Nov 5 • 56M

Russ Muirhead on the Enduring Appeal of Conspiracy Theory

Yascha Mounk and Russ Muirhead discuss what it is like for a political theorist to turn into a legislator and how to speak to voters who don’t already agree with you.

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Russ Muirhead is the Robert Clements Professor of Democracy and Politics at Dartmouth College and a member of the New Hampshire House of Representatives. His latest book, co-authored with Nancy Rosenblum, is A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy.

In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and Russ Muirhead discuss how legislators can find sensible compromise even amidst vehement disagreement, why we misunderstand the popularity of conspiracy theories, and what Democrats can do to broaden their coalition and defeat right-wing populists.

The views expressed are those of the speakers, not those of Persuasion. The transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.


Yascha Mounk: I've known you for many years, but you only recently became an elected official. 

What's it been like going from studying and teaching politics to being a state legislator in New Hampshire?

Russ Muirhead: It's a lot of fun. Sitting in a legislature is like being back in school. I learn so much every day. Any political scientist would probably love serving in the legislature for a couple of years, if they could possibly manage it. 

There's a difference between activism politics, movement politics and legislative politics. In movement politics, it's often about activating like-minded people, coming together, forming a movement. That has an essential place in democratic reform. But legislative politics is about brokering disagreement from the beginning. There's no legislature that's defined just by a movement. There's always more than one party or more than one faction in the legislature. So, legislative politics are about doing politics under conditions of disagreement. 

There's a kind of “right answer” mentality in politics—that the right answers are there, and it's just about authorizing and empowering them. A lot of people in the legislature have that mentality. They kind of think, “if our side just didn't encounter any obstacles, we would be able to legislate the right answers, and the world would be permanently improved as a result of that.” And, you know, the phrase that my co author, Nancy Rosenblum, used in the title of one of her books is On the Side of the Angels. It's incredibly tempting to think that about your side. 

But there's a kind of wisdom that comes from political activity. It might come just from looking at the details of policy. This is the realization that there are no right answers. Very rarely do we face a question to which there exists just a right answer, a great answer. We're always, in politics, in a world of “second best”, at best.

Mounk: You just made me realize something that I hadn't thought about before: a parallel between two different institutions in our democracies. One quintessentially democratic institution is an adversarial legal system, in which somebody makes the case for prosecution and somebody makes the case for defense. Now, by and large, people who are part of that system understand that they're gonna really strongly play one of these roles. But you need both roles for the system to come to the right results. 

Now, in a way, parliaments were conceived of as a similar thing. You don't try to suppress factions: you try to organize and verbalize them in the hope that the debates between them and the clashes between them lead to policy that's closer to the public good. But that doesn't really seem to be people’s self-understanding, most of the time.

Muirhead: You're putting your finger on something really important about making politics work in the United States. The very best lawyers always understand the other side: they understand the other’s case. They can try the case on the other side and do a great job because they know the weaknesses of their own side. It's a very bad lawyer who doesn't know how to make the case on the other side. Well, in politics, we have a lot of people—a lot of Democrats—who look across and think, “why are there Republicans? Because people are evil, because people are frail and self interested—a bunch of privileged people who are trying to defend their privilege.” And the Republicans look at the Democrats and see a bunch of self-serving cultural elites, professors like me, and people who don't want to work; people who are “takers, not makers.” And they think, “Well, the world would just be much better off if we didn't have that side.” 

We've taken a very, very giant step toward delegitimizing the other side. But also, we've made it more difficult for us to understand our own weaknesses, to answer for them, to guard against them, and to build a real coalition.

And I don't mean to compress politics to just two sides. But let's just work with that. If you're a progressive, and you can't give an account of what conservatism really looks like, and what a conservative party ought to be, then you're driving with your eyes closed, and you're gonna make it harder, paradoxically, to build your party, because you can't take those little bits of wisdom from the conservative side and try to acquire them. 

Mounk: The second point that you're insinuating is that being able to give a fair account of what the other side believes actually helps win elections. Why is that? 

Muirhead: It would help Democrats win elections if they could understand and give a better account of conservatism than most conservatives could offer. We operate under a framework of constitutional rules. Now, you and I, as political-legal thinkers, might have a better constitution in mind for a country like the United States than the one that the United States actually possesses. So, let's just put aside our ideals for a moment. We've got the Constitution: it has the Senate, in which the states are represented. Meanwhile, progressives are geographically very clustered. And so for the progressive party to build a majority, they need to create a geographically dispersed majority, they need to appeal to people outside of Boston and San Francisco. You need a durable, extensive and diverse majority to rule under our  constitution, and there's no way to do that without creating a really cacophonous, heterogeneously diverse—or, as we like to say, “inclusive”—majority. Purity rituals are not going to get us there. The deepening conviction that the way you think is the perfect way to think, and that your party isn't actually a party, it's really the side of the angels, doesn't get you there either. What does get you there is a really capacious political imagination, where you can close your eyes and imagine how the world looks to somebody who sees it from the other side of the political fray. Only then can you start to, like I said, not just manipulate people who disagree with you, but actually capture some of the pieces of wisdom and insight that the other side has and bring them over to your side, mix them in with your philosophy to get something that can elect 54 senators. 

Mounk: What does it take for Democrats to be able to win in Indiana or Missouri, or perhaps in one of the Dakotas? And to anticipate one of the frequent objections to this: Am I just saying that we should throw in our cards and give up on anything that's important to progressives? 

Muirhead: I think that the real defect in American politics right now is a lack of ambition. Both sides want to win the next election, and only the next election, and they’re content to win it just barely. I see this absence of ambition as even more definitive on the Republican side than the Democratic. It's always easier to see the flaws in your opponents; but trying to disenfranchise people on the margin, so that you can get that 0.4% advantage and barely win the congressional seat in a swing district—I mean, that wasn't the way Ronald Reagan thought about American politics. He took his conservatism to the country, he argued for it. I found it unconvincing and, in many ways, repellent—but he won 49 states after serving for one term. And that was a reflection of not just his capacity as a speaker, but of his ambition. 

The last Republican I saw who had that ambition was Karl Rove, when he helped get George W. Bush elected in 2000. We're going to try to build a “durable governing majority”—that's a quote that sent chills up the spines of liberals all over the country when they read it. And he wanted to make conservatism compassionate: he took this thing from the progressive side, compassion, and tried to acquire it for conservatism. What liberals need to do is exactly that. Democrats tend to speak the language of equality, and less the language of virtue or distinctiveness or deservingness. But there's no reason why we should have a one-sided egalitarian language that gives up on virtue completely. We appreciate distinction, we appreciate effort. We also understand that everybody can make a certain kind of claim for themselves by revealing their virtue to the world, and that one of the ways to do that is through work. I think that Democrats have to speak the language of the dignity of work: it's consistent with their beliefs, it's consistent with their commitment to protecting the rights of workers. But they also have to believe in hard work. 

Another thing is love of country. It's obvious to me as a Democrat, as somebody in electoral politics, just how profoundly patriotic my friends in the Democratic Party are. But we're also really good at criticizing our country. To be progressive is to say, “Here are the things we're inheriting in our political community that are unjust, that are unwise. We want to change them.” But that doesn't mean that we're not awed by what we've inherited, and that we don't love what we have, and want to preserve a lot of it. I think we need to learn how to speak that language, without giving up one speck of our conviction about individual rights for even the smallest minority and the most overlooked individuals. So, no: we don't change that. But we do look to what we can acquire to complement our public philosophy.

Mounk: When you enter into that adversarial environment, does everybody revert to being “on the side of the angels” and shouting at each other across the aisle? Or have you had opportunities to put some of these aspirations into practice?

Muirhead: It's hard to overstate how adversarial my experience in the New Hampshire legislature was in the last two years. I was in the minority, and when you're in the minority, you lose almost everything. And the stuff that we lost was stuff that I care about—reproductive rights, voting rights, public education. When a bill that I really care about goes down, and I see the other side celebrating its defeat, or something I really oppose passes, it's hard to describe the feeling one has of revulsion, of hatred, of despondency. It's really easy to hate the other side. It's really easy to come to think of them as constituted by people who are just fundamentally not nice. And I actually think that the most important thing in day-to-day politics where you're in the fray, is to be able to participate in common life. 

I think a little bit about David Hume. He’s talking about philosophical theories that actually fill him with doubt and despair, theories of skepticism. And he says what cures it for him is going out to the pub and having a drink with friends and playing backgammon. We don't have to read David Hume to know this. One time I was in a committee meeting in an academic context. And we fought for three days. I thought I never want to see these people I'd been disagreeing with again. “I'm not coming to campus again for months,” I thought. And the guy I disagreed with the most put his hand on my shoulder and said, “We're going out to lunch.” I almost wanted to puke. But two beers into that lunch, we were singing songs. We were having a good time. And we didn't stop disagreeing—but we remembered what it was like to just interact as two human beings. It's incredibly healthy to let people make fun of you or tell jokes at your expense. And when the vote comes, you're still going to really hate the other side. When the campaign comes, you're gonna campaign against the other side with everything you have. But in between, remember how to be human with each other. 

This past summer I got an email for a legislative softball game. I thought, “that's the last thing I want to do with these people who have been sticking it to me over and over again for the last two years.” But my wife said, “Come on, you gotta go. You gotta go be human.” And sure enough, there's a cooler full of beer and we're hanging out. And we didn't play Republican against Democrat. We just had such a nice time. An hour and a half into it, I was like, “Why are these people here? It's because they want to make this institution work. They're breathing life in the institution itself. They're trying to maintain some ties of likability, some capacity to enjoy each other as human beings, so that when we go back in there and fight like mad, we don't destroy the place.”

Mounk: What does that look like in your day-to-day work in the legislature? 

Muirhead: I serve on the electoral law committee. That's actually why I ran two years ago. Nancy Rosenblum and I had just finished our book, called A Lot of People are Saying. It’s about what we call the new conspiracism in American politics. We wrote about the rigged election conspiracy. We followed the logic of that conspiracy to the possibility that a president might lose an election and fail to vacate the office. And, by the way, we pulled it from the text at one point. We said, “This is just too outlandish. People are going to think we've lost our bearings, if we have this in the book.” And then, of course, January 6 happened. I thought there might be an attack on election administration. It seemed preposterous in 2016 for the person who won the election to claim that the election was rigged. He actually claimed that the elections in New Hampshire were rigged; that busloads of people were sent up from Massachusetts to fraudulently vote in the little towns in New Hampshire and in the wards of our cities. The allegation was actually investigated by the New Hampshire Secretary of State's office, which found that there was no fraud whatsoever. It was so weird for the winner of the election to say this. He was upset. He lost the popular vote, I guess. But that's why I wanted to get onto the election law committee. Luckily, the leadership put me on that committee. And yes, that is ground zero for the attack on election administration that is happening in the states—not at the national level. It's happening in states all over the country. And there are just millions of people, possibly tens of millions of people, who think that American elections are marred by widespread fraud, and that recent elections were rigged. They're getting people in the Republican Party to introduce bills that will actually, paradoxically, create opportunities for fraud.

Against the background of this fight, you’ve got to make some common cause. And one way to do that is by looking for those bills that just aren't fundamentally ideological or partisan. In any legislature—sort of like in the Supreme Court—there are a whole bunch of cases that are going to be essentially partisan ideological cases. But a whole bunch are not.

There was a bill that came up: it was essentially an in-the-weeds bill on election administration, there was nothing ideological or partisan about it. But I could see the way it was shaping up: it was going to be a party vote. This can happen on anything, once you start to really dislike each other, once you start to not trust each other, once you're just used to fighting with each other. “If they go this way, we go that way.” But there's no reason for this to happen. So, I said to the chair, “I think if we work on this a little bit more, we can probably get a unanimous vote out of it.” And the chair, who's a Republican, saw the utility of that: “If you're so smart, professor, let's see what you can do.” We created a little working group, and the people who really cared about the bill joined with the most moving spirit of compromise. They really wanted to solve the in-the-weeds problems that the election moderators experience. They said things like, “Okay, I can give up on this one; but this thing, I think, is really important.” And the other ones were like, “Okay, if you think that's really important, I think I can go along with you on that. But such and such is where I draw the line.” They revised this bill so the leaders of the two factions could sign onto it, and it passed unanimously. I saw that possibility, and I'm glad I spoke up. But I'm even more glad that the committee chair from the other party saw that this would be worth trying. We need to do as much of that as we possibly can, so that we have the social capital that will allow us to maintain a democracy through these fights.


Read: Julian Baggini on David Hume.


Mounk: Why are conspiracy theories so central to American politics, but also the politics of other democracies? What do people normally get wrong about conspiracies, and how is it that our usual way of conceptualizing the nature of a conspiracy theory actually misunderstands them?

Muirhead: The classic account of conspiracy theories is that they are a tool that losing social classes and social groups use to make sense of their declining position. There's a chapter of a recent book on American conspiracy theories that basically says “Conspiracy theories are for losers.” It's a very familiar idea that goes back to Hofstadter

But that's not what we're seeing right now. When Putin engages in the “Golden Billion” conspiracy theory, or when the president of the United States trucks in one conspiracy after another—these are some of the most powerful people in the world. It's no longer just social groups explaining to themselves a hostile world by scapegoating some minority. It's more political. It's about power. Think of the baffling and wacky conspiracies like, say, Pizzagate: Hillary Clinton sex trafficking children from the basement of a pizzeria. It's just preposterous. It's ludicrous. Who could believe this? Do the people who repeat it, actually believe it? Those are psychological questions, and we ask them because we just can't imagine that people could bring themselves to believe something so wacky. But the psychological questions, as interesting as they are, are distracting us from the politics involved. What these theories do in practice is delegitimate the other side. They eliminate all doubt. Conspiracy theories say: “don't worry about the other side. They're not just erroneous, they're not just mistaken. They are evil. They are as evil as the Nazis. They literally are abusing children. And if you were in an election against a Nazi, and you lost, would you concede peacefully? The other side isn't just different or mistaken: it's evil, and therefore, it shouldn't be tolerated.” That's what's motivating conspiracism today in American politics. It's about delegitimizing the political opposition. 

Let's not ask why people will believe it. It’s an interesting psychological question, but we get stuck there. We'll never get to the politics of it, which is that power-seekers find it very, very useful to delegitimize the opposition. And who knows whether Donald Trump believes that the election was rigged? I don't care. I don't know if it's an answerable question as a matter of his psyche. But I still know why he's doing it. Because everyone who loses an election has a strong incentive to say the election was rigged. And when we get to a political life where everyone who does lose an election says that and convinces their followers to believe it, we won't have a functioning democracy.

Mounk: This helps me formulate why one usual way of talking about conspiracy theories is sort of wrongheaded. But what does that tell us about how to deal with conspiracy theories? If the thing that drives these conspiracy theories is pre-existing polarization and a pre-existing commitment to hating the other side, what can we do to control the corrosive and dangerous facts that conspiracy theories have on society, as is the case with the one guy who clearly did truly believe in Pizzagate and set out to the pizza parlor to “liberate” children that didn't exist? And how do we control the effect on our political system of people like Donald Trump who ignore the outcome of an election?

Muirhead: That’s the right question, and it's the hardest question to answer. What can we do about it? Truth and shame—I think those are the two forces we have to marshal. The power of truth still matters. It matters enormously to simply publicize the fact that Barack Obama was born in the United States and was constitutionally eligible to serve in the office of the presidency. It's absolutely essential to get those facts out there in every way you possibly can. This is not because true believers will change their minds when they see the long-form birth certificate: The true believer will never change her mind or his mind. But there are a lot of people out there who don't know what to think, and conspiracism disorients them, has them wondering about where Obama’s from and what he's about. The group we're fighting for is a group that is disoriented. And who isn't disoriented in today's information ecosystem from time to time? So, it can be extremely stabilizing to hear someone cite real, publicly-available evidence. Fact-checking is absolutely essential. 

The second thing that I think we have to make more use of is shame. We have to create ways of shaming those who truck in conspiracism. There's a Republican candidate here in New Hampshire who's running for Senate, Don Bolduc, who's running against the incumbent Democratic senator, Maggie Hassan. Throughout the Republican primary campaign, this candidate insisted that the 2020 election was stolen and said things like, “I'm never gonna stop believing that. I'm never gonna get off this horse.” Within five days of winning the primary, this person said, “Joe Biden is the legitimate president of the United States.” This person should just be shamed nonstop for having been willing so cynically to truck in that conspiracy theory all summer, while trying to recruit votes at the extreme wing of the Republican Party. And this gets back to the question. It’s not, Do people believe it? It’s, Do they repeat it, and are there incentives for repeating conspiracy theories even when you don't totally believe them? We have a media ecosystem now where stuff gets spread, and it can get repeated by people who don't, or won't, stand up and say, “I believe it.” And this kind of validation through repetition is what's empowering conspiracism in our public life. There's something a little bit kind of goody-goody about the fact checker. I think they’re important; but I also think we're not using mockery nearly as much as we should. Mockery is an extraordinarily effective tool in politics.

Mounk: I think the important thing is to deploy mockery when somebody is doing something that really is morally unacceptable and widely unpopular. We have a lot of mockery that is smug and self-serving, directed at somebody who dares to run astray of a relatively narrow consensus. That, I think, is the sort of mockery that can often get politicians—and Democrats in particular—into trouble.

Muirhead: Shame and mockery are potent tools. You can misuse them, and we probably do, more than we use them right. Here's another tool, which represents the other side of the human spectrum—nobility. There's that great moment when John McCain in a town hall encountered a voter who referred to Barack Obama as someone who wasn't an American. McCain interrupted the person: “No. He is a citizen. He's a good person. He's a family man,” he said. “He and I just disagree about policies and principles, and that's what this campaign is about.” That was John McCain, and he was willing to do things like naming Sarah Palin to be on the ticket to try to win the campaign. But he just wasn't going to truck in conspiracism. He was just too noble a human being to make an alliance with that. It sounds high-minded and impossible. But that wasn't all that long ago. And without that, I don't know? Maybe conspiracism wins.

Mounk: 2024 is no longer that far away, and so the question of whether or not Donald Trump will run—and whether he might win—is on the minds of many. I'm struck by the fact that Trump is not popular, that all of the polls suggest that most Americans dislike him, and that most Americans are pretty skeptical of large parts of the Republican Party. And yet, it seems hard for Democrats to build the kind of lasting governing majority that you talked about at the beginning of our conversation. Why is that? What are Democrats doing wrong, and what can some of your peers in Democratic politics do to increase the chances of beating populists like Trump in the years to come?

Muirhead: We're so indignant at the way the other side assaults and attacks the values that we care about most, that we don't really think we need to make the case for our own principles or policies. We don't think we need to make the case to people who don't already agree with us. Those of us who work in campaigns, who vote in primaries, who write checks, who are really attuned to politics all throughout the year—the conversations we're in all the time are with people who agree with us. And that can just make us really bad at remembering how to make the case for our own program to people who aren't already with us. 

Just yesterday, I was talking to somebody who was working in my house, a blue collar worker who was sanding my floor. We're having a very fun chat, and he mentioned to me that he supports Trump. That's the moment for me to discover something about what makes this person—who works super, super hard at a job that certainly doesn't carry health insurance—want to support Donald Trump. Learning what that person (who, in many ways, has none of the qualities that Donald Trump himself has) finds attractive is the secret to winning in 2024. I would just beg my friends who happen to be in my party to look for moments like that one, and learn what's going on, through conversation. And I would just go back to the importance of the dignity of work. There are a lot of people who really work hard, they live by their wits, and they've come to identify the Democratic Party as the party of people who don't want to work. And that's so false. It's just a slander on the Democratic Party. But I also think we need to speak the language of the dignity of work. We don't want to offend those who do work.

We have to not just ask “which candidate agrees with me most perfectly?” or “which candidate mirrors my own convictions and feelings and passions?” We have to ask: “which candidate is best going to translate the things that I believe in for people who don't agree?” And that's just a different kind of question from the one we normally ask. We need to figure out how to have coffee with each other when we don't agree. 

I don't think this is going to change the election in 2024. But I do think we need to build a culture that grows out of daily life, where we remember how to enjoy each other, even though we disagree ferociously with each other. I think we need to cultivate those occasions where we hang out and enjoy each other's company, even though we don't agree. And this goes back to Bob Putnam’s work on social capital. We're not bowling together. We need to recreate these occasions where—not for very long, but just a half hour or so—we enjoy each other. And I don't know quite how that's going to work. But I do think that it would do enormous things, not just for our ability to knit ourselves together as one complicated community, but more importantly, I think, for our ability to create winning coalitions.


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Podcast production by John T. Williams and Brendan Ruberry. Podcast cover image by Joe O’Shea.

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