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  • Conspiracy Theories and the Paranoid Style(s)of Mass Opinion

    J. Eric Oliver University of ChicagoThomas J. Wood University of Chicago

    Although conspiracy theories have long been a staple of American political culture, no research has systematically examinedthe nature of their support in the mass public. Using four nationally representative surveys, sampled between 2006 and 2011,we find that half of the American public consistently endorses at least one conspiracy theory and that many popular conspiracytheories are differentiated along ideological and anomic dimensions. In contrast with many theoretical speculations, we donot find conspiracism to be a product of greater authoritarianism, ignorance, or political conservatism. Rather, the likelihoodof supporting conspiracy theories is strongly predicted by a willingness to believe in other unseen, intentional forces andan attraction to Manichean narratives. These findings both demonstrate the widespread allure of conspiracy theories aspolitical explanations and offer new perspectives on the forces that shape mass opinion and American political culture.

    Throughout their history, Americans have demon-strated high levels of suspicion towards central-ized authority and their political elites (Barber1983; Hart 1978). Often these sentiments go beyond ageneral distrust of government and encapsulate fears oflarger, secretive conspiracies. From the anti-Catholic andanti-Masonic movements of the nineteenth century tothe Red Scares of the twentieth, Americans periodi-cally have organized themselves around narratives abouthidden, malevolent groups secretly perpetuating politicalplots and social calamities to further their own nefari-ous goals, what we would define as conspiracy theory(Davis 1971). Today, conspiratorial theories exist on sub-jects ranging from the Kennedy assassination to the 2013Boston Marathon bombings and appear to have wide cir-culation in the mass population. For instance, in a recentstudy by Stempel, Hargrove, and Stempel (2007), nearlya third of American respondents agreed that federal offi-cials either assisted in the attacks of September 11th or didnothing to stop them in order to go to war in the MiddleEast.

    Although scholars have long theorized about theparanoid style of American politics (Barkun 2003;Fenster 1999; Hofstadter 1964), none have estimated

    J. Eric Oliver is Professor of Political Science, University of Chicago, Pick Hall 518, 5828 South University Avenue, Chicago, IL 60637( Thomas J. Wood is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science, University of Chicago, Pick Hall 518A, 5828 SouthUniversity, Chicago, IL 60637 (

    This research was supported by a research grant from the University of Chicago. We are grateful to Betsy Sinclair, Kirk Hawkins, andattendees at the 2011 CCES conference for their suggestions on this research. Replication data and code for this article may be found at theAJPS Dataverse website at

    the pervasiveness of conspiratorial thinking in the gen-eral public or empirically demonstrated why Americansdo endorse conspiracy theories. Most scholarship aboutconspiracy theories in America has focused more oninterpretive analyses of the theories themselves ratherthan on empirical research about their support in themass public (e.g., Clarke 2002; Davis 1971; Marcus 1999;Melley 1999). The few empirical studies are inconclu-sive because they asked only a few scattered questions ei-ther about specific theories (e.g., Stempel, Hargrove, andStempel 2007) or about conspiratorial reasoning amongspecific subpopulations (e.g., Barreto et al. 2011; Crockeret al. 1999; Darwin, Neave, and Holmes 2011; Douglas& Sutton 2008; Goertzel 1994; Parsons et al. 1999). Toour knowledge, there is no research that systematicallyexamines support for a wide selection of conspiratorialnarratives across a representative sample of the entireAmerican population. Given the historical pervasivenessof conspiratorial thinking, this is itself a significant over-sight in studies of American politics and public opinion.

    More importantly, if such conspiracy theories areas widely accepted as both the historical record andprevious research suggest, then it should force us toreconsider our general understanding of both mass

    American Journal of Political Science, Vol. 58, No. 4, October 2014, Pp. 952966

    C2014, Midwest Political Science Association DOI: 10.1111/ajps.12084



    opinion formation and American political culture. Mostscholarly models prioritize elite discourse and ideologicalpredispositions as the driving engines of public opinion(e.g., Erikson, Luttbeg, and Tedin 2010; Zaller 1992), yetmost conspiracy theories directly contradict mainstreamexplanations for public events and are usually suspiciousof political elites. This presents something of a puzzle: ifpublic opinion is so determined by elite discourse, thenhow can a set of beliefs that openly question the sincerityof political elites and the dominant narratives for politicalevents be embraced by the mass public? Widespreadbelief in conspiracy theories (what henceforth will bereferred to as conspiracism) would suggest that a setof unrecognized factors shapes the way most Americansunderstand politics.

    This article examines the extent and determinantsof conspiracism in the United States. We theorize thatconspiracism is much like conventional forms of publicopinion in that it is motivated by specific political mes-sages and individual predispositions; what differentiatesconspiracism is the content of its motivating narrativesand the types of predispositions it evokes. Specifically,conspiracism is animated less by misinformation, para-noia, or political mistrust, and more by attributional pro-clivities that are commonly expressed in supernatural andparanormal beliefs. Conspiracism is also motivated by thecompelling narrative structures of most conspiracy the-ories themselves, particularly in their Manichean world-view.1 Four nationally representative survey samples col-lected in 2006, 2010, and 2011 indicate that over half ofthe American population consistently endorse some kindof conspiratorial narrative about a current political eventor phenomenon and that these attitudes are predicted bysupernatural, paranormal, and Manichean sentiments.These findings suggest that conspiracism is not only animportant element in American political culture, but alsois expressive of some latent and powerful organizing prin-ciples behind American mass opinion.

    Conspiracism as a Form of PublicOpinion

    Given the fantastical and implausible assertions of manyconspiracy theories, it is understandable that they are of-

    1This term is borrowed from early Persian religion, which placedparticular emphasis on a contest between forces of light and dark-ness. In this context, a Manichean worldview is adopted whena person believes that political events are the consequence of acontest between good people and malevolent people, rather thanbetween self-interested actors possessed of different perspectivesand priorities.

    ten dismissed as manifestations of a latent psychopathol-ogy (Clarke 2002; Robins and Post 1997), a product ofgross misinformation (Berinsky 2011), or a crippledepistemology (Sunstein and Vermeule 2009). For thisresearch, we remain decidedly agnostic about the truthclaims, accuracy, or epistemological integrity of commonconspiracy theories. Our interest is simply in explainingwhy some people endorse them. We start with the asser-tion that conspiracy theories are simply another type ofpolitical discourse that provides a frame of interpretationfor public events. We also consider conspiracism as simplya particular form of public opinion and, as such, subject tothe same defining influences of conventional mass belief(Erikson, Luttbeg, and Tedin 2010). Like ordinary publicopinion, conspiracist opinion is highly influenced by en-counters with elite discourse, in this case the conspiracynarratives.2 Whether citizens accept these narratives de-pends on their prior predispositions.3 When members ofthe public are asked about their conspiracist beliefs, theyeffectively sample from the mix of prior information,public signals, and predispositions to generate a surveyresponse, the same as they do with conventional politicalquestions (Zaller 1992).

    What distinguishes conspiracism from conventionalopinion is the nature of its animating political narrativesand the latent predispositions that it activates. Althoughthe sheer number and variety of conspiratorial narrativesdefy any easy categorization, previous scholarship sug-gests that most conspiracy theories have three commoncharacteristics (Barkun 2003). First, they locate the sourceof unusual social and political phenomena in unseen, in-tentional, and malevolent forces. Second, they typicallyinterpret political events in terms of a Manichean strug-gle between good and evil. As Hofstadter (1964, p. 29)famously described, the distinguishing thing about theparanoid style is [to think] that a vast or gigantic con-spiracy is the motive force in historical events. History isa conspiracy, set in motion by demonic forces of almosttranscendent power Finally, most conspiracy theoriessuggest that mainstream accounts of political events area ruse or an attempt to distract the public from a hiddensource of power (Fenster 2008).

    The question remains about what types of predis-positions these conspiracy narratives will activate. Most

    2For example, Zaller (1992) defines elite political discourse as pro-viding a depiction of reality that is sufficiently simple and vividthat ordinary people can grasp it. . . . [I]t is unavoidably selec-tive and unavoidably enmeshed in stereotypical frames of referencethat highlight only a portion of what is goin


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