself the victim of numerous conspiracy theories, noted: “This notion of a conspiracy out there, it gets wrapped up in concerns about the federal government. Now, there’s a long history of that. That’s in our DNA. The United States was born suspicious of some distant authority.”36 On this point Obama is right: Americans are a suspicious lot. Conspiracy thinking and political suspicion are not accidental or new to American politics, but rather among its essential ingredients.


Conspiracy thinking is a common political ideology in American politics. It helps individuals sort through information, make sense of the world around them. In American politics there are two traditional ways individuals sort political information: liberal–conservative ideology and Democratic–Republican partisanship. Conspiracy theories and partisanship may seem to go hand in hand at times: Republicans believe the birther conspiracy theory, Democrats believe that 9/11 was an inside job. But while we know that conspiracy theories may be adopted and deployed for political purposes, the precise relationship between conspiracy thinking on the one hand, and these more traditional political modes of thinking on the other, has only recently been investigated.

There are many promising and normatively important tracks for future research on American conspiracy theories to take. First, the concept of conspiratorial thinking as an ideology or a distinct political orientation should be considered more fully. Conspiracy thinking is not simply about believing in conspiracy theories. Instead, as a more comprehensive worldview, we should understand conspiracy thinking to be a distinct mode of thought—a belief system that stands in contrast to liberal–conservative principles or Democratic–Republican partisanship. Political scientists and psychologists have spent too much time examining traditional political modes of thinking and not enough time on the exceptional modes of thinking that nevertheless exist among the American mass public. This narrow view on establishing the (admittedly substantial) role of traditional left–right ideology and partisanship in explaining and understanding American political behavior is undoubtedly important, until it is not, like in 2016. Scholars should guard against complacency in (p.316) the age of polarization by studying where partisanship and ideology fail, and not dismiss this failure as ignorance.

Second, the deployment of conspiracy theories by elites in political communications should receive more attention. Regardless of the sincerity of, or motivations behind, elite propagation of conspiracy theories, it appears that conspiracy theories are at least capable of being used to send signals to electoral bases and mobilize support.37 The media by which these signals are sent, characteristics of those who receive and fail to receive such messages, and the precise electoral effects of such messages all require investigation.

Finally, the future research should more carefully consider the broader role of conspiracy thinking in American political culture, particularly with respect to related constructs such as (dis)trust and polarization. While elite polarization has been steadily increasing since the 1960s and trust in government has been declining, some attempts at estimating conspiracy thinking over time reveal a relatively stable time series, despite recent popular attention to conspiracy theories. Both the indirect nature of the data employed for estimating conspiracy thinking and the theoretical opacity regarding the structural relationships between conspiracism, trust, and polarization may be the culprit. Thus, researchers should think more clearly about their choices during the design of their research, so that their data collection efforts comport with their theory and to the cultural component of conspiracy thinking.




(1.) Freeman, Daniel, and Jason Freeman. 2017. “Are We Entering a Golden Age of the Conspiracy Theory?” The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/science/blog/2017/mar/28/are-we-entering-a-golden-age-of-the-conspiracy-theory (Accessed December 18, 2017).

(2.) Cillizza, Chris. 2017. “Donald Trump Was a Conspiracy-Theory Candidate. Now He’s on the Edge of Being a Conspiracy-Theory President.” The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2017/03/04/donald-trump-was-a-conspiracy-theory-candidate-now-hes-on-the-verge-of-being-a-conspiracy-theory-president/?utm_term=.bb2c4993027e (Accessed December 18, 2017); Uscinski, Joseph E. 2016. “Will Trump Become Conspiracy Theorist in Chief?” Newsweek. http://www.newsweek.com/trump-become-conspiracy-theorist-chief-442847 (Accessed December 18, 2017).

(3.) Chait, Jonathan. 2017. “Donald Trump Has Finally Erased the Line Between Conservatism and Conspiracy Theories.” New York Magazine. http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2017/08/trump-erases-the-line-between-conservatism-and-conspiracy.html (Accessed December 18, 2017).

(4.) Uscinski, Joseph E., and Joseph M. Parent. 2014. American Conspiracy Theories. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

(5.) Oliver, J. Eric, and Thomas J. Wood. 2014. “Conspiracy Theories and the Paranoid Styles(s) of Mass Opinion.” American Journal of Political Science 58(4): 952–966.

(7.) Smallpage, Steven M., Adam M. Enders, and Joseph E. Uscinski. 2017. “The Partisan Contours of Conspiracy Theory Beliefs.” Research and Politics 4(4): 1–7. DOI: 10.1177/2053168017746554.

(8.) Enders, Adam M., Steven M. Smallpage, and Robert N. Lupton. Forthcoming. “Are All ‘Birthers’ Conspiracy Theorists? On the Relationship Between Conspiratorial Thinking and Political Orientations.” British Journal of Political Science; Miller, Joanne M., Kyle L. Saunders, and Christina E. Farhart. 2016. “Conspiracy Endorsement as Motivated Reasoning: The Moderating Roles of Political Knowledge and Trust.” American Journal of Political Science 60(4): 824–844.

(11.) Taber, Charles S., and Milton Lodge. 2006. “Motivated Skepticism in the Evaluation of Political Beliefs.” American Journal of Political Science 50(3): 755–769.

(12.) Festinger, Leon. 1957. A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

(15.) Nyhan, Brendan. 2017. “Why More Democrats Are Now Embracing Conspiracy Theories.” New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/15/upshot/why-more-democrats-are-now-embracing-conspiracy-theories.html (Accessed December 29, 2017).

(17.) Petrocik, John R. 1996. “Issue Ownership in Presidential Elections, with a 1980 Case Study.” American Journal of Political Science 40(3): 825–850.

(20.) Edelson, Jack, Alexander Alduncin, Christopher Krewson, James A. Sieja, and Joseph E. Uscinski. 2017. “The Effect of Conspiratorial Thinking and Motivated Reasoning on Belief in Election Fraud.” Political Research Quarterly 70(4): 933–946.

(21.) For details, see Enders, Adam M., and Steven M. Smallpage. 2018. “On the Measurement of Conspiracy Beliefs.” Research and Politics January-March: 1–4.

(22.) Brotherton, Robert, Christopher C. French, and Alan D. Pickering. 2013. “Measuring Belief in Conspiracy Theories: The Generic Conspiracist Beliefs Scale.” Frontiers in Psychology 4(May): 279. DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00279.

(24.) Wood, Michael J., Karen M. Douglas, and Robbie M. Sutton. 2012. “Dead and Alive: Beliefs in Contradictory Conspiracy Theories.” Social Psychological and Personality Science 3(6): 767–773.

(25.) Campbell, Angus, Philip E. Converse, Warren E. Miller, and Donald E. Stokes. 1960. The American Voter. New York: Wiley.

(28.) Hofstadter, Richard. 2008. The Paranoid Style in American Politics. Vintage Books; Raab, Marius Hans, Nikolas Auer, Stefan A. Ortlieb, and Claus-Christian Carbon. 2013. “The Sarrazin Effect: The Presence of Absurd Statements in Conspiracy Theories Makes Canonical Information Less Plausible.” Frontiers in Psychology 4(July): 453. DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00453.

(29.) Enders, Smallpage, and Lupton, “Are All `Birthers’ Conspiracy Theorists?”; Uscinski, Joseph E., Casey Klofstad, and Matthew D. Atkinson. 2016. “What Drives Conspiratorial Beliefs? The Role of Informational Cues and Predispositions.” Political Research Quarterly 69(1): 57–71; Uscinski and Parent, American Conspiracy Theories.

(30.) Brotherton, French, and Pickering, “Measuring Belief in Conspiracy Theories: The Generic Conspiracist Beliefs Scale”; Bruder, Martin, Peter Haffke, Nina Nouripanah, and Roland Imhoff. 2013. “Measuring Individual Differences in Generic Beliefs in Conspiracy Theories across Cultures: The Conspiracy Mentality Questionnaire.” Frontiers in Psychology 4(April). DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00225; Uscinski and Parent, American Conspiracy Theories.

(31.) Jolley, Daniel, and Karen M. Douglas. 2014. “The Social Consequences of Conspiracism: Exposure to Conspiracy Theories Decreases Intentions to Engage in Politics and to Reduce One’s Carbon Footprint.” British Journal of Psychology 105(1): 35–56; Uscinski and Parent, American Conspiracy Theories; van Prooijen, Jan-Willem, Andre P. M. Krouwel, and Thomas V. Pollet. 2015. “Political Extremism Predicts Belief in Conspiracy Theories.” Social Psychological and Personality Science 6(5): 570–578.

(32.) Campbell, Converse, Miller, and Stokes. 1960. The American Voter.

(33.) Huntington, Samuel P. 1983. American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 78.

(34.) Ibid., 242–244, 437.

(35.) Ibid., 79.

(36.) Enders, Adam M., and Steven M. Smallpage. 2016. “Obama was Right: Conspiracy Theorists are More Likely to Oppose Gun Control.” [Blog] Monkey Cage. Available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/01/19/obama-was-right-conspiracy-theorists-are-more-likely-to-oppose-gun-control/?utm_term=.ea822330d0aa (Accessed December 29, 2017).