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Morning Feature – The Benghazi Entrepreneurs

May 7, 2013

Morning Feature

Morning Feature – The Benghazi Entrepreneurs

Most conspiracy theories sprout and spread spontaneously. But the Benghazi theories, like those about Obamacare death panels, have been seeded and nurtured by Republican conspiracy entrepreneurs. (More)

The Benghazi Entrepreneurs

Like me, you may have thought the conspiracy theories about last September’s tragic attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi pretty much dried up with Mitt Romney’s infamous stumble in the second presidential debate last October, and were put to bed with President Obama’s victory in November.

Republicans have never given up on it. Yesterday Mike Huckabee said Benghazi will end Obama’s presidency if Republicans hold the House and win the Senate in 2014. New York Post columnist and PJ Tattler blogger Michael Walsh wrote Sunday “that blunder may now bring down the man who never should have been president in the first place, for grotesque dereliction of his duty as commander-in-chief.” Screenwriter and PJ Tattler blogger Roger L. Simon also believes the president will be impeached.

From breathless exposés about the evolution of the administration’s initial talking points, to factually impossible claims that the White House canceled a rescue mission that could have saved the lives of Ambassador Chris Smith and three others at the consulate, to the latest charges that President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton silenced dissenting witnesseswitnesses whose lawyers are longtime Republican operatives – Benghazi is an ever-evolving conspiracy theory that Republicans desperately need to make plausible enough to justify the removal of a president whose legitimacy they have never accepted.

“Conspiracy entrepreneurs”

In an excellent 2008 working paper, law professors Cass Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule explored how conspiracy theories are born and sustained. Most arise spontaneously through what the authors call “our crippled epistemologies” and “information cascades.”

Simply, most of us do not have first-hand experience for most of what we think we know. Instead, we rely on the opinions of others. If Allen says X, and if Betty has no strong evidence to the contrary, and if Betty cares what Allen thinks about her, then Betty will probably agree with X. When Allen and Betty say X to Carl, who also has no strong evidence to the contrary and who also cares what Allen and Betty think of him, Carl will usually agree with X as well. When enough people in their group agree with X, that becomes the group consensus and indeed a belief in X may become a condition for inclusion in that group.

As Sunstein and Vermeule write:

Some such theories seem to bubble up spontaneously, appearing roughly simultaneously in many different social networks; others are initiated and spread, quite intentionally, by conspiracy entrepreneurs who profit directly or indirectly from propagating their theories…. Some conspiracy entrepreneurs are entirely sincere; others are interested in money or power, or in achieving some general social goal.

They also note that these theories tend to grow more extreme through a process known as group polarization. Decades of studies have shown that groups tend to move from cautious and/or indifferent initial beliefs to more certain and committed expressions of those beliefs. “It might be X, I guess, for what it’s worth” becomes “It is X, absolutely, and X is very important!”

“A fake president”

Last week the NRA elected Jim Porter as their new president, a man who called Barack Obama “a fake president.” It’s not an isolated belief. Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli said in the GOP believe President Obama stole the election, 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney said President Obama bought the election by giving people stuff, and ForbesPeter Ferrera called 2012 a failure of democracy.

Many false beliefs are trivial, like children’s beliefs in the Tooth Fairy. But Sunstein and Vermeule caution that we should not ignore conspiracy theories. Most conspiracy theorists merely harrumph among themselves, but others act on those beliefs, as happened with alleged Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev. When almost half of Republicans agree with the statement “in the next few years, an armed revolution may be necessary to protect our liberties”, and Adam Kokesh is organizing an armed march on our nation’s capital “to put the government on notice”

… we should not ignore Republican conspiracy theory entrepreneurs. They want Barack Obama out of the White House – the 2012 election bedamned – and this week’s Benghazi hearings and demands for impeachment are their least threatening option.


Happy Tuesday!

  • winterbanyan

    Thanks for dissecting the way conspiracy theories happen. I wonder if any of the GOP in the House and Senate, fostering these theories about Benghazi, have any idea that they could get in the way of the armed mob they are encouraging?

    This is disheartening, but not the first time we have faced this. I think the saner 70% will prevail. Eventually.

    But maybe I’m wearing rose colored glasses this morning.

    • NCrissieB

      Actually, the Benghazi entrepreneurs reinforce rather than interfere with the armed mobs. The more credence given to the narrative that President Obama was not legitimately elected – and would never have been reelected had the media ‘done their job’ on Benghazi – the greater the outrage will be when he is not impeached. And that’s not going to happen.

      So if Republicans can’t get him out of office by peaceful means, because we Democrats steal the 2014 midterms … well hell’s bells, what option do the Real Americans™ have left? 😯

      Good morning! ::hugggggs::

  • addisnana

    I need help processing this. 1) We should not ignore this. 2) Repeating a lie gives it credence. 3) The media isn’t exactly helpful. 4) Falsehoods keep rolling out.

    Okay what do we (progressives collectively) and I do? This question has no easy answers. I get that but if we do nothing they will win.

    I feel like the alternate universe the GOP is peddling has far too many believers and funders. That universe is not one I want to live in.

    • NCrissieB

      Sunstein and Vermeule do offer solutions, and we’ll explore those tomorrow. (Hint: Fred Whispering is part of it.)

      Good morning! ::hugggggs::

  • Gardener

    Nice post! Lately it has struck me that this sort of thing is exactaly why the GOP outreach to minorities is doomed. Any disrespect the GOP or their operatives, stooges, and lackeys show to the President only more firmly cements the idea into the minds of his minority supporters that the Republicans are against them.

    I say they should keep up the good work!

    • NCrissieB

      I agree, Gardener. The social science term for that, in the context of group polarization, is self-selection. As a group consensus gets more extreme, the group’s less-extreme members leave. Their absence drives the group’s consensus further toward the extreme … and the group may begin to pick up new members who were “too extreme” for the previous consensus.

      That pretty much blocks “outreach” to people who were already suspicious of the group … as minorities rightly have been of the GOP.

      Good morning! ::hugggggs::

  • Jim W

    Starting a Demonstration March on a bridge is a fools mission. I hope the marchers are ready to spend four hours on a bus. The district will treat this like any other group asking to be arrested for civil disobedience.

    If they bring their ammunition along it becomes a different problem.

    District transport law: §22-4504.02. Lawful transportation of firearms.
    (a) Any person who is not otherwise prohibited by the law from transporting, shipping, or receiving a firearm shall be permitted to transport a firearm for any lawful purpose from any place where he may lawfully possess and carry the firearm [see § 22-4504.01, above ] to any other place where he may lawfully possess and carry the firearm if the firearm is transported in accordance with this section.
    (b) (1) If the transportation of the firearm is by a vehicle, ….
    (c) If the transportation of the fire arm is in a manner other than in a vehicle, the firearm shall be:
    (1) Unloaded;
    (2) Inside a locked container; and
    (3) Separate from any ammunition

    • NCrissieB

      The whole point of this “protest” is to carry loaded weapons, which Kokesh knows will violate D.C. law. I hope the protest falls through. If not, I hope the protesters are arrested … and I hope they’re smart enough not to shoot it out with federal police.

      As progressives, we should ask this question: “What would the nation’s response be if a group of 10,000 radical Muslims organized to march into Washington D.C. with loaded weapons?”

      Most of the people who would join Kokesh are radical Christians … and that difference doesn’t change the appropriate law enforcement response.

      Good morning! ::hugggggs::

  • NCrissieB