March 1, 2019 at 6:00 pm

Political Science Colloquium | Tinfoil Hat Politics: Taking Another Look at Conspiracy Thinking in American Politics, March 25

Dr. Judith Grant

Dr. Judith Grant

Dr. Judith Grant, Professor of Political Science, presents a talk on “Tinfoil Hat Politics: Taking Another Look at Conspiracy Thinking in American Politics” on Monday, March 25, from 11:50 a.m. to 12:50 Bentley Annex 202.

The talk is open to all students and faculty and is part of the department’s Research Colloquium series that features members of the department who present their ongoing and recent work. Grant’s research focuses on feminist theory and cultural studies.

Abstract: In a classic 1964 article, Richard Hofstadter identified a “paranoid style” in American Politics, one of the main features of which was the propensity for a belief in conspiracy theories about political power. Certainly, the rise of Donald Trump and his base have made conspiracy thinking increasingly relevant in American politics. But conspiracy theory thinking pre-dates its recent Trump related resurgence. In 1998 Hillary Clinton defended Bill Clinton by claiming that there was a “vast right-wing conspiracy” against him. Conspiracies also swirled in certain circles in response to George H.W. Bush’s 1991 speech announcing the arrival of “new world order.” The phrase, it was said, was a dog whistle signal to a secret power elite that they should advance a long-foretold globalist world government agenda.

It is tempting to dismiss all conspiracy thinking as “tinfoil hat” politics. However, many conspiracies which would on first hearing seem to be the product of paranoid lunacy, have turned out to be true. For example, the FBI really did infiltrate left wing groups with the intent of undermining democratic rights in its COINTELPRO operations. The CIA really did experiment with LSD on American citizens without their knowledge or consent. Oliver North really was in charge of a secret “black op” to sell weapons for profit to Iran in order to fund the “contras” in the civil war in Nicaragua in express violation of the Boland Amendment.

Is it naïve for serious scholars to continue to dismiss conspiracy theory out of hand when we know from the historical record that conspiracy and elite machinations have in fact occurred and do exist? In this talk, I revisit the idea of conspiracy as part of an attempt to open a discussion about productive ways for scholars to critically engage and respond to the mainstreaming of fringe beliefs about political power.

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