Even before Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th president of the United States, the internet was seething with lurid conspiracy theories exposing his alleged subversion and treachery.
Among the many false claims: Obama was a secret Muslim; he was not a native U.S. citizen and his election as president should be overturned; he was a tool of the New World Order in a plot to merge the government of the United States into a North American union with Mexico and Canada.
Within hours of Obama’s inauguration, claims circulated that Obama was not really president because Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts scrambled the words as he administered the oath of office. A few days after the inauguration came a warning that Obama planned to impose martial law and collect all guns.
Many of these false claims recall those floated by right-wing conspiracy theorists in the armed citizens’ militia movement during the Clinton administration — allegations that percolated up through the media and were utilized by Republican political operatives to hobble the legislative agenda of the Democratic Party.
The conspiracy theory attacks on Clinton bogged down the entire government. Legislation became stuck in congressional committees, appointments to federal posts dwindled and positions remained unfilled, almost paralyzing some agencies and seriously hampering the federal courts.
A similar scenario is already hobbling the work of the Obama administration. The histrionics at congressional town hall meetings and conservative rallies is not simply craziness — it is part of an effective right-wing campaign based on scare tactics that have resonated throughout U.S. history among a white middle class fearful of alien ideas, people of color and immigrants.
Unable to block the appointment of Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court, the right-wing media demagogues, corporate political operatives, Christian right theocrats, and economic libertarians have targeted healthcare reform and succeeded in sidetracking the public option and single-payer proposals.
A talented environmental adviser to the Obama administration, Van Jones, was hounded into resigning Sept. 5 by a McCarthyite campaign of red-baiting and hyperbole. Support for major labor law reform has been eroding.
With a wink and a nod, right-wing apparatchiks are networking with the apocalyptic Christian right and resurgent armed militias — a volatile mix of movements awash in conspiracy theories. Scratch the surface and you find people peddling bogus conspiracy theories about liberal secular humanists, collectivist labor bosses, Muslim terrorists, Jewish cabals, homosexual child molesters and murderous abortionists.
This right-wing campaign is about scapegoating bogus targets by using conspiracy theories to distract attention from insurance companies who are the real culprits behind escalating healthcare costs.
Examples of right-wing conspiracy theories include the false claim that healthcare reform will include government bureaucrat “Death Panels” pulling the plug on grandma. Another is the claim that Obama is appointing unconstitutional project “Czars” More fraudulent conspiracy theories are being generated every week.
The core narrative of many popular conspiracy theories is that “the people” are held down by a conspiracy of wealthy secret elites manipulating a vast legion of corrupt politicians, mendacious journalists, propagandizing schoolteachers, nefarious bankers and hidden subversive cadres.
This is not an expression of a healthy political skepticism about state power or legitimate calls for reform or radical challenges to government or corporate abuses. This is an irrational anxiety that pictures the world as governed by powerful long-standing covert conspiracies of evildoers who control politics, the economy, and all of history. Scholars call this worldview “conspiracism.”
The term conspiracism, according to historian Frank P. Mintz, denotes a “belief in the primacy of conspiracies in the unfolding of history.” Mintz explains: “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. As such, conspiracy theories do not typify a particular epoch or ideology.”
When conspiracism becomes a mass phenomenon, persons seeking to protect the nation from the alleged conspiracy create counter movements to halt the subversion. Historians dub them countersubversives.
The resulting right-wing populist conspiracy theories point upward toward “parasitic elites” seen as promoting collectivist and socialist schemes leading to tyranny. At the same time, the counter-subversives point downward toward the “undeserving poor” who are seen as lazy and sinful and being riled up by subversive community organizers. Sound familiar?
Right-wing demagogues reach out to this supposedly beleaguered white middle class of “producers” and encourage them to see themselves as being inexorably squeezed by parasitic traitors above and below. The rage is directed upwards against a caricature of the conspiratorial “faceless bureaucrats,” “banksters” and “plutocrats” rather than challenging an unfair economic system run on behalf of the wealthy and corporate interests. The attacks and oppression generated by this populist white rage, however, is painfully felt by people lower on the socio-economic ladder, and historically this has been people of color, immigrants and other marginalized groups.
It is this overarching counter-subversive conspiracy theory that has mobilized so many people; and the clueless Democrats have been caught unaware by the tactics of right-wing populism used successfully for the last 100 years and chronicled by dozens of authors.
The techniques for mobilizing countersubversive right-wing populists include “tools of fear”: dualism, demonization, scapegoating, and apocalyptic aggression.
When these are blended with conspiracy theories about elite and lazy parasites, the combination is toxic to democracy.
Dualism is simply the tendency to see the world in a binary model in which the forces of absolute good are struggling against the forces of absolute evil. This can be cast in religious or secular story lines or “narratives.”
Scapegoating involves wrongly stereotyping a person or group of people as sharing negative traits and blaming them for societal problems, while the primary source of the problem (if it is real) is overlooked or absolved of blame. Scapegoating can become a mass phenomenon when a social or political movement does the stereotyping. It is easier to scapegoat a group if it is first demonized.
Demonization is a process through which people target individuals or groups as the embodiment of evil, turning individuals in scapegoated groups into an undifferentiated, faceless force threatening the idealized community. The sequence moves from denigration to dehumanization to demonization, and each step generates an increasing level of hatred of the objectified and scapegoated “Other.”
One way to demonize a target group is to claim that the scapegoated group is plotting against the public good. This often involves demagogic appeals.
Conspiracism frames demonized enemies “as part of a vast insidious plot against the common good, while it valorizes the scapegoater as a hero for sounding the alarm.” Conspiracist thinking can move easily from the margins to the mainstream, as has happened repeatedly in the United States. Several scholars have argued that historic and contemporary conspiracism, especially the apocalyptic form, is a more widely shared worldview in the United States than in most other industrialized countries.
Conspiracism gains a mass following in times of social, cultural, economic, or political stress. The issues of immigration, demands for racial or gender equality, gay rights, power struggles between nations, wars — all can be viewed through a conspiracist lens.
Historian Richard Hofstadter established the leading analytical framework in the 1960s for studying conspiracism in public settings in his essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” He identified “the central preconception” of the paranoid style as a belief in the “existence of a vast, insidious, preternaturally effective international conspiratorial network designed to perpetrate acts of the most fiendish character.”
According to Hofstadter, this was common in certain figures in the political right, and was accompanied with a “sense that his political passions are unselfish and patriotic” which “goes far to intensify his feeling of righteousness and his moral indignation.”
According to Michael Barkun, professor of political science at Syracuse University, conspiracism attracts people because conspiracy theorists “claim to explain what others can’t. They appear to make sense out of a world that is otherwise confusing.” There is an appealing simplicity in dividing the world sharply into good and bad and tracing “all evil back to a single source, the conspirators and their agents.”
COVER OBAMA’S BACK, BUT KICK HIS BUTT
Today, when you hear the right-wing demagogues whipping up the anti-Obama frenzy, you now know they are speaking a coded language that traces back to Social Darwinist defenses of “Free Market” capitalism and to xenophobic white supremacy. The voices of Beck, Limbaugh, Hannity, O’Reilly, Coulter, Dobbs and their allies are singing a new melody using old right-wing populist lyrics. The damage they can do is great even if most of these movements eventually collapse.
The centrist Democratic spinmeisters surrounding Obama have no idea how to organize a grassroots defense of healthcare reform. That’s pathetic.
These are the three R’s of civil society: Rebut, Rebuke, Re-Affirm: Rebut false and misleading statements and beliefs without name-calling; rebuke those national figures spreading misinformation; and re-affirm strong and clear arguments to defend goals and proposed programs.
That’s exactly what President Obama did on in his nationally televised address Sept. 9.
While keeping our eyes on the prize of universal, quality healthcare, we must also prevent right-wing populism as a social movement from spinning out of control. Since Obama’s inauguration, there have been nine murders tied to white supremacist ideology laced with conspiracy theories. It is already happening here.
Since centrist Democrats are selling us out, it is time for labor and community organizers to turn up the heat. We should defend Obama against the vicious and racist attacks from the reactionary political right, but we can have Obama’s back while we are kicking his butt.
Vigorous social movements pull political movements and politicians in their direction — not the other way around. We need to raise some hell in the streets and in the suites.
Chip Berlet, senior analyst at Political Research Associates, is the author of the recent study “Toxic to Democracy;” and is co-author with Matthew N. Lyons of Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort.
Populist movements frequently adopt conspiracy theories of power, regardless of their ideological position on the political spectrum.
In her book Populism, Margaret Canovan defined four types of political populism. Populist democracy is championed by progressives from the LaFollettes of Wisconsin to Jesse Jackson.
However, the other three types — politicians’ populism, reactionary populism and populist dictatorship — are antidemocratic forms of right-wing populism. These were 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.
Two versions of right-wing populism are current in both the United States and Europe: one centered around “get the government off my back” economic libertarianism, coupled with a rejection of mainstream political parties, which is more attractive to the upper-middle class and small entrepreneurs. The other is based on xenophobia and ethnocentric nationalism, which is more attractive to the lower middle class and wage workers. These two groupings unite behind candidates that attack the current regime since both constituencies identify an intrusive government as the cause of their grievances.
Former U.S. House Majority Leader Dick Armey chairs FreedomWorks, while Matt Kibbe, who worked for the late Lee Atwater (of Willie Horton ads notoriety), is president and CEO. When accused of encouraging “astroturf” activists to disrupt healthcare town halls, Kibbe responded, “Vocal participating was celebrated when the left would do it. When conservatives do it we’re denounced as thuggish.”
Head of the Coalition to Protect Patients’ Rights, Palmisano has wielded his title as former president of the American Medical Association, the main doctors’ lobby, to oppose a public option.
Phillips started on the astroturf scene in 1997 when he joined former Christian Coalition director Ralph Reed at Century Strategies, a PR and consulting firm. Phillips was named president of Americans for Prosperity in 2006, which describes itself as “one of the premier grassroots citizen lobbyist organizations in the country.”
Scott, the former CEO of Columbia/HCA Healthcare, has shelled out $5 million of his own money to support Conservatives for Patients’ Rights, which he chairs. Also a significant donor to the GOP, Scott was head of Columbia/ HCA when it engaged in criminal practices, including bilking Medicare, leading it to be slapped with a record $1.7 billion in civil and criminal penalties.
Americans for Prosperity (AFP) was involved in the Tea Party protests in April and July and started Patients First, an anti-healthcare reform group. Other recent AFP campaigns include the Cost of Hot Air Tour — complete with a 70-foot-tall hot-air balloon — warning of the negative economic impact of “global warming alarmism,” and NoStimulus. com, an online petition signed by more than 450,000 “concerned citizens” protesting Obama’s stimulus bill. From 2003 to 2006, AFP received $1,181,000 from conservative foundations, including $1 million from the Koch Family Foundation.
Described by The New York Times as “lobbying … vocally against the proposed public option,” the Coalition to Protect Patient’s Rights (CPPR) states, “the government should not be involved in the private, personal discussion between a doctor and patient.” While it is unclear who pays CPPR’s bills, the Republican lobbying firm DCI Group coordinates its PR.
Founded in March 2009 to oppose Obama’s healthcare plan, Conservatives for Patients’ Rights (CPR) has launched a $20 million media campaign calling for reform that values competition between healthcare carriers, lets patients control their own coverage and rewards those who make healthy lifestyle choices. To get its message out, Conservatives for Patients’ Rights turned to CRC Public Relations (formerly Creative Response Concepts), of Swift Boat fame. When CPR is not making ads about the horrors of “rationed” care in Canada and Britain, it is sending out “town hall alert” emails and schedules of meetings. In one mobilization on July 24, CPR sent a list of more than 100 congressional town halls to the Tea Party Patriots Health Care Reform Committee listserve, about a week before the anti-healthcare demonstrations exploded.
According to Think Progress, DCI Group “has specialized in manufacturing ‘grassroots’ support — using telemarketers, PR events, and letter writing campaigns — to achieve policy results for narrow corporate interests.” DCI clients include the Health Benefits Coalition, a trade association of HMOs that wanted to “thwart congressional action on the patients’ bill of rights,” according to The American Prospect. DCI has also worked for Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds, creating fake smokers’ rights groups to fight smoking bans. DCI has also worked for Burma’s military junta, Exxon- Mobil, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and anti-global warming campaigns.
FreedomWorks helped orchestrate this year’s tax day “Tea Parties” by doing everything from contacting conservative activists to training them on media messaging. In 2008, FreedomWorks created Angryrenter.com, which claimed to represent “renters and responsible homeowners” opposed to the “Obama Housing Bailout.” A successor to Dick Armey’s Citizens for a Sound Economy, FreedomWorks was set up to be a GOP version of MoveOn.org. Billionaire Steve Forbes is on the board of directors and funders include the Koch family, ExxonMobil, and the Scaife, Bradley and Olin foundations.
Check out all of The Indypendent's healthcare coverage in this issue:
What's Left Is Right by Arun Gupta
The Myths of Canada Care by Susan Rosenthal
First Person: Fear and Anger in Staten Island by Laura Boylan
Healthcare Glossary by Jaisal Noor and Arun Gupta