In my new nationally syndicated column out today, I explore the root cause of America's anger at our federal government and the growing embrace of conspiracy theories - trends displayed in recent Scripps Howard/Ohio University studies. It is not just a reaction to fear in the age of terrorism, but is a more fundamental crisis of confidence in our public institutions.
Certainly, some of the conspiracy theories out there are offensive, inaccurate and should be ignored. However, the growth of conspiracy theories as a phenomenon should not be ignored, because they represent something deeper - a distrust of a government. This distrust, though it can go in crazy directions, is not crazy unto itself. In fact, it is quite rational. After all, everywhere we look, we see proof that our government actively conspires against the public.
The most pristine example, as I say in the column, was the recent behavior by the Federal Communications Commission. This week, this obscure commission moved to relax media ownership regulations - the final insult in a kabuki dance in which the public, quite openly, kicked in the teeth. When America sees this kind of thing happen on a daily basis, can we really wonder why so many people are angry, or why so many people believe the government is always conspiring against the public? I think not.
To be sure, many of these specific conspiracy theories are absolutely offensive. For instance, there is absolutely no proof that 9/11 was an "inside job" with government officials actively helping the attack - and those who push this myth without facts should be met with scorn. However, the media is also mislabeling some very clear facts as "conspiracy theories." For instance, it is not a "theory" that government officials knew of Osama bin Laden's growing determination to commit a domestic terrorist attack against the United States nor that terrorists were looking to crash airplanes into buildings. Those are just historical facts - not conspiracy theories.
But, again, more important than a debate about what is a conspiracy theory and what isn't, is the rise of conspiracy theories as a social phenomenon - and the roots of that rise is what should trouble us the most. We have a government that now openly and remorselessly ignores the public - and the public has reacted by losing all confidence in that government.
For the conservative movement, this crisis of confidence is great. Even if they lose an election or two because the Republican candidates of the moment take the blame, the more the public loses confidence in the government, the better chances their harsh anti-government rhetoric and policies could potentially get traction.
On the flip side, this loss of confidence is something awful for progressives (and the country) - and yet it is something I think many progressives fundamentally ignore. We think that all we have to do is point out that the government is corrupt in order to make our case. But that's just the starting point for most Americans these days. The majority of the public already believes that - and we can't win issue campaigns or elections simply by proving something people already know. We have the much more difficult task of 1) showing how conservative leadership is responsible for corrupting the government (not easy when many Democrats are part of the problem), and 2) making people believe that progressive leadership can restore that government and thus give people back some confidence in their public institutions again. This dual task is not going to be easy.
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