Disclaimer: This dictionary term is meant to act as a red-blue translator to help you understand how people of different political stripes use, think, or feel about the same word or phrase. The Red Blue Dictionary is not meant to provide a concrete, final definition of hot-button words, but rather, to help people better understand one another.
Like other terms taking on a broadening, more expansive meaning, “conspiracy theory” has increasingly come to refer to a notion far beyond its original meaning. Historically, “conspiracy theory” has referred to any explanation of an event or situation that ties it to the influence of or planning by covert, sinister and powerful groups, especially when other explanations may appear as more probable.
However, both sides of the political spectrum increasingly now use “conspiracy theory” to label anyone raising serious questions or strong concerns about patterns of action on the other side - especially when the claims made on the other side are seen as false or dangerous. Compared with healthy critique, the references to “conspiracy” often insinuate some degree of malevolence, corruption or ill-will on the other side. Thus, questions from those who doubt the majority views or elite claims around climate change, COVID-19 disease management, and other sensitive issues have frequently been labeled as “conspiracy theorists.”
The term has an intrinsically negative connotation, implying that the appeal to a conspiracy is based on prejudice, insufficient evidence, or even stupidity. In the political lexicon of our day, then, “conspiracist” takes its place next to “fanatic” and “extremist” as largely pejorative words that function to discredit anyone who is labeled as such — similar to “crazy,” “crackpot,” “cookoo,” and insinuating they are so ridiculous, it’s better to just ignore them.
This is reflected in a flurry of journalism around conspiracy theorizing in recent years – almost all of which paint its associated commentary as categorically silly, and/or dangerous. Headlines include: “The Coronavirus Conspiracy Boom” (The Atlantic), “The Normalization of Conspiracy Culture” (The Atlantic), and “How America Lost Its Mind” (The Atlantic). Such articles take conspiracy commentary as a public pathology to either to giggle at, or to raise alarm and analyze.
In this way, what could be thoughtful public discourse around important, although ambiguous phenomena can be sideswiped by the use of the term “conspiracy theory,” which often discourages people from engaging and generates knee-jerk rejection of any further conversation. Thus, the awful truth about sex trafficking in America morphs into theories that Tom Hanks, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton hold sex-slave children hostage underneath Central Park, or that Satanic pedophiles control the “deep state.” Likewise, thoughtful questions about COVID-19 policy morph into insinuations that health officials are “deep-state operatives and might not even be health experts” or that “all of the pandemics and epidemics are perpetrated fraud to control, to drive our healthcare system.”
The use (or misuse) of the term “conspiracy theory” can generate distrust of anyone raising questions – even legitimate ones.
See Jeffrey Epstein and When to Take Conspiracies Seriously, Ross Douthat, New York Times
Discerning True from False Conspiracy, Public Square Magazine