Cass R. Sunstein
Conspiracy Theories and Other Dangerous Ideas
New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014
Do people actually read Cass R. Sunstein? Millions, maybe, are vaguely aware of him as a talking head on cable TV. Others might recall that Sunstein held an obscure but sinister-sounding sinecure in the Obama administration (Administrator, White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, 2009-2012), or that he is frequently touted as some kind of esteemed legal scholar at Harvard Law School. A much tinier number might remember his odd name from one of the three dozen books he’s authored, edited, or otherwise put his name to.
But if you’ve read anything by him at all, it most likely wasn’t a book, but rather one of his many short commentaries or reviews, perhaps in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The New York Review of Books (NYRB), or even Facebook, where he rejoices in playing Oracle of the Obvious (as Helen Lawrenson described Bernard Baruch), his public-policy insights as shimmering and insubstantial as tinsel:
Across a wide range of issues, a lot more people will support a policy if they think that the majority supports it.
For people to govern themselves, they need to have information. They also need to be able to convey it to others. Social media platforms make that tons easier.
A tireless self-promoter, Sunstein has a great knack for voicing the bien-pensant phrase-of-the-moment. For example, when he reviewed a couple of books in the NYRB about memories of Hitler’s Germany this past June, he titled it “It Can Happen Here .” This, of course, alludes to Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 potboiler farce about a Huey Long-style politician rising to power in America, It Can’t Happen Here. Alas, neither the title nor the Lewis novel have anything to do with the books being reviewed, which describe citizens of Hitler’s Germany as having been meek and complacent folk mainly concerned about having a job and keeping out of trouble – Germans, in other words.
It’s not until the end of the review that Sunstein gets around to noticing that he still hasn’t made good on that humdinger of a headline, which clearly intimates that he’s going to make some comparison between the Trump administration and the Third Reich. He finally comes up with something, but it’s not much:
With our system of checks and balances, full-blown authoritarianism is unlikely to happen here, but it would be foolish to ignore the risks that Trump and his administration pose to established norms and institutions . . .
In other words, it probably can’t happen here after all . . . but why waste a good title?
Reading long-form Sunstein is a strain, like jogging through warm molasses; there is a sense of forward motion, but the finish line never arrives. But he’s an ace at book-packaging. Every year we get two or three volumes with his name on the spine, an eye-catching title, and insides that are, well . . . viscous.
The new one this summer was a grab-bag of essays, mainly by others, and named, oddly enough, Can It Happen Here?: Authoritarianism in America . This was Sunstein’s entry into that popular non-fiction genre of 2018, Alarmist Anti-Trump Paranoia. True to form, his title promises but doesn’t deliver. We get Tyler Cowen recycling a Politico essay  telling why it can’t happen here, and Sunstein’s wife Samantha Power in a dithering essay  about how we must be on guard against “foreign” (i.e., Russian) interference in our elections. Meanwhile, one of Sunstein’s Harvard Law colleagues moons over Japanese-American internment during the Second World War, saying it was bad, and sort of makes us think of our illegal aliens. A couple of other people stretch to find parallels between Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here and the Trump era. Which is pretty funny, because in Lewis’ satire, the inept “dictator” Buzz Windrip ends in abject failure. Clearly, Sunstein chose the title of the book before asking his friends to write the insides.
Usually, Sunstein books show up and disappear like March snow – before you know they’re there. One exception is his 2014 compilation, Conspiracy Theories and Other Dangerous Ideas. Although somewhat stale in its references, the book still reverberates, mainly because of its 2008 title essay. There, Sunstein seemed to posit that governments can, and possibly should, ban or control narratives that run counter to their agenda – ”conspiracy theories,” in Sunstein’s formulation.
The loudest alarm was sounded in 2010 by the quirky investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald, who took down Sunstein in Salon: “Obama Confidant’s Spine-Chilling Proposal .” Much more recently (December 2017), The New Yorker‘s Andrew Marantz revisited the matter , and characterized the anti-Sunstein protests from Greenwald and others as part of a mad Glenn Beck “Right-wing conspiracy theory,” on a level with Pizzagate.
For the most part, the “conspiracy” essay was a nothingburger. All Sunstein did was list some hypothetical solutions that a government might employ in controlling oppositional speech. Banning it entirely is one solution – one hardly unknown in the past century. Manipulating it through the press and social media is another option, and particularly relevant today.
At the end of the day, though, Greenwald was basically correct. When you set forth a list of possible initiatives like this, and don’t exclude any on ethical grounds, you imply they are all equally okay. The ethical factor is what is missing in Conspiracy Theories and Other Dangerous Ideas. Sunstein isn’t interested in issues of morality, tradition, national interest, or even fundamental notions of right and wrong. He seldom even mentions legal precedent. Our esteemed legal scholar spins his lofty theories without any reference to the underpinnings of the law.
But I’m getting a little ahead of myself here, and it’s time to look at Sunstein’s list of government solutions to “conspiracy theories”:
What can government do about conspiracy theories? And among the things it can do, what should it do? Simply in order to understand the options (without endorsing any of them), imagine a series of possible responses.
- Government might ban conspiracy theories.
- Government might impose some kind of tax, financial or otherwise, on those who disseminate such theories.
- Government might itself engage in counterspeech, marshaling arguments to discredit conspiracy theories.
- Government might hire or work with credible agents in the private sector to engage in counterspeech. (p. 22)
Number 1 describes a totalitarian, Soviet solution, of course, and to a lesser extent the press control that was exercised in America and Britain during the First and Second World Wars. Number 2 (Tax the Truthers!) seems to be unworkable filler thrown in for the sake of completeness.
As for 3 and 4, these merely describe actual solutions that the American government has used for many decades. “Credible agents in the private sector” of course refers to the mainstream media, in particular the “court journalists” who populated the press corps during the Obama administration. And then of course there are covert propaganda initiatives, such as CIA’s promotion of such periodicals as The Paris Review and Encounter, and its production of books and news stories during the 1950s and ‘60s. (These campaigns have been written about countless times; a popular Salon-style treatment is here .)
Sunstein merely states the obvious. Where his argument falls apart is in the shallowness of the examples he chooses, and his own biases toward controversies that are far from settled facts. He caricatures opinions he doesn’t like, and blames them on “crippled epistemology.” One of his most ludicrous examples:
As Robert Anton Wilson notes of the conspiracy theories advanced by Holocaust deniers, “a conspiracy that can deceive us about 6,000,000 deaths can deceive us about anything, and [then] it takes a great leap of faith of Holocaust Revisionists to believe World War II happened at all, or that Franklin Roosevelt did serve as President from 1933 to 1945, or that Marilyn Monroe was more ‘real’ than King Kong or Donald Duck.” (p. 7)
One can be generous and grant that Sunstein really doesn’t know about the subject he cites here, including the salient fact that the Six Million story has evolved considerably over the decades. (Due in large part to those selfsame “Holocaust Revisionists,” I might add.) But it’s foolish for him to wade into this hazardous pool, cite Robert Anton Wilson as an authority, equate serious historical inquiry to a comparison of Marilyn Monroe and Donald Duck, and imply that a pulp treatment of this episode is somehow unimpeachable dogma.
Throughout the essay, he dismisses his “conspiracy” bogeymen as low-information crazies. He lumps together all manner of beliefs as mutually supportive:
The best predictor of whether people will accept a conspiracy theory appears to be whether they accept other conspiracy theories. Those who accept one such theory (for example, that the FBI killed Martin Luther King Jr.) are especially likely to accept others (for example, that climate change is a hoax). (p. 10)
He brackets together wacky ideas with plausible ones in order to dismiss them as ridiculous. Thus, “the Apollo 11 moon landing was staged and never actually occurred” gets lumped in with CIA involvement in the assassination of President Kennedy, and “climate change” disagreements (p. 3).
Rhetorically, he asks himself whether conspiracy theories are even worth worrying about. “Perhaps only a handful of kooks believe that US government officials had any kind of role in the events of 9/11.” (p. 23) Then he knocks that idea down by associating conspiratorial thinking in general with acts of wanton violence:
Even if only a small fraction of adherents to a particular conspiracy theory act on the basis of their beliefs, that small fraction may be enough to cause serious harm, as in the 1995 truck bombing of the Alfred B. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Convicted perpetrators Timothy McVeigh, Terry Nichols, and Michael Fortier shared a set of conspiratorial beliefs about the federal government. Many others who shared their beliefs did not act on them, but those three people did, with terrifying consequences . . . (p. 24)
In other words, a distaste for “climate change” huckstering, or doubts about the Warren Commission Report, or 9/11 might somehow lead you to blowing up a federal building with a truckful of fertilizer. After all, they’re all “conspiratorial beliefs.”
Fortunately, Sunstein’s thoughts about practical solutions are as superficial and woolly-minded as his description of the problem itself:
A potential approach . . . is cognitive infiltration of extremist groups. As used here, this admittedly provocative term does not mean 1960s-style infiltration with a view to surveillance and collecting information, possibly for use in future prosecutions . . . How might this tactic work? Recall that extremist networks and groups, including those that purvey conspiracy theories, typically suffer from a kind of crippled epistemology . . . [G]overnment agents and their allies might enter foreign chat rooms, online social networks, or even real-space groups and attempt to undermine percolating conspiracy theories by raising doubts about their factual premises, causal logic, or implications for action, political or otherwise. (p. 29)
There you have it. We can lick this conspiracy menace through government-funded concern-trolling!
But to what end? Why bother? (I mean, besides the bogeyman of conspiratorially-inspired bombings.) Simply to advance public policy positions that one happens to favor? Yes, that’s it, basically. But you have to slog through the rest of the book to unravel Sunstein’s peculiar whys and wherefores. It becomes apparent that he conceives of society as a fungible mass of atomized individuals, distinguished superficially by marks of race, sex, and atavistic biases, but who are all essentially the same and interchangeable. The overarching goal of public policy, it would seem, is the elimination of social friction and individual differences. Everyone should be forced to just get along. In this, he’s reminiscent of old-school community relations propagandists. Let’s wipe out prejudice. We’re all the same beneath the skin!
It’s as if we were all faceless passengers in a lifeboat, with no past, purpose, or sense of how we got there. This explains Sunstein’s obsession with subduing those “conspiracy theories” of which he doesn’t really have a grasp. Their truth or falsity don’t matter; the big thing is that they cause dissent and disharmony. Lifeboat captain Sunstein doesn’t want to see us muttering darkly amongst ourselves because we might rock the boat, or capsize it. Or worse yet, toss him over the gunwale.
There are ten other essays in the book, and in them, Sunstein digresses on a grab-bag of subjects: animal rights, health care costs/benefits, climate change agreements, sex equality, marriage. He doesn’t really believe in marriage as a state-sanctioned institution; he sees it as an accidental hand-me-down from an earlier age, a cozy tradition but not something society has any real interest in promoting. Obviously, he has no problem with interracial or homosexual coupling. Such marriages are “rights,” upon which the state has no business intruding.
He’s very much in favor of climate change agreements, as he is a globalist and one-worlder, opposed to prioritizing the needs and productivity of America over those of China, India, and poor countries of the Third World. Global warming is an oncoming catastrophe that faces us all here in the global lifeboat. Since the past prosperity in the US is responsible for the majority of greenhouse gases (climate scientists all agree!), it is the responsibility of this country to take the lead, shrink its carbon emissions, and try to cajole other countries to do likewise. Sunstein doubts that we’ll have any strict international climate agreement anytime soon, because it is politically unattractive. But we should at least make soothing noises about how global warming is an existential danger, because – and this is just my educated guess – that will make the other countries’ community relations leaders happy.
Sunstein describes his own political philosophy as New Progressivism. His desired objectives include a rejection of economic protectionism, and an emphasis on education (by which he means job training), a flexible labor market (everybody a temp!). Standard free-market globalism, in order words. But Sunstein’s agenda goes a little further. He wants a program of private and public incentives to encourage people to adhere to an ideal “normative” behavior. As illustrations, he mentions anti-smoking initiatives and anti-obesity drives, but you and I know what he’s really after: conformity of behavior, conformity of belief, and a relinquishment of personal beliefs, heritage, and identity.