POLITICS, CONSPIRACY THEORIES, AND WHAT TO BELIEVE
POLITICS, CONSPIRACY THEORIES, AND WHAT TO BELIEVE by Rick Feinberg
“Alternative facts” and conspiracy theories have been around for ages. But in present-day America, with claims of a “stolen” presidential election, the January 6th invasion of the US capitol, and anxiety about potential future attacks, the threat has reached unprecedented levels.
QAnon’s assertions are dismissed as fantasy, both by mainstream media and almost every thoughtful person. My own embrace of science and commitment to social justice place me at odds with Proud Boys, Three Percenters, and other White nationalist conspiracy mongers. Yet, my job as a cultural anthropologist is to comprehend the world as it appears to others with opposing viewpoints. Furthermore, as I look back at my political experience, I find some surprising points of convergence.
In the early 1960s, I took part in Civil Rights demonstrations. From 1965 – 69, I attended the University of California at Berkeley, was active in the student movement, and helped organize rallies and demonstrations in opposition to the Vietnam war. I got to know such figures as SDS founder Tom Hayden, Chicago Seven defendants Jerry Rubin and Bobby Seale, and Peter Camejo of the Socialist Workers Party, who later ran for Vice President as Ralph Nader’s Green Party running mate. I sat in at Sproul Hall, Berkeley’s administration building, in support of “Social Analysis 139X,” a student-initiated course that was to be taught by Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver. I participated in the “Third World Liberation Front” student strike, in an effort to establish what today would be termed a college of ethnic studies. And I covered the events surrounding “People’s Park” for an alternative newspaper. In short. I diametrically oppose the insurrectionists who stormed the capitol.
All these years later, I still identify as a democratic socialist. By “democratic,” I refer to an expectation that society will glean greatest benefit from a government—to use Abe Lincoln’s words—of, by, and for the people. By “socialist,” I envision a world built on empathy and cooperation rather than individual competition for monetary gain. Many on the political right might agree with my first point, at least in principle. Regarding the second, I imagine energetic debate.
As a socialist, I perceive society to be divided between the rich and the poor, the “haves” and the “have-nots.” This may also be described as a division between the “upper” or “capitalist” class and the “lower” or “working” class. And I believe our economic division is reflected in the political system.
To run a political campaign requires ample resources. Those who hold such resources start with an immense advantage. Candidates of modest means must make themselves sufficiently appealing to wealthy plutocrats to secure their support. There are, of course, exceptions. Bernie Sanders built a campaign war chest by securing large numbers of small contributions. At the national level, however, such cases are rare.
Despite certain parallels with QAnon, The Proud Boys, and the Three Percenters, I don’t attribute most government policies to a secret cabal. I simply assume that people tend to do what they believe is in their interest most of the time. Rich folks want to keep their wealth and try to maximize the chance of that occurring.
The picture is complex. Some wealthy individuals are generous and empathetic. They donate fortunes to charity. A few have fought for anti-trust legislation, social security, Medicare, and other programs designed to help Americans at large. For some, this is based on a calculation that angering the poor is unwise, and social stability is ultimately in their interest. Other benefactors wish to be remembered as champions of social welfare. For still others, magnanimity stems from genuine concern about the health and happiness of those with fewer resources.
At the same time, it is clear, conspiracies exist. In Ohio, my home state, a major energy company was recently discovered to have channeled millions of dollars of dark money to the campaign of a leading state legislator with the understanding that once elected he would funnel millions more back to the company. Charges have been filed against the perpetrators, and a few have pled guilty. Such plots are not the norm, and in this case the culprits were exposed by other government agents. Nonetheless, such schemes exist, and while they sometimes are unmasked, many probably go undetected.
Given this assessment, conspiracy theories may be mistaken, but are not irrational. I understand why countless poor and dispossessed Americans perceive their country as controlled by a small, secretive clique that operates for its own benefit and keeps others at bay. And I comprehend the appeal of our former president, who promises to expose the cabal and change the country’s direction. His minions, I contend, see a real problem but are offtrack in their identification of the cause and solution.
The lesson, if I’m right, is not to dismiss the insurrectionists as preposterous or stupid. Rather, it is to suggest that other explanations may make equal sense without requiring a comparable leap of faith.
Above all, I propose approaching complex problems with humility. I doubt I am unique in having, at times, felt certain of something that I later found to be untrue. That awareness has instilled in me a dose of skepticism. I remind myself to question my conclusions and seek confirmation whenever possible. If we can convey that message to others with whom we disagree, perhaps in the end we’ll find a way to come together.
Rick Feinberg is professor emeritus of Anthropology at Kent State University and a member of Akron DSA and AAUP