“Conspiracy Without Theory” Transcript
Guest: Nancy Rosenblum
Betty Teng: Welcome to Mind of State, a podcast for both political junkies and armchair shrinks. I’m psychoanalyst and trauma therapist Betty Teng.
Jonathan Kopp: And I’m political communications strategist Jonathan Kopp. Join us as we welcome experts in politics and psychology to consider this, the state of our nation through the state of our minds and the mind of our state. Hi, Betty.
Betty: Hi, Jonathan. What’s on your mind today?
Jonathan: Space. Space is on my mind, Betty.
Betty: Okay, space.
Jonathan: I’m clear eyed, I’m lucid, and I’m thinking about aliens and here’s why.
Jonathan: Oh yeah, because I read recently, you might have seen this, that a former Israeli space security chief has told the press that aliens exist and we only don’t know about them because humanity is not ready.
Betty: Oh wow. Space security chief.
Jonathan: He says we have known, we’ve been in touch, and the Galactic Federation is out there and Trump is going to spill the beans.
Betty: That he just spilled?
Jonathan: That’s right. Exactly right.
Betty: Jonathan, do you know what this is? I’m not going to hide my interpretation. It’s a conspiracy theory. Am I bursting your bubble?
Jonathan: Hey, I love the conspiracy theory whether it’s the Bermuda Triangle, the Kennedy assassination, the moon landing was fake. And if the–
Betty: Why? What do they do for you?
Jonathan: There are some wonderful things about a conspiracy theory. One is it’s taking the dots and connecting them, right. It’s taking evidence and putting it together. Two is the notion that there’s a story out there that people know that would explain a lot if only it were true. And so that gives us hope that the things that we don’t understand are actually understandable.
Betty: I see, so it gives meaning to what might be unknown or chaotic.
Jonathan: It does, but unfortunately, I think we’re seeing that conspiracy theory is seeping into politics these days, and that’s where it gets a little more disconcerting.
Betty: Politics and families. So folks that I’ve been seeing have been dealing with some real troubles and family members who subscribe to conspiracy theories, not as charming as your aliens one or Galactic Federation, but it’s polarized families, you know, split them apart. They can’t agree on the facts because there are no facts. And this brings us to our next guest, Nancy Rosenblum, and I’m so excited to introduce her. Dr. Nancy Rosenblum is a professor emerita of Ethics in Politics and Government at Harvard University and among other books, she is the coauthor of A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy. Thank you so much for joining us today, Nancy.
Nancy Rosenblum: It’s a pleasure to be here.
Jonathan: Nancy, I wonder if we could just start with some basics. Can you, for our listeners, explain the difference between what I might describe as good old-fashioned conspiracy theory and the more recent phenomenon of what you call conspiracism?
Nancy: Yes, but before I do my definitional stuff, let me just remind everybody that some conspiracy theories are true and the way that people talk about conspiracy theory and conspiracism today and so on is as if they’re, by definition, fantastic concoctions. So I want to put that on the table first.
Jonathan: Right. So if someone’s following you, you might be paranoid, but you might have a basis to be paranoid.
Nancy: Right. And we know that there are conspiracies and conspiracies by government and conspiracies by corporations and so on. Okay, so old-fashioned conspiracy theory, and it’s still with us, it’s not passed, says that things are not as they seem and we can reveal the nefarious plot behind events. And we do this by following all the dots and seeing that the dots create a pattern. The example I like to use of this is the Declaration of Independence, because everybody knows it. It begins with, you know, all men are created equal, it’s self-evident truth. But what wasn’t self-evident was that the British were trying to enslave the colonies. And so the Declaration of Independence has a long list of grievances. Here are all the grievances, here are all the things they’re doing, and they’re all tending the same way. There’s a pattern. And because they can show this pattern, they can convince the colonists that there should be a war of independence. And so that’s a conspiracy theory. It works. And if you read about the conspiracy theories of 9/11 or of the Kennedy assassination, they’re like this. They’re full of evidence, scientific evidence. They mimic research. If you go to a website, my favorite is Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth, it’s all about the temperature of jet fuels and the speed of airplanes–
Jonathan: Right, right.
Betty: And the name itself.
Nancy: Right. So they’re researchers. They’re like social scientists or scientists and so on. But conspiracy theories are theories in a second sense that’s important, which is that they’re political theories, because to identify the danger of some sort of plot or action, you have to know what’s being threatened, what’s the injustice being done, what’s the law that’s being broken, what needs saving, or what needs creating? And so the point of the Declaration of Independence was to say this shouldn’t be a war that would just bring us a redress of grievances, right, that this has to be a war of independence. And so all of these things have to show such a tight pattern that there can only be one outcome and that is a war of independence. So that’s a classic conspiracy theory, is an explanation like any other explanation. Now should I go on to conspiracism?
Jonathan: Yes, please.
Nancy: So conspiracism, that’s the word we use, decouples conspiracy and theory, that’s all. It’s no longer providing an explanation, it dispenses with all evidence and argument, even in court, as we’ve seen with these last electoral challenges. And it simply makes a bare assertion, one word, hoax, right, or one word, rigged. And what validates this conspiracy charge is not evidence or argument, but repetition and affirmation. And that’s why the title of the book is A Lot of People Are Saying. And Trump used to say this all the time. A lot of people are saying that George Soros is secretly funding the migrants who are crossing the border.
Jonathan: Yes, of course.
Nancy: So that’s the basic difference, that this is conspiracy without the theory, it’s sheer assertion. And well, one of the things we have to figure out is why people do it that way and why people assent to it.
Betty: I have a question, Nancy. When you’re talking about conspiracy theory in the classic sense, you’re talking about something that in connecting the dots is a meaning-making thing, which is a very human impulse, to make meaning. And with the Declaration of Independence as an example, it’s a protest. It’s a justification to take action and conspiracism, these bare assertions, seem to not only decouple the conspiracy with the theory, is it a protest? Is it arguing against something or is it trying to prove something like so in that regard, does it operate in the same way?
Nancy: That’s a great question. I think that you’re right, that classic conspiracy theory is a call to action. Exactly that. In fact, it’s a dramatic call to action. It says that the moment to act is now and if we don’t act now, all will be lost. For the most part, the kind of conspiracism that we’ve seen coming from the Oval Office and from followers of Trump and from, in some ways, the bulk of the Republican Party does the same thing. That is, it’s claiming that some injustice is being done to them, that there is some grievance, but it’s not quite a call to action. And that’s something I haven’t really thought through but you’re quite right to say that. It’s not clear what should be done.
Now in the electoral context, we’ve seen the apogee of this conspiracism with the 2020 election and with COVID. In the election context, there was something to be done. That is, you could hire lawyers to take cases to court and you could try to convince Republicans in the state legislatures to undo it, even not to count the votes or to de-certify votes and so on and so forth. But for the most part, the conspiracy charges that have been made don’t call on followers or others to take any action. What does happen, and it’s less dramatic than a call to revolution like the Declaration, what does happen is that you have a president with a conspiracist mindset and a compromised sense of reality with the capacity to impose his sense of reality on the nation institution. And that’s been the main focus of my thing. So it is a call to action, but it’s an action that only he takes.
Jonathan: But, Nancy, here’s where it gets confusing for me. I mean, one of so many ways with this absurd framework, is that it strikes me that conspiracy or conspiracism would typically emanate from the powerless against the powerful, right. And so how on earth does the most powerful person in the world, arguably, the president of the United States, continue to maintain an outsider perspective and posture railing against the system that is fighting against him?
Nancy: Yeah, well, I would, first of all, quarrel with your initial statement. That is, very often conspiracy claims or conspiracy theories come from the government itself, right. I mean, the big lie that says that the Jews were responsible for German loss of the war.
Jonathan: Yes. Good point.
Nancy: In fact, so very often it comes from that. But you’re right that the typical, you know, sort of common notion of the conspiracy theory is by people who are powerless, who are outside, who are looking in, and who see some sort of elite or powerful agents opposed to their interests and doing them in. And your question is how it is that Trump seems to embody that for people who might have grievances against it. And I think that, first of all, when you have a conspiracist mindset, you always see the opposition as an enemy and the worst possible. And so he’s always aggrieved. He’s aggrieved all the time and he represents himself always as a victim. You’ll remember that even after he won the 2016 election, he went on and on and on about how the election was rigged and he had really won the popular vote.
So it’s showing you a mindset of believing that enemies are constantly after him and many people followed him in this, that is people who may have true grievances or may simply be of the disposition, and this is typically American and it’s a very American thing to see elites who are opposed to you. So I think that there’s a generalization you can make about all conspiracies, which is the circumstances under which they really arise and become powerful and influential in society is when there’s been some social change and usually when there’s been a status loss. But in America and in democracy, there’s a sort of constant substrate of this because there’s such a deep-rooted anti-governmentalism and anti-elitism.
Jonathan: If conspiracy can be found everywhere, there are conspiracy theorists on the left and conspiracy theorists on the right, it seems that the conspiracism you have suggested is more of a phenomenon of the right. And so I’m wondering what you would say to those who try to apply a both sides-ism, you know, to that assertion.
Nancy: I would say that they’re wrong. And you can, sort of, parse the text and look at the recent history and see that they’re wrong. I absolutely acknowledge that there are conspiracy theories coming from the left. And all you have to do is listen to the first two years of Rachel Maddow on the Russian case, I mean, day in day out. But she’s doing this classic thing. Here are the dots, I’m following the dots, there must be a pattern. She never came exactly to the conclusion that he was a Russian agent or that he wanted to build something in Moscow, but this was classic conspiracy theory and it went on every night for years. So the left does it. And sometimes when the left does it, it’s correct. If you read Jane Mayer’s book on dark money, right or if you read Naomi Oreskes on the tobacco industry and the fossil fuel industry and the conspiracies they do.
So conspiracies are true and they do, sometimes, the theories come from the left. This sheer assertion, bare assertion, dispensing with evidence and argument is a phenomenon of the right. Now, the question is why? And I think that the answer is, one piece of the answer is that a classic conspiracy theorist wants to bring the evidence and argument to bear because it’s important to convince you of this fact, right. They want you to think that their interpretation of events is true. I think that that’s not going on with Trump. I think if you look at his avalanche of lies, these are ephemeral, they’re easily disproved, that doesn’t bother him. Because he’s not concerned that you think it’s true. He’s concerned that you assent to his view of reality, right. And that’s exactly what’s going on with this, these charges that the election was rigged.
Jonathan: Well, that explains him. But how about the people on the right who buy into it?
Nancy: Exactly. And I think the same thing is true there. That is, there’s a congruence here that belief is not the best way to understand. People who assent to and like and retweet and spread and in some cases even try to act on these conspiracy claims that come from above. For them, objective evidence isn’t necessary. In fact, it’s not a matter of believing the fact of the matter. But on the other hand, it’s not a matter of repeating something that they know is factually false but they say is true anyway. What they say is that this claim has a deeper truth. The deeper truth is that these people are trying to change the nature of America, right, to deny that it is a Christian nation or a white nation. When you remember the conspiracy claim about Pizzagate, that Hillary Clinton is running a child sex trafficking ring out of the basement of a pizza parlor in Washington, D.C.. Well, there was no fact of the matter here. There was no event. There were no screams. There were no predators coming at night. There wasn’t even a basement, right. But it was true enough and it was true enough because Hillary Clinton was so evil and, in some views, she was so satanic, in fact, you remember she’d already murdered two people, that she could be running a child sex trafficking ring. The best example of this, the one of these that is true enough, was Sarah Huckabee Sanders when she was the press secretary. There was a video going around of a Muslim immigrant assaulting someone and it turns out it was not a true video. And she was asked at this press conference, you know, what is it? This is a phony thing that you’re passing around and she said, whether it’s a real video, the threat is real. It’s true enough. And I’ll give you one more example of this, because I think it’s so important to get. There was a congressman who was talking about, I think it was George Soros paying migrants to come over the border, and he says, I’m not saying it’s true, but I’m saying that it is completely plausible. It’s completely plausible. It’s true enough.
Betty: What I’m hearing, Nancy, in so many levels, is there’s a fear that people are applying and and fomenting and expressing, which doesn’t jive with rationality. Fear is an irrational, it’s a driver of irrational thought, and it makes me think of the disorientation that you’ve spoken about, how conspiracism disorients us. But it’s also this aspect of this groupthink that my group of people is threatened by another group of people. And I’m going to just make these bare assertions which don’t need evidence because it’s really about our fear and our fear is justified by these assertions that then get repeated and repeated. And I just wanted to ask, like if Trump is an embodiment of a presidential conspiracist, now that he’s voted out of office, is this going to be weakened or has it taken hold like a MRSA superbug? Are we still sort of stuck with this virally affecting us, you know, like the pandemic?
Nancy: You’ve said so much here and asked so much. Let me try to take it apart.
Betty: I’m sorry.
Nancy: Put aside for the moment what when Trump leaves, right, will he go and what happens when he goes, and just talk about your initial statements. They really are interesting. You began by saying that this is fear. And that it’s irrational fear operating, and I think that there are probably some cases where it’s fear, but I see this assent to the conspiracist charges more as performative aggression. I think it’s much more aggression than fear. But the other half of what you said I think is absolutely correct and important. And that is that what’s happening when you assent to these conspiracy charges, that the election was rigged or that COVID is a hoax, is that it’s not you personally and alone that’s assenting, it’s a signal of your identification with a collective group, with a collective we. It’s tribal in that way. I think you’re exactly right. And what you’re doing is creating and avowing this group identity by assenting and spreading these conspiracist claims. And in fact, it’s viewed by the people who do it as a form of political participation. And the interesting question for us is, is it a form of participation? Is it actually any kind of collective agency at all? Or is it some sort of uncoordinated and unorganized and, in a sense, unpurposive?
Jonathan: Yeah, I mean, I get the notion of wanting to belong, the tribal, the going along, but then it gets to the point where individual citizens are buying QAnon shirts and signs and parading around–
Betty: Well, that’s signaling they’re part of the same team.
Jonathan: –as if it’s their team.
Betty: I’m on the QAnon team.
Jonathan: Right, but it’s taken to such a, there are people profiting from, you know, from this. There are people willingly playing in and it almost seems as if they’re thumbing their noses at those who might know better, you know, and saying disprove it, buddy, right. Like here I am, come get me because I can’t.
Nancy: Right. So I think that the one thing I wanted to say, almost as an aside here, is that part of what’s going on is not just Trump and his followers and Republican officials, and that’s an interesting case, why did they do what they do, is that we now have a universe of conspiracy entrepreneurs. That is, people who are out there on YouTube and the internet who make money off this. I mean, I’ve written a piece on Alex Jones who’s gotten very, very rich selling his vitamins and his erectile dysfunction things and so on. So there are people out there making money on it and sucking other people in. And to be an Alex Jones follower is like being a Trump follower. That is, it doesn’t even have to be aimed at Trump, but that there’s an industry out there doing it. I think that QAnon is a very good case for questioning political participation and tribal identity stuff, because unlike most of the other conspiracies that get, as I say, liked and retweeted, and become part of the political atmosphere, QAnon, the QAnon people are out there in public, right. They go out, they don’t stay electronic–
Jonathan: And they get elected to Congress.
Nancy: They go out and they see themselves as a group. They have these slogans Where We Go One, We Go All and they have their paraphernalia that identifies them. And they are interested in intimidating people and not just demonstrating themselves that they’re intimidating. And I’ve done a lot of talking about QAnon because people have looked at this and suggested maybe this isn’t just a, sort of, political group, maybe this is a cult, their chanting and so on and so forth, or is it a new religion. So that makes me think that how we categorize QAnon is a difficult matter and it’s something in flux. But I dissent from the view that sees them as a sort of religious cult, although it does have cultish qualities. It is apocalyptic. That is, there’s a storm at which point everybody’s going to be arrested and John F. Kennedy Jr. is going to come back from the dead and the Satanists will all be killed and so on and so forth. And Trump is their leader. So it has certain cult-like qualities, including some scary ones, like it’s apocalypticism. And others describe it in a similar way as a sort of new religion. I think not. I think that we’ve seen it sort of morphing away from some of this stuff and more into politics, right. And so the question for me is, is this going to turn into a movement like the Tea Party Movement, that was sort of grassroots, that did start electing people and organizing, especially at a local level and now we see these Q people in Congress. And again, I don’t think so. That is–
Jonathan: What gives you optimism? Please share.
Nancy: First of all, there’s reason to think that the Qs who run for office, like other Republicans and maybe we’ll get into that story, are playing to their constituency. They’re playing to their states and who knows what they really think I mean, it’s too bizarre, although they may. They may, in fact, maybe work in reverse, they were elected because they are convincing. But the other thing is they have no politics. There’s that. The Tea Party movement grew in two ways. It was both grassroots and funded massively from above by Big Conservative. And they did it because they had an agenda of small government, of deficit, against deficits, of small taxes. I mean, they had an agenda that corresponded with the most conservative agenda and they followed it. I mean, this is what they did.
Jonathan: It was political from its origin. The very name Tea Party, right, evokes–
Nancy: So it was a bonafide and remains something of a bonafide, whereas QAnon doesn’t appear to have a politics. It’s morphed. It’s wanted to get more political, so it’s admitted all these anti-vax people, because they seem to be organized, but, and I’ve been criticized a lot for not, for, I guess, diminishing their significance, but I’m skeptical that they’re going to be important in politics.
Jonathan: Well I guess the question is, are they going to, you know, you have suggested at times and, you know, we’ll see where it goes, but that conspiracism is going to somehow retreat to the fringes from whence it came when Trump leaves office. And now I wonder, is the genie out of the bottle like, you know, like where are we now?
Betty: And this goes back to my question of is this going to fade with Trump leaving office or is it stuck as a superbug, a political superbug?
Nancy: There’s no way of minimizing the fact that there will be a change. That is, the fact that the president with a compromised sense of reality and the capacity to, and we haven’t even talked about what he’s done, the capacity to delegitimate foundational institutions will be gone and there’s nothing like that. This is, the damage that has been done has been done, in large part not because of his followers, but because of the unusual authority and power that the man had and because of the submissiveness of the Republican Party. And at some point maybe we can talk about that. So in that sense, everything will change. Now, the question is then what’s the scenario? Will he remain a government in exile in Mar-a-Lago running again? If so, then conspiracism will continue to be very central to electoral politics and to public life. If not, there are still negative scenarios. So I’m not fatuous in this regard. That is, the Republican base will continue to like this conspiracist stuff, and if they can’t link Trump to it, they can see him as a martyr and they will urge other officials and the next presidential candidate or other candidates to follow it. I also think that there are lots of lower level appointments now in the agencies and in government who will be very difficult to remove who’ve created, in a sense, their own deep state, right, to do this stuff. But the main point, America and abroad, is that the utility of these conspiracism has been formed.
Jonathan: So what keeps a conspiracist on the left from succeeding?
Nancy: Well, we don’t know that anything would stop a conspiracist on the left. We just haven’t had one. If you look at the Democratic primary candidates, they were none of them who really fit that bill. I guess Bernie Sanders comes–
Jonathan: So in other words, it’s circumstantial that it’s been from the right. It’s not because there’s some characteristic of the right that makes them more susceptible to conspiracism.
Nancy: That’s a great question. And I don’t think it’s just circumstantial. I was being too simple-minded. I think that there are two things. One is that the Democratic Party is a coalition party and when you have a coalition party like that, you can’t rely on a single kind of fantastical made up universe in which you own reality to do it. I mean, there are too many realities within the Democratic Party to do that. And the other thing is that the Democratic Party, and perhaps I should have said this before, is a party that wants to govern. And partly it’s because of its constituencies who want things, right, and so the Democratic Party has to try as best it can under difficult circumstances to govern, to do things. And I think that conspiracism is a substitute for governing. And that’s true, certainly true, of Trump, who even in the circumstances of pandemic or especially the circumstances of pandemic, threw up his hands, absolved responsibility, and didn’t want to govern.
And one of the reasons why, now I get to my Republicans who go along, I think that they go along for a lot of different reasons. Some are simply supine. Some thought that they could control him and manage him and use him to their purposes. Some maybe have confidence in him and want his coattails for electoral purposes. But I think what’s been missing from the conversation about Trump and conspiracism has to do with this governing piece that the Republicans don’t want to govern. That is, they want as little government as possible, right. There’s a congruence between the craziness of Trump’s conspiracism, which disrupts the agencies and takes people who have capacity out of play and what’s been true of the Republicans for 20 or more years. So they want to cut taxes, but that’s about all they want. And they want deregulation. They want, the chaos is not exactly what they want. They would like to do it in the more planned way, but they don’t want a government, active government. And so there is this very deep alliance and going along between these forces.
Betty: Nancy, what you were saying about Trump and QAnon and even the Republicans right now, it seems that there’s this baldfaced power. So it’s almost like power and governance has been decoupled under politics, that politics has become just a sheer grab for power, which, you know, a pluralistic group like the Democrats is not going to be interested in and able to capture. And I know you also have written on pluralism and yet we are becoming far, far more, by demographics, pluralistic in terms of population and in our separate identities. Can we wait this out or is the impact of Trump, his conspiracism, and the delegitimation wrought some damage? Because I want to go back to what you think Trump has done to us or what he and his followers have done in the delegitimation. But that piece, that our institutions have been in democracy, your title is the Assault on Democracy, so how has this been assaulted?
Nancy: Right. So go from your initial point about power to delegitimation and I’ll stick with one thing that has been delegitimated by the Republicans, and that is the notion of a loyal political opposition. Let me explain that the political parties are the foundational institution of representative democracy. They are how you have conflict and elections amongst parties is how you have a peaceful change of power. And that only happens because you assume that the opposition is a legitimate opposition. You may disagree with it in all sorts of ways, but you don’t think that it has no claim to power if it wins elections. At every election, the losers claim oh he cheated, he lied, he had too much money, he had too little money, but they don’t challenge the legitimacy of the person who won office.
What we have with the Republican Party and it has been true before Trump but Trump brought it out, he’s illuminated a lot. It was going on before, is it the Republicans are a minority party and that they want to hold power and they will do it by any means, right, at any cost, beginning with voter suppression and now with the attempt to actually erase votes that have been cast. It’s the only way that they can continue this way. And I want to say what delegitimation is when you talk about the delegitimation of parties, because I think the word is now everywhere and it’s being used promiscuously. Delegitimation is not mistrust. You don’t mistrust an institution that’s been delegitimized and you don’t doubt its operation and cast doubt on it. Delegitimation has a very specific meaning. It means that this institution, or, for example, the Democratic Party no longer has any meaning, any value, or any authority. And what delegitimation means, because of these things, is that it has no claim on your consent or compliance. To delegitimize something is an invitation to disobey or exercise rogue violence or whatever. Now, that seldom happens.
Betty: Justification, right.
Nancy: And it’s not only a justification of it, it’s a license. That’s exactly what it’s about. It’s when, and when Trump says if Biden is inaugurated, right, we can’t call him a president. We have to call him a person in the office of the presidency. And so he has no claim to authority and he has no claim to obedience. And we see around the fringes now the rogue violence that follows from that and the not so rogue violation of democracy like voter suppression and voter erasure. But that’s what delegitimation is. It’s not just, and when people say, well we now mistrust the CDC, how can we gain the trust of the CDC? It’s not about mistrust. We know that mistrust, the trust can be regained. You mistrust something if it doesn’t operate to your advantage or if it’s corrupt in some way. And those things can over time be corrected. But delegitimation is really quite a very different and more troubling deeper phenomenon. And I’ll just end by saying that social scientists and historians know a lot about how democratic institutions got legitimated, right, and what gave them authority over time. And we are seeing in front of our eyes the delegitimation of these institutions, what’s sometimes called democratic backsliding. We have no idea how to re-legitimate.
Betty: That was our next question.
Nancy: Well so, but I think there are two questions. And Betty, maybe this speaks to it, maybe it doesn’t, that one of the questions is how do we combat this conspiracism? But another, and harder, question is how do we re-legitimate the institutions that have already been degraded.
Betty: Right, right. It’s like how do we stop the virus and how do we make the body healthy again?
Jonathan: Well particularly when we’ve democratically chosen to put people in place who from the inside are corroding the very notion of government.
Nancy: Right. They want power, but they don’t want to govern.
Jonathan: Right. The power to not govern.
Betty: It’s inherently unraveling. And, you know, something that you had said, Nancy, about all of this and how disorienting it is, and there’s so much we could say about the outrageousness and the drama that draws so much attention. You said we need to be startled into thought. And I think that that’s like a really great and interesting and powerful phrase, because this stuff cuts down thinking, you know. You blank out, you hear things like Pizzagate and Hillary Clinton running a pedophile ring or, you know, my mind just freezes. But you’re also saying we need to be startled. And so can you say more about what you mean by that?
Nancy: Yeah, well I can speak for myself. So this project began after the inauguration when–
Nancy: Right. The 2016 inauguration. And Trump had claimed that he had the largest inaugural crowd in history, certainly larger than Barack Obama’s. And the photographs of the National Park Service came back and they showed a modest crowd that wasn’t the biggest crowd in history. And his immediate response was the photos were doctored. Now, I was startled. I mean, I was completely startled. What does it mean? It is so disorienting. It’s different than a lie, right, because it’s a lie plus a charge of conspiracy that these silly photographers in the National Park Service were doing something really malign. And I began thinking then about the significance of this conspiracy claim and why it was so disorienting. First of all, it was an assault on common sense, right. And if you have, ongoing, an absurdity assaulting common sense, you get turned upside down.
Betty: Absolutely. Which describes the last four years.
Nancy: But then, if you can actually think about it, which this project made me do, is that what’s really behind this, two things behind this disorientation that we’re talking about, one is the deeper, deeper issue is what does it mean to know something? What does it mean to know that the photographs were doctored or not doctored or that the election was rigged or not rigged? And what we have here is a divide that’s much more treacherous and much deeper than just a partisan divide, although it tends to follow the partisan divide, it is this epistemic divide about what it means to know something. And unless you can bridge that divide, which we have not been able to do, you can’t argue, you can’t persuade, you can’t negotiate, you can’t even disagree because there’s no common basis to do it.
Jonathan: So it’s sort of like the old expression, you’re entitled to your opinion, but you’re not entitled to your own facts.
Nancy: Exactly. That, Moynihan’s famous phrase. And, you know, facts are disputable, whether they’re accurate or not is disputed and the significance of fact is disputed. But without some basis of even arguing about facts, right, you can’t have any kind of government. You can’t have any kind of policy. And this leads to the bigger thing that’s happened. I spoke of the delegitimation of foundational democratic institutions, and one is political parties and the notion of opposition and the other, and we’ve all seen this for four plus years now, is the delegitimation of knowledge producing institutions. From the FBI at the outset to the Environmental Protection Agency to now we’ve seen the CDC. And this, I think, is probably more reparable than the attack on political opposition. But it’s going to be a long time to repair because these agencies have been hijacked. They’ve been diverted from their purposes. They’ve been circumvented. Loyalists have been put in place so that they’re, you know, they’ve been altered in what they do. And I think that the reestablishment of these agencies that are the knowledge producing agencies for government is the first order of business. And I think that we see Biden going about that already as best he can, because you cannot govern without information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics or the census, right. It makes no sense.
Jonathan: Right. It’s the technocrats, the bureaucrats. It’s the stuff of government that you need. You need the data. You need the facts. I guess my question is, do you think that whether it’s Joe Biden or if it were any other president, is restoring our faith in democracy and in government, getting past conspiracy and getting back to faith in evidence, is that something that a an elected president is able to accomplish or is that more of a cultural social? You know what I mean? Is a political actor–
Betty: Yeah, is this a grassroots thing or is it a top down thing or both?
Nancy: Well, I think it is both. And it’s a deeply social thing. But more immediately and practically it’s a political question. And I would divide my answer to you into two categories. I think that COVID, the COVId pandemic, which was so riddled with conspiracy and with partisanship and with ungovernability, no attempts at governing it, made it so that reality bites. I mean–
Betty: Well said.
Nancy: I think reality bites there. And I think that there is then a broad social, not just political entrée for Biden in an administration to go back to resurrecting knowledge producing institutions and using this evidence. So I think that that path is probably a traversable path. I’m quite hopeful about that. On the other side, the political side, that is the side that the Democratic Party is an enemy and not a loyal opposition and can be kept from office by any means and if it happens to get into office, you obstruct it by any means so that it can do nothing. I don’t see that disappearing. I will be very surprised. It may be in the short run they reach a COVID agreement because even Republicans, you know, voters are dying and need help. But I will be very surprised if, I think it will be a long time to repair the party system. And a representative democracy can’t work without a party system.
Jonathan: I could keep geeking out on this stuff for so long. And I keep wondering, is it that it’s music to my ears because I happen to be a democratic partisan who agrees or is there objective truth? And, you know, like you start questioning your own. Am I just buying my own accusation of their absurdity or can we believe in objective right and wrong and left and right and–
Nancy: Well, something bad has happened objectively true.
Betty: No, it’s serious. It’s serious. This assault, I mean, an assault on democracy is happening on so many levels. But this is really like an internal or a bad virus, you know, it’s intense. It’s really intense.
Nancy: I appreciated your final question, which we didn’t get to talk about, about pluralism, your mentioning pluralism. And I think that’s part of the answer to all of this. I just think that when we talk about the destruction of knowledge producing institutions and facts and so on and so forth, I don’t want to go too far on the other side. I think democracy requires skepticism about these things.
Betty: Of course.
Nancy: I mean, experts are wrong, experts are biased, experts are corrupt. And there are lots of reasons to mistrust them, not to delegitimate them altogether, but to mistrust them.
Jonathan: Well, that’s why we have watchdogs and ombudsman and independent inspectors general and everything else.
Nancy: And above all, and this is getting back to Betty’s point, above all, what we have is a pluralism of institutions. If you don’t have plural sources of knowledge, right, then you can never be certain that the knowledge that you have is not, leave aside true, useful for our purposes now or not. So pluralism, I think, is key to all of this, a pluralism of political parties and a pluralism of knowledge producing institutions and certainly what conspiracists and in fact, what the Republican Party in recent years has done is to build itself a sort of edifice of certainty and the opposite of pluralism, of monism or totalism or whatever you want to call it.
Betty: Well, there’s a lot of work to do. And the ability to think is a worthy weapon. And you’ve given us that, Nancy, you know, seriously. So thanks for joining us.
Nancy: It’s been fun. Great fun.
Betty: Thanks for joining us on this episode of Mind of State. If you liked this episode, you’ll find plenty more on Apple podcasts or anywhere else you get your podcasts.
Jonathan: You can also find us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram at Mind of State Pod. Our website is MindofState.com.
Betty: Mind of State is produced by Alletta Cooper and Jenny Woodward. Special thanks to our co-founder, Thomas Singer. I’m Betty Teng.
Jonathan: And I’m Jonathan Kopp. Join us next time on Mind of State.