Fairleigh Dickinson University has released the results of a poll indicating the prevalence and persistence of conspiracy theories among Americans. The headline finding was that 36% of all Americans polled, including 64% of those identified as Republicans believe that the President is "hiding something," whether it be about his own past or skullduggery at the polls during the late elections. Fairleigh Dickinson itself headlines the alarming news that a quarter of those polled can be deemed "truthers," people who believe that the U.S. government had some specific foreknowledge about the September 2011 terrorist attacks in this country.
The pollsters seem to have revealed an important difference in the way Democrats and Republicans process information. They asked their respondents a series of questions about current events. Among Democrats, the more questions respondents answered correctly, the less likely they were to believe conspiracy theories. For Republicans, surprisingly, something opposite is true: each question answered correctly made them more likely to believe in conspiracy theories. Before we draw conclusions about ideology, however, we learn that blacks -- not exactly on the right as a group -- are more likely to believe conspiracy theories than whites; a majority are truthers, for instance. One pollster suggests that a sense of alienation or exclusion from power is key:“Groups that feel more distanced from the political process are more likely to believe that sinister forces are at work. These figures tell us more about a lack of trust in the political process than acceptance of particular conspiracies.” We shouldn't be surprised in our irrational political environment if even people with considerable political power feel alienated or distanced from "politics," depending on what people mean by that term. Conspiracy theory united the genuinely excluded -- or those who succumb to the paranoia of the excluded -- and those who echo the paranoia of the excluded, perhaps because they're paranoid first.
The President will always be a focus of conspiracy theory -- G.W. Bush can certainly empathize -- but I would have like to see whether Americans believe that other prominent people are "hiding something." Partisans will most likely believe that of their opposite numbers, Republicans suspecting Democrats of schemes to increase their power, Democrats suspecting Republicans of various moral hypocrisies, from sexual deviance to taking bribes. Conspiracy theory, of course, isn't restricted to the political sphere; the truly paranoid, I suppose, imagine that everyone has something to hide. That's one of the pitfalls of pluralism. It's hard for some people to trust that everyone is in fact one of us. At the same time, some of the same people would resist seeing themselves as simply one of us. Community is an ideal and a menace to many people; an ideal that others disrupt by their otherness; a menace if it means you have to change. Those we call totalitarians strove to solve this problem and found no neat solution; that's why they're hated today. If their way isn't an option, we're left to ask not whether we can end this insanity, but how much of it our system can stand.