Toxic to Democracy

Conspiracy Theories, Demonization, & Scapegoating


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Is it a surprise that an angry citizen, John Patrick Bedell, attacked the entrance to the Pentagon? Was it a surprise that an angry taxpayer flew his small plane into an IRS office? These and other acts of violence are linked to a form of apocalyptic conspiracism rampant in the United States. Last summer PRA Senior Analyst Chip Berlet warned that the combination of burgeoning conspiracy theories coupled with rising populist rage and anti-Obama scapegoating would likely lead to some individuals acting out in apocalyptic violence. They would feel justified because they were acting “before it was too late” to save the nation from an imagined sinister plot. Berlet’s report was titled Toxic to Democracy: Conspiracy Theories, Demonization, & Scapegoating.

What about the right-wing media foghorns? Convicted in the fatal shooting of abortion provider Dr. George Tiller in a church in Wichita, Kansas, Scott Philip Roeder was 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.”

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