Do conspiracy theories appeal more to the right than the left?

Below is an excerpt from the recent CQ Researcher article on "Conspiracy Theories" by Peter Katel, October 23, 2009

A long tradition among historians and political scientists links conspiracy theories with the far right. Historian Richard Hofstadter's classic 1963 essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” focused exclusively on right-wing conspiracism. “The modern right wing … feels dispossessed: America has been largely taken away from them and their kind,” he wrote. “The old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners but major statesmen seated at the very centers of American power.” [Footnote 24]

Increasingly, however, conspiracy theory-watchers are concluding that conspiracism's appeal goes beyond ideology. For instance, the “truther” theories about the 9/11 attacks have attracted both left- and right-wingers. Indeed, some scholars have argued in recent years that theories once closely associated with the right have been attracting followers from the left. Anti-Semitism is the classic case, in the form of left-wing attacks on Israel that challenge its right to exist.

Shortly before the war in Iraq began in 2003, a conflict erupted in the anti-war left after Rabbi Michael Lerner of Berkeley, Calif., was blocked from speaking at a peace rally in San Francisco. Lerner had criticized one of the organizations sponsoring the event for planning to use it for anti-Israel propaganda purposes. “Fellow progressive Jews, some anxious to speak at these rallies, have urged me to keep quiet about anti-Semitism on the left,” Lerner wrote in The Wall Street Journal. [Footnote 25]

Since then, however, the furor over anti-Jewish prejudice on the left has quieted along with the anti-war movement. And some conspiracy theory opponents view the major conspiracist current of the moment as a right-wing trend. “Of all the conspiracy theorists, 90 percent are on the far right,” says Edward L. Winston, a St. Louis software engineer who runs a conspiracy-debunking Web site (

But Winston adds that the widespread and growing skepticism about government favors the expansion of conspiracism beyond what he considers its natural right-wing constituency. Media productions such as the first “Zeitgeist” movie — which mixes classical conspiracy theories about “international bankers” and new ones about Sept. 11 — may be broadening the ranks of conspiracy believers, he says. “I was surprised how popular ‘Zeitgeist’ was and how many people believed it,” he says.

Conspiracy scholar Pipes argues that linking conspiracy theories exclusively to the right is a long-standing and erroneous response. “It's as much a left phenomenon as it is right,” he says. “I would argue that the whole premise of communist ideology is a conspiracy theory — that the bosses are stealing your money.”

Vladimir I. Lenin — founder of the Soviet state — in effect confirmed the vision of those who denounced communist conspiracies, Pipes has argued. Lenin had concluded the countries that embraced capitalism took that path because the big-business class had covertly seized government power. Communists should follow that example, Lenin argued, and greet charges of conspiratorial methods as “flattering.” [Footnote 26]

The University of California's Olmsted argues that right-wing conspiracy theories tend to gain more traction, though she acknowledges that conspiracy theories appeal to the extremes on both right and left. “They feel they know the truth, yet the majority of the country votes against them,” she says. “Most people don't share their beliefs — or they think evil people in power are manipulating things.”

Still, conspiracy theories that appeal to those on the right usually become more prominent, Olmsted says, “because they're backed generally by people with more power.” Contrasting the attention that Limbaugh and other radio and TV talk-show hosts have given the “birther” theories, Olmsted notes that comparably popular supporters can't be found for the “truther” conspiracists. “Is there anyone really significant out there” among the 9/11 conspiracists “who has a real platform?” The “truther” movement generated no congressional legislation along the lines of the recent bill on birth certificates for presidential candidates.

Even so, the economic crisis may favor a resurgence of conspiracy theories that appeal to the left, says Michael Barkun, a professor of political science at Syracuse University who has studied conspiracies throughout his career. But that holds true for right-oriented theories as well, he adds. “Going well back into the 19th century, American conspiracists had almost a stylistic preference for conspiracy theories that emphasize financial power or financial manipulation,” he says. That preference applies on the left and right.

In general, conspiracy theories draw their strength from deep-seated needs and emotions, not from ideology, Barkun says. “Conspiracy theories have the psychological benefit of taking a complex reality and simplifying it. Whatever these things that bother you, they all are the result of some single cause.”

[24] Richard Hofstadter, The Paranoid Style in American Politics (2008 edition), pp. 23–24. For a view of Hofstadter as ahead of his time, see Thomas Frank, “From John Birchers to Birthers,” The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 21, 2009, p. A21.

[25] Michael Lerner, “The Antiwar Anti-Semites,” The Wall Street Journal, Feb. 12, 2003.

[26] Quoted in Daniel Pipes, Conspiracy: How the Paranoid Style Flourishes and Where It Comes From (1997), p. 175.

For more information see the CQ Researcher report on "Conspiracy Theories" [subscription required] or purchase the CQ Researcher PDF


The Substance said...

I like this article, but I think the conspiracy scholar addressing Lenin is off-base, or is simply over-simplifying the views of Communists in general, who did not in fact have good cause to claim that the "bosses where stealing their money." I mean, a conspiracy is more than a claim of wrong-doing by existential forces.