A conservative's guide to conspiracies — and conspiracy theories

Media stories are full of derogatory references to conspiracy theories, mostly in reference to former President Trump and many of his staunchest supporters’ claim that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. 

But the political left has its own conspiracy theories — and its own conspiracies. Yet the media largely ignore the theories and the left’s role in promoting them.

Given the current public and media attention given to conspiracy theories, it might be time to consider how conservatives should approach them. Here are a few points:

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Conspiracies exist. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a conspiracy as, “A secret plan made by two or more people to do something that is harmful or illegal.” 

That’s a really broad definition that could encompass countless local-level criminal conspiracies involving local government officials, businesses or individuals. For our purposes, we’ll be referring to major conspiracies and conspiracy theories that have a widespread political and/or economic impact on the country. 

Some of the most famous events in history, both ancient and modern, were conspiracies — not just conspiracy theories. The assassination of Julius Caesar, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, Watergate and the 9/11 terrorist attack on the United States, just to mention a handful.

Conspiracy theories ≠ conspiraciesNoted economist Paul Samuelson in 1966 quipped, “The stock market has called nine of the past five recessions.” Well, conspiracy theorists have also predicted far more conspiracies than actually existed. And it’s possible that most successful conspiracies were never predicted. 

While the media usually focus on conspiracy theories embraced by some right-leaning people, the left has had its share. On the “Today Show” in 1998, then-first lady Hillary Clinton claimed there was a “vast right-wing conspiracy” out to get her husband. She has used the term several times since then.

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It’s certainly true that Republicans wanted President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonLeft laughs off floated changes to 2024 ticket A year into his presidency, Biden is polling at an all-time low Second gentleman Emhoff acts as public link to White House MORE out of office and pursued his multiple sex scandals – plus lying to the public about them – to oust him. But it wasn’t a “conspiracy” because it wasn’t a secret. Republicans were very open and public about their goal.

Ingredients for a successful conspiracy. Conspiracies fail for many reasons, but most successful conspiracies seem to have some common elements. They tend to be composed of a relatively small number of people who share some type of ideology or belief and are absolutely committed to a particular goal. I’ll expand on those points.

The larger the group, the bigger the chance someone will spill the beans, whether intentionally or not. Even when many people are involved in a conspiracy, the leaders usually keep the details to a small, select group. All the conspiracies mentioned above were composed of a relatively small number of people.

And all the conspirators shared certain beliefs or goals and were absolutely committed to their cause. For example: Some Roman senators rejected Julius Caesar’s growing political control and wanted to reinstate the republic; avenging the South by taking out Lincoln; and al Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks to punish the United States for its support of Israel and perceived anti-Islamic policies.

So how do some of the current conspiracy concerns stack up? 

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One theory alleges that scurrilous individuals, election officials, foreign actors and voting machine companies somehow changed the presidential vote in five or six states, giving Joe BidenJoe BidenMacro grid will keep the lights on Pelosi suggests filibuster supporters 'dishonor' MLK's legacy on voting rights Sanders calls out Manchin, Sinema ahead of filibuster showdown MORE the victory.

But it would have taken hundreds of people working in concert over time in several states to pull off this vote switcheroo. And it would have been a bipartisan effort. Five of those states’ legislatures are run by Republicans, the vast majority of whom would have voted for Trump and were not committed to the goal of defeating him.

Ironically, conservatives and libertarians generally think governments and bureaucrats are inefficient and mangle almost everything they touch, such as health care and public education. So why would we think they could pull off a multi-state election fraud conspiracy that turned out well for down-ballot Republicans, just not for Trump?

To be sure, some of the voting-process changes instituted during the pandemic were questionable and could have been abused. But until someone presents proof of widespread fraud that would have changed the outcome of the presidential election – and we’ve been waiting more than a year to see it – we should remain skeptical. 

But a real conspiracy did occur, not just a conspiracy theory — the Trump-Russian collusion hoax and the Steele Dossier. Democrats associated with the Clinton campaign paid a foreigner to spread salacious lies about Trump prior to the 2016 presidential election, and then pushed those claims in the lapdog media.

It was apparently a small group of Democrats, later joined by FBI agents, who were completely committed to one goal: defeating Trump and electing Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Democrats see victory in a voting rights defeat Left laughs off floated changes to 2024 ticket A year into his presidency, Biden is polling at an all-time low MORE. That’s a conspiracy that succeeded in slandering Trump, but not defeating him.

Media favoritism encourages conspiracies. The vast majority of the mainstream media were behind Clinton and later Biden, and largely dismissed or ignored the accusations and evidence regarding the Steele Dossier. Only since the evidence became undeniable have some reluctantly acknowledged the conspiracy. And yet almost no one in the media is willing to hold the Clintons and their surrogates accountable, which opens the door for future conspiracies.

So, how should conservatives think about conspiracy claims? We know conspiracies exist — the Clinton-Steele Dossier proved that. But as a rule, be careful about attributing to conspiracy what can just as easily be explained by incompetence or stupidity.

Merrill Matthews is a resident scholar with the Institute for Policy Innovation in Dallas, Texas. Follow him on Twitter @MerrillMatthews.