The Seductive Rhetoric of Conspiracy

Singular explanations that cast entire communities in the same mold are a reminder that we articulate what we need more than what we know.

The stories we tell ourselves can be breathtaking in their credulity. Who could respond otherwise to an account by an old John Bircher that would have us believe a member of the Senate died because the Soviets planted radium in his chair;1 or that cartoon animators were collaborating to turn Daffy Duck into a shill for communist propaganda;2 or that Princess Diana was intentionally rubbed out by the royal family,3 or that there are about 80 “Communists” in the current House of Representatives?4 or that the KKK is “a leftist group.”5  Singular explanations that cast entire communities in the same mold are a reminder that we articulate what we need more than what we know.

On their face, characterizations of collective motives are always implausible. Groups of humans are never really of one mind. Anyone who has worked in a multi-layered organization or tried to get definitive answers from a committee probably carries some of the shrapnel thrown off from their fractured responses.6 To be sure, humans are social animals. But it doesn’t follow that they behave with the uniformity that the grammar of our descriptions implies. We are simply not well suited to think or act in complete concordance with others. The need to define the boundaries of our own worlds is strong, and a language of simple pronouns propels us into delusions of uniformity.

On those occasions when groups seem to be functioning as one, we are willing to pay handsomely to watch it happen: at a football game, attending a performance by a great orchestra, or perhaps watching a play, where what the writer and actors intended more or less unfolds as planned. The attractions of perfect coordination are undeniable. Synchronicity creates the impression of coherence. And from the illusion of coherence we look for shared intentionality.

The more enlightened assumption is surely to expect natural divergence. Descriptions of behavior have more credibility when they are understood in their uniqueness. There is even something pleasing when unimpeachable fact sabotages the smothering weight of a glib assertion. Good histories often provide this function: for example, when reminders of the impressive civil rights legacy of Lyndon Johnson defeat the instinct to place him in a rogue’s gallery of regressive Southern “pols,”7 or when we discover that Hollywood was largely invented by Eastern European Jews who set out to create fantasies of middle-American normalcy.8 Unassailable details like these have a way of wringing out the excesses of condensed and fantasized narratives.

The justifiable caution against defining others in categorical terms is nothing less than an offense to our rhetorical nature.

Even so, the well-grounded caution against defining others in categorical terms is nothing less than an offense to our rhetorical nature. Talk gains importance from the mostly false imprimatur of categorical certainty. We always need to find a way to marvel again at how language sets down the tracks of thought. Discourse is enabled by the descriptive uniformity made possible by the language of “them.” Add in the trio of “us,” “we” and “they” and we have the core terms that can map the boundaries of alien territory. Against the realist’s impulse for practical observation, there is a countervailing compulsion in our public discussion to find forms of generalization that will add force to our arguments. Aggregating “their” presumed motives tantalizes us with the kind of intelligibility that allows making sense of factions that matter, including those from whom we want to stand apart. It’s our nature to enter the fray of ordinary conversation often ignoring caveats about what a gloss of simplified characterization misses.

Interestingly, we are always willing to describe the uniqueness of the causative factors in our own biographies. We cherish our individuality and implicitly ask those around us to acknowledge it. But our search for universals that can be applied to others is unquenchable.

All of this takes on more urgency in an election year, when the tight compression of candidate’s comments in our news media encourages what amounts to speaking in gross overgeneralizations.  Arguments and evidence tend to vanish from our discussions, replaced only by highly inaccurate characterizations of individuals by age, gender, their own religious traditions, political affiliations, and their home regions.   We usually know these risks.  Even so, we look for uniform intentions as a pathway to easy understanding of complex phenomena.


Adapted from Gary C. Woodward, The Rhetoric of Intention in Human Affairs (Lexington Books, 2014).

1. Steven Goldzwig, “Conspiracy Rhetoric at the Dawn of the New Millennium: A Response,” Western Journal of Communication, Fall, 2002, 492.

2. Karl Cohen, “Toontown’s Reds: HUAC’s Investigation of Alleged Communists in the Animation Industry,” Film History, June, 1993, Ebsco Communication and Mass media Complete, accessed April 17, 2012.

3. Nicholas Witchell, “Fayed Conspiracy Claim Collapses,” BBC News, April 7, 2008,, accessed April 2, 2012.

4. This was the belief of former Congressman Allen West. United Press International, “West: 81Democrats in Congress Communists,” April 11, 2012,, accessed April 30, 2012. West narrowly lost his re-election bid in 2012.

5. Jeffrey Lord on CNN, quoted in Salon, June 10, 2016,

6. For Franklin Roosevelt, the villains were the Departments of the Treasury, State, and the Navy. To “change anything” was nearly impossible, he noted. See Emmett John Hughes, The Living Presidency (New York: Coward, McCann and Geoghegan, 1972), 184.

7. Robert Caro, “The Compassion of Lyndon Johnson,” The New Yorker, April 1, 2002, 56-77.

8. Neal Gabler, An Empire of Their Own (New York: Crown, 1988).


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