Portions of this essay first appeared on the PRA website in a section called “Too Close for Comfort” as studies that were later incorporated into the book Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort
by Chip Berlet and Matthew N. Lyons, (New York, Guilford Press, 2000). For more information go to: http://www.rightwingpopulism.us/
Scapegoating as Ideological Weapon
A key ideological weapon of the US political right is scapegoating, especially in the form of conspiracist theories. Yet scapegoating is not a marginal activity limited to the political right.
Scapegoating of immigrants and welfare recipients is used regularly by mainstream politicians to attract votes. This dynamic has a long history in the US, with the scapegoated targets being selected opportunistically-Reds, Anarchists, Jews, Catholics, Freemasons, all the way back to witches in Salem. Periodic waves of state repression are justified through conspiracist scapegoating that claims networks of subversives are poised to undermine the government. Right wing populist movements mobilize the middle class by claiming a conspiracy from above by secret elites and from below by a parasitic underclass. On the far right are the scapegoating themes of collectivist New World Order plots and Jewish banking conspiracies.
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the US has been exporting its media-intensive election model, which favors style over substance, argument over debate, slogans over issues. This election model facilitates the success of not only those politicians that can raise the most funds, but also demagogues willing to use scapegoating as an ideological weapon. While scapegoating in the US is primarily the territory of the political right including Republicans, some Democratic Party politicians pander to the tendency, and even a few on the left adopt scapegoating out of ignorance, desperation, or an appalling absence of morality.
Dehumanization and Demonization
To understand scapegoating we must consider how we identify and perceive our enemies. A first step is marginalization, the processes whereby targeted individuals or groups are pictured (in the sense of being framed) as outside the circle of wholesome mainstream society. The next step is objectification or dehumanization, the process of negatively labeling a person or group of people so they become perceived more as objects rather than real people. Dehumanization often is associated with the belief that a particular group of people are inferior or threatening. The final step is demonization, the person or group is seen as totally malevolent, sinful, and evil. It is easier to rationalize stereotyping, prejudice, discrimination, and even violence against those who are dehumanized or demonized.
Demonization fuels dualism-a form of binary thinking that divides the world into good versus evil with no middle ground tolerated. Dualism allows no acknowledgment of complexity, nuance, or ambiguity in debates; and promotes hostility toward those who suggest coexistence, toleration, pragmatism, compromise, or mediation.
Aho observes that our notions of the enemy “in our everyday life world,” is that the “enemy’s presence in our midst is a pathology of the social organism serious enough to require the most far-reaching remedies: quarantine, political excision, or, to use a particularly revealing, expression, liquidation and expulsion.”
The ritualized transference and expulsion of evil is a familiar theme across centuries and cultures. In western culture the term “scapegoat” can be traced to an early Judaic ritual described in the book of Leviticus in the Bible. As Gordon W. Allport explains:
“On the Day of Atonement a live goat was chosen by lot. The high priest, robed in linen garments, laid both his hands on the goat’s head, and confessed over it the iniquities of the children of Israel. The sins of the people thus symbolically transferred to the beast, it was taken out into the wilderness and let go. The people felt purged, and for the time being, guiltless.”
The term scapegoat, however, has evolved to mean “anyone who must bear the responsibility symbolically or concretely for the sins of others,” Richard Landes explains. “Psychologically, the tendency to find scapegoats is a result of the common defense mechanism of denial through projection.” This mechanism is a powerful and effective psychic defense despite its destructive effects on a society.
Scapegoating has two main versions:
- Personal Misconduct ==> Guilt ==> Displacement Toward Scapegoat
- Frustration ==> Aggression ==> Displacement Toward Scapegoat
The actual process is complex. Frustration does not always lead to aggression, and the aggression can be directed in a rational way towards constructively overcoming the obstacle creating the frustration.
One cannot, however, take the psychological model and directly apply it to a sociological model. As psychiatrist Susan Fisher explains, the mechanism of scapegoating within a family-a well-studied phenomena-does not necessarily work the same way as the scapegoating of groups on a societal level where “the scapegoated group serves more as a metaphor,”
Scapegoating by large groups and social movements is not an indication of mass mental dysfunction, even though there may be psychological issues involved, and even though some of the individuals involved may suffer from a variety of psychological problems. Recent research on the subject suggests the phenomena is more complicated than commonly pictured, involving several personality types and multiple psychological processes.
Herman Sinaiko observes that “The most decent and modest communities have people in their midst who are prone to scapegoating and who see the world as run by conspiracies. A healthy community is organized in a way that controls them and suppresses their tendencies. When a community is in crisis, the standards and control mechanisms are weakened, and these people step forward and find their voice and an audience.”
Eli Sagan argues that what he calls the “paranoidia” of greed and domination exemplified by “fascist and totalitarian regimes of this century” is present in less extreme forms in many societies. “The normal, expectable expressions–imperialism, racism, sexism, aggressive warfare–are compatible with the democratic societies that have existed so far.”
There are many definitions for the term scapegoating when used to describe the process on a societal level, and it can be difficult to unravel the overlapping processes of scapegoating, stereotyping, and demonizing. In this book we use the term scapegoating to describe the social process whereby hostility and aggression of an angry and frustrated group are directed away from a rational explanation of a conflict and projected onto targets demonized by irrational claims of wrongdoing, so that the scapegoat bears the blame for causing the conflict, while the scapegoaters feel a sense of innocence and increased unity. We will call it scapegoating whether or not the conflict is real or imaginary, the grievances are legitimate or illegitimate, or the target is wholly innocent or partially culpable.
When every person in a scapegoated group is accused of sharing the same negative trait, the processes of prejudice and stereotyping are involved. For our overall thesis to make sense, we need to defend this definition in some detail. We expect that as new research emerges, more nuanced and useful descriptions and definitions will evolve.
Scapegoating relies on the creation of a dichotomy between “us” and “them,” pitting the familiar “in group” against the alien “out group.” By scapegoating our fabricated enemy “other” we not only create ourselves as heroes, but also define and enhance group cohesion, the identity of the “us.”In times when the core identity of a society is imperiled–when we have trouble figuring out who “we” are–the demand for enemy scapegoats is increased. The scapegoat thus serves a dual purpose by both representing the evil “them” and simultaneously illuminating, solidifying, and sanctifying the good “us.”>As Landes explains, “In some cases the first steps toward social cohesion may be built upon such rituals” of scapegoating.”And this is exactly the wondrous, if unconscious, outcome of the objectification of evil,” explains Aho. “The casting out of evil onto you not only renders you my enemy; it also accomplishes my own innocence. To paraphrase [Nietzsche]…In manufacturing an evil one against whom to battle heroically, I fabricate a good one, myself.”
Girard argues that “the effect of the scapegoat is to reverse the relationship between persecutors and their victims.” When persons in scapegoated groups are attacked, they are often described as having brought on the attack themselves because of the wretched behavior ascribed to them as part of the enemy group.They deserved what they got. Scapegoating evokes hatred rather than anger. “[T]he hater is sure the fault lies in the object of hate,” notes Allport.
When unresolved anger over conflict turns toward frustration and bitterness, scapegoating is a common result. As Ruth Benedict observed, “Desperate [people] easily seize upon some scapegoat to sacrifice to their unhappiness; it is a kind of magic by which they feel for the moment that they have laid [down] the misery that has been tormenting them.”
As Benedict points out, “We all know what the galling frictions are in the world today: nationalistic rivalries, desperate defense of the status quo by the haves, desperate attacks by the have-nots, poverty, unemployment, and war.” Benedict observes that “Whenever one group…is discriminated against before the law or in equal claims to life, liberty, and jobs, there will always be powerful interests to capitalize on this fact and to divert violence from those responsible for these conditions into channels where it is relatively safe to allow.”
Persons that scapegoat are often reluctant to attack the actual causes of their grievances for a number of reasons. It is less dangerous to blame scapegoats that are weaker and thus less able to defend themselves. Moreover, it is not popular to attack groups that are powerful, respected, or have high status. Marginalized groups that have little public support make better scapegoats because more people are willing to join the blame game against such groups.
While scapegoats are often less powerful and more marginalized than the actual sources of conflict, this is not always the case. Throughout history are examples of scapegoats with high status, including gods.In this dynamic, scapegoating serves the status quo and protects those in power from criticism.
We can even be secretly jealous of the scapegoats we publicly loathe. Scapegoats can be seen to possess qualities that are admired, either openly or secretly, such as cunning, power, or sexual prowess. These coveted yet denied qualities are also projected onto the scapegoat.
Constructing the Enemy as Scapegoat
Scapegoats are often selected on the basis of pre-existing prejudices in a society. Allport observed how prejudiced people constantly search for “members of the disliked out-group….It is important to the prejudiced person to learn the cues” whereby the enemy can be identified. Visibility is an issue–obvious visible factors such as skin color make identification of the out-group easier–but it is not the only factor. When the out-group lacks an obvious physical characteristic, there is still a need to identify the out-group member for the in-group member. If “illegal” immigrants are the scapegoat, then the scapegoaters must have a mechanism to locate and label them so they can be scapegoated. Thus scapegoating promotes tracking and investigation. It is the label, not the actual behavior or physical attribute that counts the most for the prejudiced person engaged in scapegoating.
How scapegoats are selected is a complicated process that deserves much more research attention. While scapegoats are often chosen from groups experiencing prejudice, and prejudiced persons who scapegoat tend to chose their scapegoats from those they are prejudiced against, scapegoating as a tendency occurs among both persons high in prejudice and persons low in prejudice. Prejudice does seem to appear often among persons with less education, but there are significant numbers of persons with high educational achievement who display alarming prejudices. Some early discussions of prejudice and scapegoating erroneously suggested they were primarily a problem of unsophistication, a primitive cognitive style, or a “low level of social and intellectual culture”Later studies, however, demonstrated that scapegoating respects no boundaries of education, power, or wealth. The scapegoating of immigrants and welfare recipients by mainstream politicians in both the Republican and Democratic parties in the mid 1990s is a good example.
Scapegoating has real consequences on both a societal and individual level, especially in terms of dominance and oppression.
Early explanations of the Nazi genocide suggested that prejudice, scapegoating, participation in right wing movements, and willingness to commit brutality were directly linked to a particular authoritarian personality structure. This concept has been widely refuted. This is not to suggest that there are not authoritarian personalities, but to recognize that authoritarian personalities, like prejudice and scapegoating, can appear across the political spectrum.Furthermore, persons who test as having relatively non-authoritarian personalities can sometimes be manipulated into acts of brutality by authority figures.
The Milgram psychology studies involved subjects told by an authority figure that they were administering painful electric shocks to a third person. However, Milgram’s original conclusions–that what he was observing was primarily the force of obedience–have been challenged by those who argue that other factors were involved. That average persons are capable of great brutality is not in question. The circumstances of such behavior, however, are complex, and involve the personality type, the trust given to the authority figure, peer approval, denial, the belief the acts are legal, and the view of the target as criminal, evil, or deserving of punishment. Some persons resist engaging in brutality regardless of the sanctions threatened by an authority figure.
Many older studies of prejudice had a “tendency to collapse distinctions between types of prejudice…” observed Elisabeth Young-Bruehl. They assumed “that a nationalism and racism, an ethnocentric prejudice and an ideology of desire, can be dynamically the same…” Furthermore, she observes “there is a tendency to approach prejudice either psychologically or sociologically without consideration for the interplay of psychological and sociological factors.”
Individuals, organized groups, and mass movements often choose their enemy to consciously or unconsciously defend privilege or seek domination. Explicit ideologies of domination–husbands must control their wives, Christians are ordained to run the country, White people are superior–can gain widespread public acceptance in overt conscious campaigns, but in a way where the demonizing aspect of scapegoating rationalizes the underlying, and sometimes unconscious, desire to dominate. Popular movements that use demonization and scapegoating undercut attempts to extend democracy and diversity because of the ability of these movements to mobilize large numbers of persons, in part because the scapegoating disguises the underlying prejudice, oppression, or supremacy.
Ideologically-driven movement leaders (and opportunist mainstream politicians) cynically use demonization and scapegoating as a tactic to mobilize mass support from constituencies that are less conscious of the underlying ideology. In this way movement participants can objectively promote ideologies while denying that they are racist, sexist, homophobic, or antisemitic. Scapegoats need to be constructed with available materials that cobble together historic events, current issues, common myths, and popular prejudices. Conflict can generate scapegoating involving prejudice, but conflict does not cause prejudice, it unleashes and focuses pre-existing prejudice. When conflict is not present, there still can be widespread prejudice.
Scapegoating provides a simple explanation for complex problems, and promises a simple and quick solution. Scapegoating is a binary macro-analytic model–good versus evil, us versus them. Acting out against the scapegoat is more immediately gratifying than the much more difficult process of addressing the complex economic or social problems institutionally embedded in the society. One again this is a complex dynamic. Girard points out, “The borderline between rational discrimination and arbitrary persecution is sometimes difficult to trace.”
Scapegoating in Society
The targeting of a scapegoated individual or group as the constructed enemy plays out in the political and social arena, often reflecting real social, political, ideological, cultural, or economic power struggles.
Hannah Arendt, in discussing the rise of antisemitism, suggested that “an ideology which has to persuade and mobilize people cannot choose its victim arbitrarily.” Arendt argued against the idea of the scapegoat in mass society as wholly unconnected to the historic political, social, and economic context in which they became “the victim of modern terror;” even though scapegoats are clearly “chosen regardless of what they may or may not have done.” It is therefore imperative to study what is happening in a society when scapegoating’s patent falsehoods and forgeries are believed by large numbers of people. “Persecution of powerless or power-losing groups may not be a very pleasant spectacle, but it does not spring from human meanness alone,” wrote Arendt. “Only wealth without power or aloofness without a policy are felt to be parasitical, useless, revolting….”
An example of structural and contextual influences on scapegoating is revealed when different ethnic groups move into a similar social and economic role where they often experience similar types of scapegoating. Shopkeepers who run small stores in impoverished communities are scapegoated as parasites whether they are Jews, Arabs, Asians or any ethnicity other than that of the majority in the neighborhood. Shopkeepers appear to be absorbing wealth while they have little actual power. Shopkeepers do not control the economic decisions that resulted in the high unemployment and lack of resources in the neighborhood, but they are literally “in the face” of the local residents who can directly express their anger at the store owner–the relatively weak yet (incrementally) wealthier next rung up on the economic ladder. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. described this as “the familiar pattern of clientelistic hostility toward the neighborhood vendor or landlord,” noting that such hostility was a worldwide experience, directed for instance at “the Indians of East Africa and the Chinese of Southeast Asia.”
Despite the reality of a conflict, the attributes of the scapegoated group are falsely described to enhance its evil status and accomplish the objectification and demonization of its members. Allport speaks of scapegoating as having “a large region where the conflict is fanciful and unrealistic, animated by borrowed emotion, distorted by rash judgment and intensified by stereotype.” There are many examples:
- The influx of Catholic immigrants into the United States did indeed objectively challenge Protestant hegemony and created economic and social turbulence. But Catholics were demonized as agents of the Papist antichrist. Some rumored that Catholics were digging a tunnel to Rome so the Pope could secretly come to the United States to seize power. This was, to say the least, subjective and false.
- Liberals are often targets of religious Right campaigns against modern curriculum reform and multicultural education. Many liberals want children taught to think critically, question authority, and respect diverse viewpoints–concepts that sometimes offend orthodox cultural conservatives or fundamentalist Christians. Yet liberals are demonized in some Christian right texts as secular humanist agents of Satan conspiring to brainwash children in a plot dating back to the 1800s.
- A genocidal neonazi is reflecting a specific ideology of White supremacy in which the primary targets–people of color, Jews, gays and lesbians, communists–are an actual enemy because these groups do indeed stymie the idealized monocultural hegemony desired by the neonazi. Yet the mere fact of their presence is insufficient, they must be demonized as involved in heinous attacks against the self-proclaimed true torch bearers of civilization.
Even though the scapegoated groups in these examples play a role in a real conflict, they are innocent of the fabricated charges used to mobilize mass support against them. A scapegoat, therefore, is created by the irrational nature of its construction as the embodiment of evil, not by its relative participation in actual activities that create conflict.
Demonization and scapegoating can be a response to demonization and scapegoating. Groups can exchange irrational allegations simultaneously in a series of escalating charges and countercharges; this is common during wars. During the Gulf War, the Bush administration demonized and scapegoated Saddam Hussein, who demonized and scapegoated the Bush administration. Some US antiwar activists demonized and scapegoated secret elites–Arabs, Israelis, Jews, CIA agents, and oil magnates–for launching the war as part of a conflict over who would control the New World Order. All of these forces undoubtedly played some role in the war, but not in the mechanical and omnipotent way imagined by those making the irrational assertions.
Scapegoating, no matter what its political viewpoint, is a dangerous process to allow to flourish. “Larger social units may target an entire group for victimization, and particularly when gathered as in crowds, burst into collective violence against them,” warns Landes. Scapegoating hastens the move from passive prejudice to active discrimination.There can be a cascading effect–from verbal attacks to violence.
If we are to be victorious against the loathsome enemy, we are told to learn “a bitter lesson…[t]he only way to fight the devil is with his own weapons.” So we fight the enemy by any means necessary. Demonization and scapegoating beg the question of why the evildoers are not simply killed. The issue is not whether scapegoating as mass phenomena generate a propensity for violence, but how soon will the violence appear, and how brutal and extensive will the violence be before the demonization is repudiated by the larger society? If scapegoating in a society are allowed to develop unchallenged, eventually some person or group will decide that the most efficient solution to the problems faced by the society is the elimination of the scapegoats.
The Role of the Demagogue
In periods of rapid societal transformation, increased status is awarded to those persons most willing to excoriate the scapegoats and expose them as evil conspirators, even though the claims of these demagogues are fabrications. As Allport writes, “Demagogues play up false issues to divert public attention from true issues.” Successful demagogues usually have great personal charisma and appear supremely self-confident and knowledgeable…yet some demagogues can come across as accessible and friendly. Demagogues are usually seen as fitting the category of “The True Believer” delineated by Eric Hoffer. Few dissident organizers actually fit the definition of being a demagogue, even though centrist/extremist theory casts them in the role. That the term and concept of demagoguery has been abused, however, does not negate the reality of demagoguery as one style of organizing.
Demagogues often scapegoat groups that suffer widespread prejudice. “Not all [demagogues] select the alleged misconduct of minority groups as their false issue–but a great many do so,” observes Allport. Demagogues serve as “inspirational agitators” who mobilize a mass following of persons “who may adopt the program [of the demagogue] for reasons of cultural conditioning or conformity or of occupational and economic opportunism,” writes Frederick Cople Jaher in a discussion of antisemitism.Unpackaging the relationships between ideological demagogic leaders and their followers, who may be motivated by a variety of reasons, is an important step in analyzing any populist movement that uses scapegoating. Several factors must coalesce for demagogues to activate mass populist scapegoating. As Robert S. Robins and Jerrold M. Post, M.D. explain:
The would-be leader propagating a paranoid theme is a time of tranquillity will appeal only to a small audience. Even in a time of stress such an appeal will fail if the leader lacks conventional political skills. But when the politically skillful leader or propagandist with a persuasive paranoid message calls to an overwhelmed society, the conditions are ripe for a violent and widespread response.
Conspiracist demagogues create for themselves a special status as gatekeepers to secret knowledge, a form of Gnosticism in which they are the high priests. Demagogues uses a variety of emotionally-manipulative propaganda tactics to convince an audience that their assertions have merit. They frequently use standard techniques of the propagandist, and use logical fallacies to assert connections between persons, groups, and events that may not be related at all. Some of the illogical and invalid arguments violate the historic rules of logic including the false ideas that sequence implies causation, association implies guilt, congruence in one aspect implies congruence in all aspects, and that simultaneous action implies prior planning.
Conspiracists often argue their case by producing a tremendous volume of data, then make sweeping generalizations that imply connections that have not been logically demonstrated. All conspiracist theories start with a grain of truth around which is wrapped an attractive luminescent pearl of fiction which distracts attention away from the irrational leaps of conclusion. “Pat Buchanan in his 1996 presidential campaign raised real issues such as the negative effects of NAFTA,” explains Holly Sklar, “but he blamed a mix of real and false causes to suit his demagogic ends.”
Gates gives another example based on an antisemitic book, The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews, published by the Nation of Islam:
[T]he book massively misrepresents the historical record, largely through a process of cunningly selective quotation of often reputable sources. But its authors could be confident that few of its readers would go to the trouble of actually hunting down the works cited. For if readers actually did so, they might discover a rather different picture.
Conspiracist demagogues as orators portray as wisdom what is, in essence, parlor tricks of memorization lubricated with fallacies of logic. While this is a form of charlatanism, it is frequently unconscious. Interviews with numerous conspiracists reveals that even when shown that their logic is flawed, they dismiss the proof as a trick or irrelevant.
Demagoguery facilitates the projection required for scapegoating. As Allport puts it:
Demagoguery invites the externalization of hatred and anxiety, it is an institutional aid to projection; it justifies tabloid thinking, stereotyping, and the conviction that the world is made up of swindlers…There is no middle ground…the ultimate objective is vague, still the need for definiteness is met by the rule, `Follow the Leader.'
Demagogues may spark movements with relative independence, but their ultimate goal is usually some form of totalitarian control. Totalitarianism is an organizational form characterized by rigid centralized control of all aspects of a person’s life by an autocratic leader or hierarchy. A totalitarian movement is correctly defined by its style, structure and methods, not by its stated or apparent ideology.
Arendt discusses how totalitarian movements are built around a central fiction of a powerful conspiracy, (in the case of the Nazis, a conspiracy of Jews which dominated the world) that requires a secretive counter-conspiracy be organized. Totalitarian groups organize the counter-conspiracy in a hierarchical manner which mimics the levels of membership and rituals of social and religious secret societies.
The process whereby a movement’s sympathizers serve as mediators for translating otherwise unacceptable messages into public discourse plays an important role in demonization. Arendt suggests most people get their first glimpse of a totalitarian movement through its front organizations:
The sympathizers, who are to all appearances still innocuous fellow-citizens in a nontotalitarian society, can hardly be called single-minded fanatics; through them, the movements make their fantastic lies more generally acceptable, can spread their propaganda in milder, more respectable forms, until the whole atmosphere is poisoned with totalitarian elements which are hardly recognizable as such but appear to be normal political reactions or opinions.
The concept of the totalitarian group has been abused in several ways. First is the abuse of describing a group that is not truly totalitarian as a “cult.” While there are totalitarian groups that use deceptive recruiting practices and psychologically-manipulative techniques to enforce loyalty, not every new religion or exotic spiritual or political group is a cult.) Some fundamentalist Christian groups that warn about cults use the term loosely, and often are stigmatizing religious views that they find unacceptable. Second, the term “front group” is often used to discredit an organization seen as subversive or dangerous by persons who are using guilt-by-association as an acceptable standard of proof. Third, labeling a group totalitarian or a front group is a convenient way to weaken or destroy a political adversary, even when the charge is known to be false. The label “front group” was widely used by anticommunists during the McCarthy period to demonize liberals and radicals as tools of Moscow-based subversion. Nevertheless, the basic concept of totalitarianism should not be discarded because of these abuses.
Under totalitarianism the end game of demonization and scapegoating is genocide. Hitler may well have been a lunatic, but the vast majority of Germans who allowed him to rule, and tolerated or espoused scapegoating conspiracist theories about Jews and other alleged parasitic subversives, were not suffering from mass psychosis. The “banality of evil”, as Hannah Arendt observed, is that ordinary people are willing–even eager–participants in brutality and mass murder justified by prejudice and conspiracist scapegoating in the larger society. Totalitarian movements and governments raise the stakes for these processes.
Lawrence L. Langer raises the inescapable issue regarding the Nazi genocide:
The widespread absence of remorse among the accused in postwar trials indicates that we may need…to accept the possibility of a regimen of behavior that simply dismisses conscience as an operative moral factor. The notion of the power to kill, or to authorize killing of others, as a personally fulfilling activity is not appealing to our civilized sensibilities; even more threatening is the idea that this is not necessarily a pathological condition, but an expression of impulses as native to our selves as love and compassion.
So we all must face history without flinching, and take responsibility for the present, knowing that the fault lies not in the stars, but in our selves.
It is very effective to mobilize mass support against a scapegoated enemy by claiming that the enemy is part of a vast insidious conspiracy against the common good. The conspiracist worldview sees secret plots by tiny cabals of evildoers as the major motor powering important historical events; makes irrational leaps of logic in analyzing factual evidence in order to “prove” connections, blames social conflicts on demonized scapegoats, and constructs a closed metaphysical worldview that is highly resistant to criticism.
When conspiracist scapegoating occurs, the results can devastate a society, disrupting rational political discourse and creating targets who are harassed and even murdered. Dismissing the conspiracism often found in right-wing populism as irrational extremism, lunatic hysteria, or marginalized radicalism does little to challenge these movements, fails to deal with concrete conflicts and underlying institutional issues, invites government repression, and sacrifices the early targets of the scapegoaters on the altar of denial. An effective response requires a more complex analysis.
The Dynamics of Conspiracism
The dynamic of conspiracist scapegoating is remarkably predictable. Persons who claim special knowledge of a plot warn their fellow citizens about a treacherous subversive conspiracy to attack the common good. What’s more, the conspiracists announce, the plans are nearing completion, so that swift and decisive action is needed to foil the sinister plot. In different historical periods, the names of the scapegoated villains change, but the essentials of this conspiracist worldview remain the same.
George Johnson explained that “conspiratorial fantasies are not simply an expression of inchoate fear. There is a shape, an architecture, to the paranoia.” Johnson came up with five rules common to the conspiracist worldview in the United States:
“The conspirators are internationalist in their sympathies.
“[N]othing is ever discarded. Right-wing mail order bookstores still sell the Protocols of the Elders of Zion…[and] Proofs of a Conspiracy [from the late 1700’s].
“Seeming enemies are actually secret friends. Through the lens of the conspiracy theorists, capitalists and Communists work hand in hand.
“The takeover by the international godless government will be ignited by the collapse of the economic system.
“It’s all spelled out in the Bible. For those with a fundamentalist bent, the New World Order or One World Government is none other than the international kingdom of the Antichrist, described in the Book of Revelation.
Conspiracism can occur as a characteristic of mass movements, between sectors in an intra-elite power struggle, or as a justification for state agencies to engage in repressive actions. Conspiracist scapegoating is woven deeply into US culture and the process appears not just on the political right but in center and left constituencies as well. There is an entrenched network of conspiracy-mongering information outlets spreading dubious stories about public and private figures and institutions. They use media such as printed matter, the internet, fax trees, radio programs, videotapes and audiotapes.
Conspiracism as Scapegoating
One can argue on a metaphoric level that when demonization, scapegoating, and paranoid-sounding conspiracist allegations permeate a society it is a sign of societal distress and dysfunction, but this is a sociological–not a psychological–diagnosis. Societal outbreaks of conspiracism are a distinct form of scapegoating in the political arena rather than an outcome of a paranoid psychological pathology. In conspiracist discourse, the supposed conspirators serve as scapegoats for the actual conflict within the society.
There are certainly mentally-unbalanced individuals who promote paranoid-sounding conspiracist theories, however it is simplistic to contend that these suspicious and often anti-social individuals periodically join together to form large mass movements around shared goals. It is also naive to argue that power elites or government agencies are populated by clinically paranoid leaders who see subversion behind all social change and therefore unilaterally activate the repressive agencies of the state. Conspiracist scapegoating certainly involves psychological processes, but it has an objective reality as a useful social and political mechanism in actual power struggles throughout US history.
By blaming a small group of individuals for vast crimes or simple evil, conspiracism serves to divert attention from the institutional locus of power that drives systemic oppression, injustice and exploitation.
As explained by Frank P. Mintz:
Conspiracism serves the needs of diverse political and social groups in America and elsewhere. It identifies elites, blames them for economic and social catastrophes, and assumes that things will be better once popular action can remove them from positions of power.”
Right wing conspiracist scapegoating not only identifies and blames elites, but also identifies and blames alleged subversives and parasites from groups that have relatively lower social or economic status. This is the classic producerist stance. Conspiracist allegation can also be used to attack the status quo by outsider elite factions seeking power.
Conspiracist scapegoating is not a process found only on the fringes of society among so-called extremists. Richard O. Curry and Thomas M. Brown, in their anthology, Conspiracy, stress that “It is extremely important to note that fears of conspiracy are not confined to charlatans, crackpots, and the disaffected. Anticonspiratorial rhetoric has been a factor in major-party politics throughout most of our history.
When scapegoating appears in the form of a conspiracist theory, it follows the same trajectory as other forms of scapegoating. As is typical of scapegoating, the choice of alleged conspirators often reflects pre-existing sentiments and prejudices already ingrained in the larger society. When persons with a conspiracist worldview are prejudiced, the allegations of a subversive conspiracy are often linked to the groups seen as inferior or threatening, resulting in allegations of a Jewish banking conspiracy, vast conspiracies of Arab terrorists, or plots by militant Blacks to pillage and burn suburban communities. Persons alleging subversive conspiracies can span the political spectrum, but in this country the largest number of such persons appear to have intersected at some point with militant ultraconservative and far right groups. This is true whether the conspiracist is in the private sector or employed by the government.
Conspiracism and Apocalypticism
In Western culture, conspiracist narratives are significantly influenced by metaphors from Biblical apocalyptic prophesy. Stephen O’Leary in Arguing the Apocalypse contends that the process of demonization is central to all forms of conspiracist thinking. Leonard Zeskind argues it is impossible to analyze the contemporary political right, without understanding the “all-powerful cosmology of diabolical evil.”To Zeskind, conspiracy theories are “essentially theologically constructed views of events. Conspiracy theories are renderings of a metaphysical devil which is trans-historical, omnipotent, and destructive of God’s will on earth. This is true even for conspiracy theories in which there is not an explicit religious target.”
S. L. Gardner points out that many current “conspiracy theories directed against the government are part of a rhetorical strategy genuinely intended to undermine state power and government authority,” but this occurs in a “metaphysical context” in which “those in control are implicated in a Manichean struggle of absolute good against absolute evil. That they are the agents of the devil is proved by the very fact that they control a corrupt system.” The fear of a subversive conspiracy to create a collectivist “one world government” is rooted in this religious apocalyptic view, but now spans a continuum of beliefs from religious to secular.
The narrative of most conspiracist thinking is that the government is controlled by a relatively small secret elite. This fits the general paradigm of scapegoating because despite the actual size of the government and the power of the state, the conspiracists picture a handful of secret elites manipulating behind the scenes–a tiny cabal who would be no match for the sovereign “We The People” mobilized against them.
Conspiracism and countersubversion manifest themselves in degrees. “It might be possible, given sufficient time and patience,” writes David Brion Davis, “to rank movements of countersubversion on a scale of relative realism and fantasy,” The distance from reality and logic the conspiracist analysis drifts can range from modest to maniacal.
Conspiracism and Countersubversion
When conspiracism becomes a mass phenomenon, persons seeking to protect the nation from the alleged conspiracy of subversives gnawing away at the entrails of the society form counter movements-thus the term countersubversion.
David Brion Davis noted that movements to counter the “threat of conspiratorial subversion acquired new meaning in a nation born in revolution and based on the sovereignty of the people,” and that in the US,” crusades against subversion have never been the monopoly of a single social class or ideology, but have been readily appropriated by highly diverse groups.”
Frank Donner perceived an institutionalized culture of countersubversion in the United States “marked by a distinct pathology: conspiracy theory, moralism, nativism, and suppressiveness.” This countersubversion hysteria is linked to government attempts to disrupt and crush dissident social movements in the United States. Conspiracists in the government and private sector periodically create a “countersubversive” apparatus as a response to dissent. The FBI’s counterintelligence program of illegally spying on and disrupting dissidents from the 1950s to the 1970s, dubbed COINTELPRO, is an example of an operational conspiracy ironically based on a conspiracist worldview that suspected widespread subversion by leftists.
Davis points out that:
genuine conspiracies have seldom been as dangerous or as powerful as have movements of countersubversion. The exposer of conspiracies necessarily adopts a victimized, self-righteous tone which masks his own meaner interests as well as his share of responsibility for a given conflict. Accusations of conspiracy conceal or justify one’s own provocative acts and thus contribute to individual or national self-deception. Still worse, they lead to overreactions, particularly to degrees of suppressive violence which normally would not be tolerated.
The most influential conspiracist theory in the US during the twentieth century was the fear of the Red Menace. Donner argued that the unstated yet actual primary goal of surveillance and political intelligence gathering by state agencies and their countersubversive allies is not amassing evidence of illegal activity for criminal prosecutions, but punishing critics of the status quo or the state in order to undermine movements for social change.
A major tool used to justify the anti-democratic activities of the intelligence establishment is propaganda designed to create fear of a menace by an alien outsider. The timeless myth of the enemy “other” assuages ethnocentrist hungers with servings of fresh scapegoats. As Donner noted: “In a period of social and economic change during which traditional institutions are under the greatest strain, the need for the myth is especially strong as a means of transferring blame, an outlet for the despair [people] face when normal channels of protest and change are closed.”
Conspiracism and Social Conflict
Conspiracism needs a conflict to flourish–some indigestion in the body politic for which the conspiracist seeks causation so that blame can be affixed. As Davis observes sympathetically, most countersubversives “were responding to highly disturbing events; their perceptions, even when wild distortions of reality, were not necessarily unreasonable interpretations of available information.” The interpretations, however, were inaccurate, frequently hysterical, and created havoc.
Since conspiracist thinking flourishes during periods of political, economic, or cultural transformation, Davis observed that “[c]ollective beliefs in conspiracy have usually embodied or given expression to genuine social conflict.” Davis identified four primary categories of persons who join conspiracist countersubversive movements:
- Persons who are “defenders of threatened establishments;”
- Persons being displaced, “put in new positions of dependency,” or facing oppression;
- Persons with “anxieties over social or cultural change;” and,
- Persons who see “foreign revolution or tyrannical reaction,” and who search for “domestic counterparts on the assumption that fires may be avoided if one looks for flying sparks.”
When people are mobilizing in defense of disproportionate privilege and power, they often devise rationalizations that divert attention from their underlying self interest. Scapegoating in the form of conspiracist scapegoating can provide the needed protective coloration. No matter what the form, Conspiracist rhetoric in mass movements emerges as a response to concrete power struggles.
Although the specific allegations about the plots and plans by the alleged conspirators frequently are complex–even Byzantine–the ultimate model is still simple: the good people must expose and stop the bad people, and then conflict will end, grievances will be resolved, and everything will be just fine. Conspiracist thinking is thus an action-oriented worldview which holds out to believers the possibility of change. As Kathleen M. Blee has observed through interviews with women in White racist groups, “Conspiracy theories not only teach that the world is divided into an empowered “them” and a less powerful “us” but also suggest a strategy by which the “us” (ordinary people, the non-conspirators) can challenge and even usurp the authority of the currently-powerful.” Thus conspiracist scapegoating fills a need for explanations among the adherents by providing a simple model of good versus evil in which the victory over evil is at least possible.
Conspiracism and “Secret Elites”
Just like in other forms of scapegoating, conspiracists sometimes target people who in fact have significant power and culpability in a given conflict–Wall Street power brokers, corporate magnates, banking industry executives, politicians, government officials–but conspiracists portray these forces in caricature that obscures a rational assessment of their wrongdoing. It is not individual people who have the actual power, but the roles they occupy in social, political, and economic institutions. There are undeniably powerful individuals, but when they die, their power does not evaporate, it redistributes itself to other individuals in similar roles, and to individuals that scramble to inherit the role just vacated.
No single power bloc, company, family, or individual in a complex modern society wields absolute control, even though there are always systems of control. Wall Street stock brokers are not outsiders deforming an otherwise happy system. As Holly Sklar argues, “the government is manipulated by various elites, often behind the scenes, but these elites are not a tiny secret cabal with omniscience and omnipotence.” There is no secret team…the elites that exist are anything but secret. The government and the economy are not alien forces superimposed over an otherwise equitable and freedom loving society.
As Matthew N. Lyons points out, “Scapegoating is not only about who is targeted, but also about who is not targeted, and what systems and structures are not being challenged by focusing on the scapegoat.” For example, the Federal Reserve is a powerful institution that has made many decisions that primarily benefit the wealthy and corporate interests. William Greider’s book Secrets of the Temple describes the Federal Reserve as a significant institution of modern corporate capitalism with bipartisan support. He shows how the legislation traces back to demands by populists to smooth out boom and bust cycles and rapidly fluctuating credit rates that especially victimized farmers. Grieder also discusses the long history of the debate over the wisdom of a central banking system, and how the legislation creating the Federal Reserve was passed in 1913 after a lengthy public debate. There is no antisemitism or conspiracist scapegoating in the text of the Greider book.
Compare this sober analysis to the works of G. Edward Griffin, Martin Larson, Antony C. Sutton, or Eustace Mullins. They portray the Federal Reserve as the mechanism by which a tiny evil elite covertly manipulate the economy. They trace its creation to a cabal who met secretly on Georgia’s Jekyll Island and then somehow snuck the legislation through Congress overnight. Anyone with a library card can disprove this malarkey simply by reading microfilmed newspaper accounts of the contentious public debate over the legislation.
Sutton and Larson overemphasize the role of bankers who are Jewish, revealing mild antisemitic stereotyping. Mullins is a strident bigot who actually has two bodies of work. In one set of texts Mullins avoids overt antisemitic language while discussing his conspiracist theory of the Federal Reserve and the alleged role of forces tied to the Rothschild banking family. These texts involve implicit antisemitic stereotyping that is easily missed (sadly) by an average reader unaware of the history of conspiracist antisemitism and its use of coded language and references. In another set of texts Mullins displays grotesque antisemitism. Mullins uses his critique of the Federal Reserve to lure people toward his other works where his economic analysis is revealed to be based on naked hatred of Jews.
All the authors in this conspiracist genre suggest alien forces use the Federal Reserve to impose their secret agenda on an unwitting population, an analysis that ignores systemic and institutional factors and personalizes the issue in the classic conspiracist paradigm.
The romanticized vision of US society is mirrored in mainstream conservative criticism of liberalism as well. As Himmelstein notes, “The core assumption” of post-WWII conservatism “is the belief that American society on all levels has an organic order–harmonious, beneficent, and self-regulating–disturbed only by misguided ideas and policies, especially those propagated by a liberal elite in the government, the media, and the universities.”
Conspiracism as Parody of Institutional Analysis
The conspiracist analysis of history has become uncoupled from a logical train of thought. . .it is a non-rational belief system that manifests itself in degrees. Conspiracism blames individualized and subjective forces for economic and social problems rather than analyzing conflict in terms of systems and structures of power. Conspiracist allegations, therefore, interfere with a serious progressive analysis–an analysis that challenges the objective institutionalized systems of oppression and power, and seeks a radical transformation of the status quo. Bruce Cumings, put it like this:
But if conspiracies exist, they rarely move history; they make a difference at the margins from time to time, but with the unforeseen consequences of a logic outside the control of their authors: and this is what is wrong with “conspiracy theory.” History is moved by the broad forces and large structures of human collectivities.
Many authors who reject centrist/extremist theory use power structure research, a systemic methodology that looks at the role of significant institutions, social class, and power blocs in a society. Power structure research has been used by several generations of progressive authors including C. Wright Mills, G. William Domhoff, and Holly Sklar. Some mainstream social scientists, especially those enamored of centrist/extremist theory, have unfairly dismissed radical left critiques of US society as conspiracy theories.
Power structure research is not inherently conspiracist, but conspiracist pseudo-radical parodies of power structure research abound. Examples include right-wing populist critics such as Gary Allen, Antony Sutton, Bo Gritz, Craig Hulet, and Eustace Mullins. Left-wing populist critics include David Emory, John Judge, and Danny Sheehan of the Christic Institute. Conspiracism tarnishes the artistic work of filmmaker Oliver Stone. A recent book by the respected left analyst Michael Parenti, Dirty Truths, contains a very problematic defense of conspiracism.) There are also a plethora of practitioners who have drawn from both the left and the right such as Daniel Brandt and the late Ace Hayes.
Conspiracism blames individualized and subjective forces for economic and social problems rather than analyzing conflict in terms of systems and structures of power. Conspiracist allegations, therefore, interfere with a serious progressive analysis–an analysis that challenges the objective institutionalized systems of oppression and power, and seeks a radical transformation of the status quo.
The subjectivist view of conspiracist critics of the status quo is a parody of serious research. As Lyons observes, “To claim, for instance, that the Rockefellers control the world, takes multiple interconnections and complex influences and reduces them to mechanical wire pulling.” As one report critical of right-wing populist conspiracism suggested:
There is a vast gulf between the simplistic yet dangerous rhetoric of elite cabals, Jewish conspiracies and the omnipotence of “international finance” and a thoughtful analysis of the deep divisions and inequities in our society.
Separating real conspiracies from the exaggerated, non-rational, fictional, lunatic, or deliberately fabricated variety is a problem faced by serious researchers, and journalists. For progressive activists, differentiating between the progressive power structure research and the pseudo-radical allegations of conspiracism is a prerequisite for rebuilding a left analysis of social and political problems.
The Political Assumptions of Conspiracism
by Matthew N. Lyons
Radical politics and social analysis have been so effectively marginalized in the US that much of what passes for radicalism is actually liberal reformism with a radical-looking veneer. To claim a link between liberalism and conspiracism may sound paradoxical, because of the conventional centrist/extremist assumption that conspiracist thinking is a marginal, “pathological” viewpoint shared mainly by people at both extremes of the political spectrum. Centrist/extremist theory’s equation of the “paranoid right” and “paranoid left” obscures the extent to which much conspiracist thinking is grounded in mainstream political assumptions.
Consider a message sent through a computer bulletin board for progressive political activists. Following an excerpt from a Kennedy assassination book, which attributed JFK’s killing to “the Secret Team–or The Club, as others call it…composed of some of the most powerful and wealthiest men in the United States,” the subscriber who posted the excerpt commented,
We, the American people, are too apathetic to participate in our own democracy and consequently, we have forfeited our power, guided by our principles, in exchange for an oligarchy ruled by greedy, evil men–men who are neurotic in their insatiable lust for wealth and power….And George Bush is just the tip of the iceberg.
Scratch the “radical” surface of this statement and you find liberal content. No analysis of the social order, but rather an attack on the “neurotic” and “greedy, evil men” above and the “apathetic” people below. If only we could get motivated and throw out that special interest group, “The Club,” democracy would function properly.
This perspective resembles that of the Christic Institute with its emphasis on the illegal nature of the Iran-Contra network and its appeals to “restore” American democracy. This perspective may also be compared with liberal versions of the “Zionist Lobby” explanation for the United States’ massive subsidy of Israel. Supposedly the Lobby’s access to campaign funds and media influence has held members of Congress hostage for years. Not only does this argument exaggerate and conflate the power of assorted Jewish and pro-Israel lobbying groups, and play into antisemitic stereotypes about “dual loyalist” Jews pulling strings behind the scenes, but it also lets the US government off the hook for its own aggressive foreign policies, by portraying it as the victim of external “alien” pressure.
All of these perspectives assume inaccurately that (a) the US political system contains a democratic “essence” blocked by outside forces, and (b) oppression is basically a matter of subjective actions by individuals or groups, not objective structures of power. These assumptions are not marginal, “paranoid” beliefs-they are ordinary, mainstream beliefs that reflect the individualism, historical denial, and patriotic illusions of mainstream liberal thought.
To a large degree, the left is vulnerable to conspiracist thinking to the extent that it remains trapped in such faulty mainstream assumptions.
Conspiracism and Right-Wing Populism
by Chip Berlet
Conspiracism often accompanies various forms of populism, and Canovan notes that “the image of a few evil men conspiring in secret against the people can certainly be found in the thinking of the U.S. People’s Party, Huey Long, McCarthy, and others.” Criticism of conspiracism, however, does not imply that there are not real conspiracies, criminal or otherwise. There certainly are real conspiracies throughout history. As Canovan argues:
“[o]ne should bear in mind that not all forms or cases of populism involve conspiracy theories, and that such theories are not always false. The railroad kings and Wall Street bankers hated by the U.S. Populists, the New Orleans Ring that Huey Long attacked, and the political bosses whom the Progressives sought to unseat–all these were indeed small groups of men wielding secret and irresponsible power.
The US political scene is littered with examples of illegal political, corporate, and government conspiracies such as Watergate, the Iran/Contra scandal, and the systematic looting of the savings and loan industry.
The dilemma for the left is that right-wing populist organizers weave these systemic and institutional failures into a conspiracist narrative that blames “secret elites.” In a lengthy article on snowballing conspiracism in The New Yorker, Michael Kelly called this “fusion paranoia.” With the rise of “info-tainment” news programs and talk shows, hard right conspiracism, especially about alleged government misconduct, jumps into the corporate media with increasing regularity. As Kelly observes,” It is not remarkable that accusations of abuse of power should be leveled against Presidents-particularly in light of Vietnam, Watergate, and Iran-Contra. But now, in the age of fusion paranoia, there is no longer any distinction made between credible charges and utterly unfounded slanders.”
This confusion of left and right populism also occurs in Europe with magazines such as Lobster in England. The subject is discussed in detail in the book Ecofascism: Lessons from the German Experience by Janet Biehl & Peter Staudenmaier.
The US now exports globalist neocorporatism-a world economy controlled by corporate interests-as the hegemonic model that makes the rich richer and the poor poorer. However, not all critics of globalist neocorporatism champion democracy and equality. We must be careful to draw a distinction between critiques that extend economic and social justice, and those that claim economic privilege for middle class consumers at the expense of social justice. Outsider factions composed of business and financial sectors with common goals regularly seek to displace the sectors in control of political and economic power in the US. A common tactic in this endless power struggle is to use populist rhetoric and anti-elite scapegoating to attract constituencies in the middle class and working class.
Some of the forces in the US that oppose neocorporatist globalism are outsider factions of business nationalists who favor protectionist trade policies and oppose international cooperation in foreign policy. In the past, business nationalism has also been the main sector in the US from which emerged campaigns promoting union-busting, White supremacist segregationism, the Red Scares, anti-immigrant xenophobia, and allegations of Jewish banking conspiracies. When populist consumer groups such as those led by Ralph Nader forged uncritical alliances with outsider faction of business nationalists to rally against GATT and NAFTA, the anti-elite rhetoric of right wing populism quickly emerged.
Why is this a problem? Because the conspiracist scapegoating typical of right wing populism masks a history of xenophobia and repressive authoritarianism on behalf of the majority. Right wing populist movements in the US have used scapegoating allegations of wrongdoing to rationalize White supremacy, antisemitism, and patriarchal heterosexism.
The main scapegoats of right wing populism are people of color, especially Blacks. Attention is diverted from the White supremacist roots by using coded language to frame the issue in terms of welfare, immigration, tax, or education policies. Women, gay men and lesbians, youth, students, and environmentalists are also frequently scapegoated.
The removal of the obvious anti-communist underpinnings assisted left wing conspiracists in creating a parody of the fundamentalist/libertarian conspiracist critiques. Left wing conspiracists strip away the underlying religious fundamentalism, antisemitism, and economic social Darwinism, and peddle the repackaged product like carnival snake oil salesmen to unsuspecting sectors of the left. Those on the left who only see the antielitist aspects of right-wing populism and claim they are praiseworthy are playing with fire. This is a time for progressives to be wary of attempts by the political right to woo the left. As one anti-racist group warned:
“Left analysts and activists like Alexander Cockburn who are attracted to one or another point put forward by militia-led groups about “freedom,” such as the Fully Informed Jury Association . . .need to be aware of the poison pill of racism and anti-semitism covered by that sugar coating.”
Doug Henwood, editor of Left Business Observer in New York, has commented on the resurgence of fascist ideas around the world. Henwood cited Karl Polanyi’s, The Great Transformation, which listed symptoms for a country infected with fascism, including “the spread of irrationalist philosophies, racialist esthetics, anticapitalist demagogy, heterodox currency views, criticism of the party system, widespread disparagement of the `regime,’ or whatever was the name given to the existing democratic set-up.” Henwood writes that “the list is a good description of the political scene in much of the world today-the denunciation of Coca-Cola capitalism by German skinheads, chanted between attacks on Turks and Mozambicans; the racist welfare-baiting of our own demagogues; and ubiquitous, vague, and nihilistic denunciations of `the system’ that offer little hope for transformation.”
Radio host David Barsamian who produces the syndicated Alternative Radio interview series from Boulder, Colorado warns that personalities who harp on conspiracies are providing entertaining confusion rather than helping people focus clearly on complex issues. He says progressives should not fall for “left guruism” where sensational anti-government theories are accepted without any independent critical analysis.
Barsamian feels some on the left have been “mesmerized by the flawless dramatic presentation” of people such as Daniel Sheehan of the Christic Institute. This demagoguery distracted attention from the “substance of the allegations which don’t all check out.” This created a climate-even a demand-for elaborate conspiracy theories to flourish. Barsamian acknowledges “we all are longing for simple comforting explanations, but by focusing on The Secret Team, or the Medellin Cartel, we ignore the institutions that keep producing the problems.”
There are differences between US and European right wing populism. Matthew N. Lyons says the following:
“Unlike the European countries, capitalism [in the US] did not emerge from feudal society, but rather was imposed abruptly through a special kind of mass colonial conquest. . .primarily the rule of White nationalism,”
“In the US the populist vision of cross-class unity is related to the dominant US ideology of classlessness, social mobility, and liberalism in general, but populism tends to break with political orthodoxy by circumventing normal channels and attacking established leadership groups, at least rhetorically.”
“White nationalism has meant (a) the absence of feudal remnants and the pervasiveness of liberal capitalist doctrines and institutions, and (b) a racial caste system that made working-class Euro-Americans part of a socially privileged White collective.
Progressive conspiracism is an oxymoron. Rejecting the conspiracist analytical model is a vital step in challenging both right-wing populism and fascism. It is important to see anti-elite conspiracism and scapegoating as not merely destructive of a progressive analysis but also as specific techniques used by fascist political movements to provide a radical-sounding left cover for a rightist attack on the status quo. Far from being an aberration or a mere tactical maneuver by rightists, pseudo-radicalism is a distinctive, central feature of fascist and proto-fascist political movements. This is why the early stages of a potentially-fascist movement are often described as seeming to incorporate both leftwing and rightwing ideas.
In the best of times, conspiracism is a pointless diversion of focus and waste of energy. Conspiracism promotes scapegoating as a way of thinking; and since scapegoating in the US is rooted in racism, antisemitism, ethnocentrism, and xenophobia, conspiracism promotes bigotry. In periods of social or economic crisis, populist conspiracism facilitates the spread of fascist and para-fascist social movements because they too rely on demagogic scapegoating and conspiracist theories as an organizing tool. Radical-sounding conspiracist critiques of the status quo are the wedge that fascism uses to penetrate and recruit from the left.
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Conspiracism is a narrative form of scapegoating that portrays an enemy as part of a vast insidious plot against the common good. Conspiracism assigns tiny cabals of evildoers a superhuman power to control events, frames social conflict as part of a transcendent struggle between Good and Evil, and makes leaps of logic, such as guilt by association, in analyzing evidence. Conspiracists often employ common fallacies of logic in analyzing factual evidence to assert connections, causality, and intent that are frequently unlikely or nonexistent. As a distinct narrative form of scapegoating, conspiracism uses demonization to justify constructing the scapegoats as wholly evil while reconstructing the scapegoater as a hero.
Conspiracism as a Flawed Worldview
Conspiracy theory as a theory of power, then, is an ideological misrecognition of power relations, articulated to but neither defining nor defined by populism, interpellating believers as “the people” opposed to a relatively secret, elite “power bloc.” Yet such a definition does not exhaust conspiracy theory’s significance in contemporary politics and culture; as with populism, the interpellation of “the people” opposed to the “power bloc” plays a crucial role in any movement for social change. Moreover, as I have argued, just because overarching conspiracy theories are wrong does not mean they are not on to something. Specifically, they ideologically address real structural inequities, and constitute a response to a withering civil society and the concentration of the ownership of the means of production, which together leave the political subject without the ability to be recognized or to signify in the public realm.
-Mark Fenster,Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999).
Every major traumatic event in U.S. history generates a new round of speculation about conspiracies. The tendency to explain all major world events as primarily the product of a conspiracy is called conspiracism.
Conspiracism can be used to critique the current regime or an excuse to defend the current regime against critics. David Brion Davis noted that “crusades against subversion have never been the monopoly of a single social class or ideology, but have been readily appropriated by highly diverse groups.” When the government and its allies use conspiracism to justify political repression of dissidents, it is called “countersubversion.”
Frank Donner perceived an institutionalized culture of countersubversion in the United States “marked by a distinct pathology: conspiracy theory, moralism, nativism, and suppressiveness.” The article Repression & Ideology explains how conspiracism works when it is part of a campaign against dissidents.
Conspiracism as part of an anti-regime populist movement works in a different fashion. Populist conspiracism sees secret plots by tiny cabals of evildoers as the major motor powering important historical events. Conspiracism tries to figure out how power is exercised in society, but ends up oversimplifying the complexites of modern society by blaming societal problems on manipulation by a handful of evil individuals.
This is not an analysis that accurately evaluates the systems, structures and institutions of modern society. As such, conspiracism is neither investigative reporting, which seeks to expose actual conspiracies through careful research; nor is it power structure research, which seeks to accurately analyze the distribution of power and privilege in a society. Sadly, some sincere people who seek social and economic justice are attracted to conspiracism. Overwhelmingly, however, conspiracism in the U.S. is the central historic narrative of right-wing populism.
The conspiracist blames societal or individual problems on what turns out to be a demonized scapegoat. Conspiracism is a narrative form of scapegoating that portrays an enemy as part of a vast insidious plot against the common good. Conspiracism assigns tiny cabals of evildoers a superhuman power to control events, frames social conflict as part of a transcendent struggle between Good and Evil, and makes leaps of logic, such as guilt by association, in analyzing evidence.
Conspiracists often employ common fallacies of logic in analyzing factual evidence to assert connections, causality, and intent that are frequently unlikely or nonexistent. As a distinct narrative form of scapegoating, conspiracism uses demonization to justify constructing the scapegoats as wholly evil while reconstructing the scapegoater as a hero.
The current wave of conspiracism has two main historic sources, irrational fears of a freemason conspiracy and irrational fears of a Jewish conspiracy. There are many purveyors of the conspiracist worldview and the belief structure is surprisingly widespread. Conspiracist ideas are promoted by several right-wing institutions, the John Birch Society, the Liberty Lobby, and the Lyndon LaRouche networks. These groups are examples of right-wing populism in which conspiracist narratives such as producerism are common.
In Western culture, conspiracist scapegoating is rooted in apocalyptic fears and millennial expectations. Sometimes conspiracism is secularized and adopted by portions of the political left. It is interesting to note that on both the left and the right (as well as the center) there are critics of the apocalyptic style and flawed methodology of conspiracism.
In highlighting conspiracist allegation as a form of scapegoating, it is important to remember the following:
- All conspiracist theories start with a grain of truth, which is then transmogrified with hyperbole and filtered through pre-existing myth and prejudice.
- People who believe conspiracist allegations sometimes act on those irrational beliefs, which has concrete consequences in the real world.
- Conspiracist thinking and scapegoating are symptoms, not causes, of underlying societal frictions, and as such are perilous to ignore.
- Scapegoating and conspiracist allegations are tools that can be used by cynical leaders to mobilize a mass following.
- Supremacist and fascist organizers use conspiracist theories as a relatively less-threatening entry point in making contact with potential recruits.
- Even when conspiracist theories do not center on Jews, people of color, or other scapegoated groups, they create an environment where racism, anti-Semitism, and other forms of prejudice and oppression can flourish.
Conspiracist Episodes in the U.S. 1797-2001
Conspiracism is a particular narrative form of scapegoating that frames the enemy as part of a vast insidious plot against the common good, while it valorizes the scapegoater as a hero for sounding the alarm. Like other forms of scapegoating, conspiracism often, though not always, targets oppressed or stigmatized groups. In many cases, conspiracism uses coded language to mask ethnic or racial bigotry, for example, attacking the Federal Reserve in ways that evoke common stereotypes about “Jewish bankers.
Chip Berlet and Matthew N. Lyons.
Right–Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort.
New York: Guilford Press, 2000, p. 9.
- 1797–1800 Freemasons/Illuminati ( Europe).
- 1798–1802 Freemasons/Illuminati ( U.S.).
- 1820–1844 AntiMasonry (Early Nativism).
- 1834–1860 Catholic Immigrants (Nativism–Know Nothings).
- 1830–1866 Slave Power Conspiracy
- 1873–1905 Plutocrats and Bankers (“The Octopus”).
- 1903–1920 Jews (Protocols— Russia).
- 1919–1935 The International Jew (Protocols— Britain & U.S.).
- 1919–1925 Anarchists and Bolsheviks.
- 1932–1946 Bankers, Liberal Collectivists, Reds, and Jews.
- 1940–1950 Reds and the End Times.
- 1950–1960 Liberal Internationalists & Reds.
- 1958–1968 Civil Rights Conspiracy..
- 1963–1970 Assassination Conspiracy Theories.
- 1960–1980 Sex, Drugs, and Rock & Roll.
- 1970–1990 Secret Elites.
- 1975–Secular Humanism: Feminists and Homosexuals
- 1986–1990 Secret Team.
- 1990–New World Order.
- 2001-Post 9-11 Cheney/Bush Neocon Terror Complicity.
- 2001-Post 9-11 Cheney/Bush Neocon Mossad/Zionists/Jews Terror Complicity.
- 2001-Post 9-11 Islamic Menace, Cultural Barbarism, “Clash of Civilizations.”
Post 9/11 Conspiracism
The horrific attacks of September 11, 2001 quickly drew a range of responses from the U.S. political right, and became the subject of widespread conspiracist speculation. There has been a generic type of anti-government conspiracy theory, and those that incorporate antisemitic allegations as well. Political Research Associates began collecting examples of this phenomenon shortly after the attacks. Other media have carried stories as well. Some of these theories are from the political right, others claim to be from the left, others represent a fusion of left and right viewpoints. Some critics of the left have dubbed serious political arguments as conspiracism, and a sensible response has been issued by the WSWS website.
A common generic conspiracy theory suggested that the failure of the U.S. government to scramble jet interceptor aircraft in time to shoot down the hijacked planes was somehow evidence that the government was aware of the attack and did nothing to stop it; or that the government itself staged the attack to justify aggressive militarism and domestic repression. One theory claimed that the planes were controlled by remote devices. Another claimed that all the buildings were actually destroyed by bombs hidden inside the structures, and one variation asserted that no plane hit the Pentagon at all.
9/11 Conspiracism and the Left
Questions about government failures to prevent 9/11 gained renewed attention when the major corporate media reported that Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-GA) gave a March 25 interview on radio station KPFA in Berkeley, CA where she suggested, according to AP, that “Bush administration officials may have ignored advance warning of the Sept. 11 attacks and their political allies have profited from the war on terrorism.”
McKinney, a five-term House member from Atlanta, is a progressive African-American woman with a history of speaking out for social and economic justice. The central theme of McKinney’s argument, which her office reiterated later, was that there needed to be a thorough investigation of the events of 9/11. This was not the first time McKinney has asked tough questions about 9/11. In fact, in a press release dated September 21, 2001, McKinney asked for an investigation into why the government did not take seriously warnings about an impending attack.
Certainly McKinney’s call for vigorous investigation of how the planning and execution of the 9/11 attacks went undetected by US intelligence is more than justified. The possibility of a terrorist attack on the U.S. by networks linked to militant Islamic fundamentalists had been discussed in both general and specific terms in anti-terrorism materials published prior to 9/11. The government had access to these warnings and appears to have had other private warnings as well. The safeguards failed. This deserves investigation and penalties. Neither seem forthcoming.
Increased spending on military hardware, covert action, and the devices and services to implement increased government surveillance of domestic dissidents authorized after 9/11 has undoubtedly been a financial bonanza to many businesses run by allies of the Bush administration. None of this is good news.
What is at issue with the more speculative allegations is the question of prior knowledge, and the logical fallacy that the sequence of events implies some causation. The government failing to heed warnings, or Bush allies reaping windfall profits after 9/11, does not prove that there was a conscious plan for the government to ignore warnings of terrorism or, as some have claimed, to actually stage the attacks as part of a U.S. government covert operation. Why have such conspiracist claims circulated so widely?
McKinney’s comments on KPFA were extended in an essay posted on the Internet: “Thoughts on our War Against Terrorism.” In this essay McKinney’s speculation about government wrongdoing unfortunately extends beyond the available evidence:
“Those engaged in unusual stock trades immediately before September 11 knew enough to make millions of dollars from United and American airlines, certain insurance and brokerage firms’ stocks. What did this Administration know, and when did it know it about the events of September 11? Who else knew and why did they not warn the innocent people of New York who were needlessly murdered?”
This statement implies actions or inactions based on prior warnings that remain unproven. It is important, however, to place McKinney’s comments in context. She was speaking to a progressive audience on a radio station where there is an ongoing vigorous debate about allegations of government conspiracy relating to 911. Her call for an investigation played a moderating role in this debate.
There are concrete reasons why people of color, especially Black people, as well as progressives in general, would want a serious investigation into allegations of conspiracies involving government officials. There is a history of government repression in the U.S. involving conspiracies that is well known to people of color and the left. A few better-known examples include:
- The Tuskegee incident where Black men were not informed they were not being treated for venereal disease as part of an experiment.
- The FBI Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) operations in the late 1960s and early 1970s where several deaths of Black activists are directly attributable to conspiracies involving FBI agents. Specific projects were launched to discredit, disrupt, and destroy the New Left, the antiwar movement, the organizing of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and several Black nationalist groups.
- The Iran-Contra scandal which exposed an elaborate conspiracy involving public and private groups conducting covert operations to sidestep Congressional mandates concerning U.S. intervention in Nicaragua.
Bill Weinberg, editor of the online WW3 Report, sums up the attitude of many on the left about all governments when he writes:“It is the position of WW3 REPORT that after the 1898 explosion of the battleship Maine, the 1933 Reichstag Fire, the 1939 bogus Polish “invasion” of Germany, and the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident, it is irresponsible not to consider the possibility that elements of the CIA and/or Bush administration had a hand in the events of Sept. 11.”But Weinberg warns about going too far down this path:”However, it is equally irresponsible to accept this as a foregone conclusion, and twist every fact to fit it. WW3 REPORT remains committed to the idea that there is no higher principle to serve than the truth, and that serving this principle requires unflinching courage, unrestrained inquiry and unsleeping rigor.” [read more by Weinberg]The Right has selectively highlighted government abuses to which it objects, and, aided by a constant drumbeat of Hollywood films depicting these abuses with dramatic flare intended to increase ticket sales, has helped create an environment in which any conspiracy seems plausible. According to Robert Alan Goldberg, in his book Enemies Within: The Culture of Conspiracy in America:”Media merchandisers legitimize conspiracy thinking and give it broad appeal. Their images remain in the public mind, forever shaping new experiences into consistent patterns. Government authorities also support the conspiracist case by echoing the fear of subversion or offering proof of collusion by abusing power or betraying the people’s trust.”In essence, conspiracism is an American tradition.” [p. 260]Increased government secrecy since 9/11 has fed further suspicion and increased conspiracism, suggesting that an open and thorough Congressional investigation would be an antidote to burgeoning conspiracism.
The suggestion of government foreknowledge of the 9/11 attacks has been accelerated by claims made by Michael C. Ruppert, a former police officer who runs an anti-CIA website: From the Wilderness (copvcia.com). Ruppert has been featured on KPFA, the same Pacifica station on which McKinney made her comments. Ruppert claims to work closely with McKinney, and her remarks echoed the claims of Ruppert whose theories have gained considerable attention since 9/11.
Nation columnist David Corn criticized Ruppert in a March 1, 2002 essay on Alternet, “When 9/11 Conspiracy Theories Go Bad.” According to Corn:
I won’t argue that the U.S. government does not engage in brutal, murderous skulduggery from time to time. But the notion that the U.S. government either detected the attacks but allowed them to occur, or, worse, conspired to kill thousands of Americans to launch a war-for-oil in Afghanistan is absurd.”Corn singled out Ruppert as a major source of this allegation.
Bill Weinberg, David Corn, and columnist Norman Solomon all have written sharp criticisms of Ruppert. Solomon sent a letter to KPFA questioning the decision to give Ruppert so much airtime. When Ruppert complained this was censorship, Solomon wrote a follow-up response. All of these criticisms along with responses by Ruppert and his allies have now circulated publicly on the Internet. Ruppert is very aggressive in defending his views. Criticisms of Ruppert’s conspiracism that I made several months ago prompted a threat of a lawsuit by Ruppert (See earlier Berlet statement).
I oppose censorship, but editorial judgment by radio station editors is not censorship. The issue is whether or not Ruppert’s claims are worth airing. That is an editorial judgment. Along with Weinberg, Corn, and Solomon, I think Ruppert steps over the line into conspiracist allegations that fall short of journalistic standards of evidence and proof. Airing the views of personable conspiracists has been a problem before on various Pacifica radio stations. The case of Craig Hulet during the Gulf War is an example, as is the more recent example of Jim Marrs. All of these figures make assertions that do not stand up to close scrutiny.
It’s not censorship for there be some basic standards for airing material. Otherwise, anyone who criticizes the government should be aired on Pacifica stations. Does that make sense?
Michael C. Ruppert is a tougher call. He calls himself a “truth seeker,” rejecting the idea that his theories are rooted in right-wing lore, and seeks open alliance with the left. Ruppert, however, makes sweeping claims that cannot be verified at a time when there is some much verifiable wrongdoing by the government and corporations that the outcome, no matter how unintentional, is that Ruppert’s allegations serve to distract from serious progressive opposition to the status quo and sometimes even discredit it.
Norman Solomon warned KPFA about the dangers of conspiracism:
…such programming, when it is “successful,” encourages people to fixate on the specter of a diabolical few plotters rather than on the profoundly harmful realities of ongoing structural, institutional, systemic factors. When logic becomes secondary to flashy claims, and when assertions unsupported by evidence become touted as hard-edged fact, any temporary “sizzle” hardly compensates for the longer-term damage done to the station’s standards. A key question remains: Aren’t the well-documented crimes of the U.S. government and huge corporations enough to merit our ongoing outrage, focused attention and activism?
Another group of conspiracy theories that flourished after 9/11 involved various forms of antisemitism. In most of these theories there were false assumption conflating Jewish religion and ethnicity, Israel, Zionism, and the current Israeli government. Sometimes the assertion was that Jews controlled U.S. foreign policy, while in other cases there were outright claims that the Israeli intelligence service Mossad had staged the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. One widespread rumor claimed that 4,000 Jews had been warned to not report to work at the World Trade Center, and argued that this was proof that Israel was behind the attacks. Many of the pages that carried antisemitic conspiracism concerning 9/11 have now vanished.
Basic to developing new analytical frameworks for studying neofascism is the need to rethink the definition of populism. In the late 1800’s in the US an agrarian-based popular mass revolt swept much of the country. Historian Lawrence Goodwyn described this original Populist movement in the US as “the flowering of the largest democratic mass movement in American history.”This and other romanticized views see populist movements as inherently progressive and democratizing. It is as overly optimistic as the view of populism by centrist/extremist theory (as postulated by Bell, Lipset, Raab, and others) is overly pessimistic.As Margaret Canovan observed in her book, Populism, “like its rivals, Goodwyn’s interpretation has a political ax to grind.”
Canovan defined two main branches of populism worldwide-agrarian and political-and mapped out seven disparate sub-categories.
- Commodity farmer movements with radical economic agendas such as the US People’s Party of the late 1800’s.
- Subsistence peasant movements such as the East European Green Rising,
- Intellectuals who wistfully romanticize hard-working farmers and peasants and build radical agrarian movements like the Russian narodniki.
- Populist democracy, including calls for more political participation, including the use of the popular referendum.
- Politicians’ populism marked by non-ideological appeals for “the people” to build a unified coalition.
- Reactionary populism such as the White backlash harvested by George Wallace,
- Populist dictatorship such as that established by Peron in Argentina.
Populist democracy is championed by progressives from the LaFollettes of Wisconsin to Jesse Jackson. Politicians’ populism, reactionary populism, and populist dictatorship are antidemocratic forms of right wing populism characterized in various combinations in the 1990s by Ross Perot, Pat Robertson, Pat Buchanan, and David Duke…four straight White Christian men trying to ride the same horse.
Canovan notes that there are “a great many interconnections” among the seven forms of populism, and that “[m]any actual phenomena-perhaps most-belong in more than one category,” She adds that “given the contradictions” between some of the categories, “none ever could satisfy all the conditions at once.” Combinations can vary. Populism in the US “combined farmers’ radicalism and populist democracy.”There are only two universal elements; Canovan’s study shows that all forms of populism “involve some kind of exaltation of and appeal to `the people,’ and all are in one sense or another antielitist.”
In his book The Populist Persuasion Michael Kazin traces “two different but not exclusive strains of vision and protest” in the original US Populist movement: the revivalist “pietistic impulse issuing from the Protestant Reformation;” and the “secular faith of the Enlightenment, the belief that ordinary people could think and act rationally, more rationally, in fact, than their ancestral overlords.”
Kazin argues that populism is “a persistent yet mutable style of political rhetoric with roots deep in the nineteenth century.” His view compliments Canovan’s typology. These and other even-handed assessments of populism see that it can move to the left or right. It can be tolerant or intolerant. It can promote civil discourse and political participation or promote scapegoating, demagoguery, and conspiracism. Populism can oppose the status quo and challenge elites to promote change, or support the status quo to defend “the people” against a perceived threat by elites or subversive outsiders.
The late 19th-century US populist movement had many praiseworthy features. As Lyons notes, “It promoted forms of mass democratic participation; popularized anti-monopolism and trust-busting sentiments, put the brakes on the greediest corporate pillagers and the concentration of economic power; demanded accountability of elected officials; formed cooperatives that promoted humane working relationships and economic justice; and set the stage for substantial reforms in the economic system.” Kazin suggests that “when a new breed of inclusive grassroots movements does arise, intellectuals should contribute their time, their money, and their passion for justice. They should work to stress the harmonious, hopeful, and pragmatic aspects of populist language and to disparage the meaner ones….”
At the same time it is important to acknowledge that US populism drew. themes from several historic currents with potentially negative consequences, including:
- Producerism-the idea that the real Americans are hard-working people who create goods and wealth while fighting against parasites at the top and bottom of society who pick our pocket…sometimes promoting scapegoating and the blurring of issues of class and economic justice, and with a history of assuming proper citizenship is defined by White males;
- Anti-elitism-a suspicion of politicians, powerful people, the wealthy, and high culture…sometimes leading to conspiracist allegations about control of the world by secret elites, especially the scapegoating of Jews as sinister and powerful manipulators of the economy or media;
- Anti-intellectualism-a distrust of those pointy headed professors in their Ivory Towers…sometimes undercutting rational debate by discarding logic and factual evidence in favor of following the emotional appeals of demagogues;
- Majoritarianism-the notion that the will of the majority of people has absolute primacy in matters of governance…sacrificing rights for minorities, especially people of color;
- Moralism-evangelical-style campaigns rooted in Protestant revivalism… sometimes leading to authoritarian and theocratic attempts to impose orthodoxy, especially relating to gender.
- Americanism-a form of patriotic nationalism…often promoting ethnocentric, nativist, or xenophobic fears that immigrants bring alien ideas and customs that are toxic to our culture.
The resurgent right-wing forms of populism borrow from these traditions.
The danger of right-wing populist mass movements is that they have a potential to gravitate toward authoritarian or reactionary demands as their anger increases, and demagogues encourage scapegoating and conspiracism.
Producerism is often confused with progressive politics because of the anti-elite rhetoric, however progressive analysis targets systems and institutions while Producerism sees evil individual actors and generally targets scapegoats. According to Lyons, when right-wing populists feel squeezed between the powerful and the powerless:
They often mobilize to defend their limited privilege and fend off oppression from above, while at the same time attacking those below them on the socio-economic ladder to retain a status that at least keeps them off the bottom. In this way they are simultaneously buttressing some oppressive power relationships and systems of social control while seeking to overturn others. In practice it is important to note that attacks against those below tend to be much stronger and more substantive than the attacks on those above, which often tend to be mainly rhetorical.
The attacks on those below are shaped by ethnocentric systems of oppression in which people of color, ethnic and religious minorities, and immigrants are often targeted as the intrusive outsider threatening “the people.” Canovan laid out the basic themes of authoritarian and reactionary populism:
…a charismatic leader, using the tactics of politicians’ populism to go past the politicians and intellectual elite and appeal to the reactionary sentiments of the populace, often buttressing his claim to speak for the people by the use of referendums. When populism is attributed to right-wing figures-Hitler, de Gaulle, Codreanu, Father Coughlin-this is what the word conjures up.
Yet ostensibly left forms of populism can also involve demagoguery and fascist sympathies. Canovan explains that revolutionary populism involves the:
[R]omanticization of the people by intellectuals who turn against elitism and technological progress, who idealize the poor…assume that “the people” are united, reject ordinary politics in favor of spontaneous popular revolution, but are inclined to accept the claims of charismatic leaders that they represent the masses. This syndrome…can be found in some of the less elitist of the intellectuals who sympathized with fascism in its early stages.
Two versions of right wing populism have emerged in both the US and Europe: one centered around “get the government off my back” economic libertarianism coupled with a rejection of mainstream political parties (more attractive to the upper middle class and small entrepreneurs); the other based on xenophobia and ethnocentric nationalism (more attractive to the lower middle class and wage workers).
These different constituencies unite behind candidates that attack the current regime since both constituencies identify an intrusive government as the cause of their grievances. As Lyons has observed:
In the US the populist vision of cross-class unity is related to the dominant US ideology of classlessness, social mobility, and liberalism in general, but populism tends to break with political orthodoxy by circumventing normal channels and attacking established leadership groups, at least rhetorically.
Right-wing populist movements can cause serious damage to a society even if a significant fascist movement does not coalesce because they often popularize xenophobia, authoritarianism, scapegoating, and conspiracism. This can legitimize acts of discrimination, or even violence. Scapegoating has already become mainstream in US political/electoral circles, and it has both economic and social roots.
Right wing populism pulls political systems to the right as politicians pick up scapegoating as a tool to build electoral constituencies.
Lucy A. Williams has studied the welfare debate in the US and concludes as follows:
“The development of a right-wing populist movement, based on fear and nostalgia [which] led to the scapegoating of welfare recipients as the cause of all economic and social woes. Race and gender played central roles in the promotion of the stereotype of the unworthy welfare recipient. The Right used welfare as a wedge issue, an issue which could pry voters away from their traditional allegiances.”
And Jean Hardisty has observed, “Several different forms of prejudice can now be advocated under the guise of populism.”
Right wing populism can also open the door for revolutionary right-wing movements such as fascism to recruit from the reformist populist movements by arguing that more drastic action is needed.
What is Right-Wing Populism?
by Chip Berlet and Matthew N. Lyons
Adapted and condensed from the Introduction to Right-Wing Populism in America:
Canovan argues: all forms of populism “involve some kind of exaltation of and appeal to ´the people,´ and all are in one sense or another antielitist.” We take these two elements—celebration of “the people” plus some form of antielitism—as a working definition of populism.
A populist movement—as opposed, for example, to one-shot populist appeals in an election campaign—uses populist themes to mobilize a mass constituency as a sustained political or social force. Our discussion of populism will focus mainly on populist movements.
Michael Kazin calls populism a style of organizing. Populist movements can be on the right, the left, or in the center. They can be egalitarian or authoritarian, and can rely on decentralized networks or a charismatic leader. They can advocate new social and political relations or romanticize the past.
Especially important for our purposes, populist movements can promote forms of antielitism that target either genuine structures of oppression or scapegoats alleged to be part of a secret conspiracy. And they can define “the people” in ways that are inclusive and challenge traditional hierarchies, or in ways that silence or demonize oppressed groups.
Repressive Populism and Right-Wing Populism
We use the term repressive populist movement to describe a populist movement that combines antielite scapegoating (discussed below) with efforts to maintain or intensify systems of social privilege and power. Repressive populist movements are fueled in large part by people’s grievances against their own oppression but they deflect popular discontent away from positive social change by targeting only small sections of the elite or groups falsely identified with the elite, and especially by channeling most anger against oppressed or marginalized groups that offer more vulnerable targets.
Right-wing populist movements are a subset of repressive populist movements. A right-wing populist movement, as we use the term, is a repressive populist movement motivated or defined centrally by a backlash against liberation movements, social reform, or revolution. This does not mean that right-wing populism’s goals are only defensive or reactive, but rather that its growth is fueled in a central way by fears of the Left and its political gains.
The first U.S. populist movement we would unequivocally describe as right wing was the Reconstruction-era Ku Klux Klan, which was a counterrevolutionary backlash against the overthrow of slavery and Black people’s mass mobilization and empowerment in the post-Civil War South. Earlier repressive populist movements paved the way for right-wing populism, but did not have this same backlash quality as a central feature.
MINI-BIBLIOGRAPHY: RIGHT-WING POPULISM
- Berlet, Chip and Matthew N. Lyons. 2000. Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort. New York: Guilford Press.
- Betz, Hans-Georg and Stefan Immerfall, eds. 1998. The New Politics of the Right: Neo-Populist Parties and Movements in Established Democracies . New York: St. Martin’s Press.
- Betz, Hans-Georg. 1994. Radical Right-wing Populism in Western Europe , New York : St. Martins Press,.
- Canovan, Margaret. 1981. Populism. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
- Carter, Dan T. 1995. The Politics of Rage: George Wallace, the Origins of the New Conservatism, and the Transformation of American Politics . New York: Simon and Schuster.
- Frank, Thomas. What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. New York : Henry Holt.
- Hardisty, Jean V. 1999. Mobilizing Resentment: Conservative Resurgence from the John Birch Society to the Promise Keepers. Boston: Beacon Press.
- Kazin, Michael. 1995. The Populist Persuasion: An American History . New York: Basic Books.
- Kintz, Linda. 1997. Between Jesus and the Market: The Emotions that Matter in Right-Wing America. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
- Laclau, Ernesto. 1977. Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory: Capitalism, Fascism, Populism. London: NLB/Atlantic Highlands Humanities Press.
- Stock, Catherine McNicol. 1996. Rural Radicals: Righteous Rage in the American Grain, Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.
Populism as Core Element of Fascism
Fascism parasitizes other ideologies, includes many internal tensions and contradictions, and has chameleon-like adaptations based on the specific historic symbols, icons, slogans, traditions, myths, and heroes of the society it wishes to mobilize. In addition, fascism as a social movement often acts dramatically different from fascism once it holds state power. When holding state power, fascism tends to be rigidly hierarchical, authoritarian, and elitist. As a social movement fascism employs populist appeals against the current regime and promises a dramatic and quick transformation of the status quo.
Right-wing populism can act as both a precursor and a building block of fascism, with anti-elitist conspiracism and ethnocentric scapegoating as shared elements.The dynamic of right-wing populism interacting with and facilitating fascism in interwar Germany was chronicled by Peter Fritzsche in Rehearsals for Fascism: Populism and Political Mobilization in Weimar Germany. Fritzsche showed that distressed middle-class populists in Weimar launched bitter attacks against both the government and big business.This populist surge was later exploited by the Nazis which parasitized the forms and themes of the populists and moved their constituencies far to the right through ideological appeals involving demagoguery, scapegoating, and conspiracism.
The Nazis expressed the populist yearnings of middle-class constituents and at the same time advocated a strong and resolutely anti-Marxist mobilization….Against “unnaturally” divisive parties and querulous organized interest groups, National Socialists cast themselves as representatives of the commonweal, of an allegedly betrayed and neglected German public….[b]reaking social barriers of status and caste, and celebrating at least rhetorically the populist ideal of the people’s community…
This populist rhetoric of the Nazis, focused the pre-existing “resentments of ordinary middle-class Germans against the bourgeois `establishment’ and against economic and political privilege, and by promising the resolution of these resentments in a forward-looking, technologically capable volkisch `utopia,'” according to Fritzsche.
As Umberto Eco explains, however, the populist rhetoric of fascism is selective and illusive:
…individuals as individuals have no rights, and the People is conceived as a quality, a monolithic entity expressing the Common Will. Since no large quantity of human beings can have a common will, the Leader pretends to be their interpreter. Having lost their power of delegation, citizens do not act; they are only called on to play the role of the People. Thus the People is a theatrical fiction….There is in our future a TV or Internet populism, in which the emotional response of a selected group of citizens can be presented and accepted as the Voice of the People….Wherever a politician casts doubt on the legitimacy of a parliament because it no longer represents the Voice of the People, we can smell…Fascism.”
Fritzsche observed that “German fascism would have been inconceivable without the profound transformation” of mainstream electoral politics in the 1920’s “which saw the dissolution of traditional party allegiances.”He also argued that the Nazis, while an electorally-focused movement, had more in common rhetorically and stylistically with middle class reform movements than backwards looking reactionary movements.So the Nazis as a movement appeared to provide for radical social change while actually moving its constituency to the right.
There are differences between US and European right wing populism. Matthew N. Lyons says the following:
“Unlike the European countries, capitalism [in the US] did not emerge from feudal society, but rather was imposed abruptly through a special kind of mass colonial conquest. . .primarily the rule of White nationalism,”
“In the US the populist vision of cross-class unity is related to the dominant US ideology of classlessness, social mobility, and liberalism in general, but populism tends to break with political orthodoxy by circumventing normal channels and attacking established leadership groups, at least rhetorically.”
“White nationalism has meant (a) the absence of feudal remnants and the pervasiveness of liberal capitalist doctrines and institutions, and (b) a racial caste system that made working-class Euro-Americans part of a socially privileged White collective.
The success of fascist movements in attracting members from reformist populist constituencies is due to many complex overlapping factors, but key factors are certainly the depth of the economic and social crisis and transformation of, and the degree of anger and frustration of those who see their demands not being met. Desperate people turn to desperate solutions.
4. Propaganda & Deception
By Chip Berlet
Flaws of Logic, Fallacies of Debate
Investigative reporting and progressive research took a detour during the probe of the Iran-Contra affair. Because the executive branch was engaged in a coverup, and Congress refused to demand a full accounting, speculation about conspiracies blossomed. There certainly are conspiracies afoot in the halls of government and private industry. Documenting illegal conspiracies is routinely accomplished by prosecutors who present their evidence to a judge or jury. The burden of proof can be high, as it should be in a democracy. Journalists frequently document conspiracies, and their published or broadcast charges can be tested against standards of journalistic ethics and sometimes in court in cases of alleged libel and slander.
Coverage of unsubstantiated conspiracy theories in recent years, however, routinely violated common journalistic practices regarding second sourcing. A theory that cannot be documented, or for which there is only one source of questionable credibility, is a rumor…not investigative journalism.
With so much political and journalistic confusion it is useful to remember that academia has produced a long list of useful tools and techniques to evaluate the logical and conceptual validity of any argument regardless of political content or viewpoint.
Useful rational standards by which to judge the merits of any statement or theory are easily found in textbooks on debate, rhetoric, argument, and logic. These books discuss which techniques of argumentation are not valid because they fail to follow the rules of logic. There are many common fallacious techniques or inadequate proofs:
- Raising the volume, increasing the stridency, or stressing the emotionalism of an argument does not improve its validity. This is called argument by exhortation. It is often a form of demagoguery, bullying or emotional manipulation.
- Sequence does not imply causation. If Joan is elected to the board of directors of a bank on May 1, and Raul gets a loan on July 26, further evidence is needed to prove a direct or causal connection. Sequence can be a piece of a puzzle, but other causal links need to be further investigated.
- Congruence in one or more elements does not establish congruence in all elements. Gloria Steinem and Jeane J. Kirkpatrick are both intelligent, assertive women accomplished in political activism and persuasive rhetoric. To assume they therefore also agree politically would be ludicrous. If milk is white and powdered chalk is white, would you drink a glass of powdered chalk?
- Association does not imply agreement, hence the phrase “guilt by association”has a pejorative meaning. Association proves association; it suggests further questions are appropriate, and demonstrates the parameters of networks, coalitions, and personal moral distinctions, nothing more. Tracking association can lead to further investigation that produces useful evidence, but a database is not an analysis and a spiderweb chart is not an argument. The connections may be meaningful, random, or related to an activity unrelated to the one being probed.
- Participation in an activity, or presence at an event, does not imply control.
- Similarity in activity does not imply joint activity and joint activity does not imply congruent motivation. When a person serves in an official advisory role or acts in a position of responsibility within a group, however, the burden of proof shifts to favor a presumption that such a person is not a mere member or associate, but probably embraces a considerable portion of the sentiments expressed by the group. Still, even members of boards of directors will distance themselves from a particular stance adopted by a group they oversee, and therefore it is not legitimate to assume automatically that they personally hold a view expressed by the group or other board members. It is legitimate to assert that they need to distance themselves publicly from a particular organizational position if they wish to disassociate themselves from it.
- Anecdotes alone are not conclusive evidence. Anecdotes are used to illustrate a thesis, not to prove it. A good story-teller can certainly be mesmerizing-consider Ronald Reagan-but if skill in story-telling and acting is the criteria for political leadership, Ossie Davis would have been president, not Ronald Reagan. This anecdote illustrates that anecdotes alone are not conclusive evidence, even though most progressives would think that Davis would have been a kindler, gentler president than Reagan or Bush.
Techniques of the Propagandist
In 1923 Edward L. Bernays wrote the book Crystallizing Public Opinion and later, in 1928, the text Propaganda, considered seminal works in the field. “There is propaganda and what I call impropaganda,” said the 98-year-old Bernays impishly, a few years prior to his death. Propaganda originally meant promoting any idea or item, but took on its current pejorative sense following the extensive use of sinister propaganda for malicious goals during World War I and World War II. While all persuasion uses the techniques of traditional propaganda, what Bernays calls “impropaganda”is “using propaganda techniques not in accordance with good sense, good faith, or good morals…methods not consistent with the American pattern of behavior based on Judeo-Christian ethics.” Bernays, who is called the “father of public relations,”is worried about the increased use of “impropaganda”in political campaigns and has spoken out against it. “Politicians who use techniques like these lose the faith of the people,” says Bernays.
In 1936 Boston merchant Edward Filene helped establish the short-lived Institute for Propaganda Analysis which sought to educate Americans to recognize propaganda techniques. Alfred McClung Lee, Institute director from 1940-42, and his wife Elizabeth Briant Lee, co-authors of The Fine Art of Propaganda, Social Problems in America, recently wrote an article in the periodical Propaganda Reviewin which they suggested educating the public about propaganda techniques was an urgent priority. The Lees also discussed the Institute’s symbols for the seven hallmark tricks of the manipulative propagandist:
- Name Calling: hanging a bad label on an idea, symbolized by a hand turning thumbs down;
- Card Stacking: selective use of facts or outright falsehoods, symbolized by an ace of spades, a card signifying treachery;
- Band Wagon: a claim that everyone like us thinks this way, symbolized by a marching bandleader’s hat and baton;
- Testimonial: the association of a respected or hated person with an idea, symbolized by a seal and ribbon stamp of approval;
- Plain Folks: a technique whereby the idea and its proponents are linked to “people just like you and me,” symbolized by an old shoe;
- Transfer: an assertion of a connection between something valued or hated and the idea or commodity being discussed, symbolized by a smiling Greek theater mask; and
- Glittering Generality: an association of something with a “virtue word” to gain approval without examining the evidence; symbolized by a sparkling gem.
The Institute’s last newsletter reflected that “in modern society an element of propaganda is present in a large portion of human affairs…people need to be able to recognize this element even when it is serving `good’ ends.”