Are conspiracy theories harmful for democracy?

I’m teaching “The Politics of Movies and Television” as a First-Year Seminar for CentreTerm this year. I have a group of 14 bright, talented, and intrepid students. We view a variety of popular movies and television programs and then analyze them for their implicit and explicit political messages and themes.

We spent the first few days examining the topic of “conspiracy theories” in American politics. We watched a few episodes of the X-Files and discussed anti-government paranoia, as well as two episodes of The Simpsons which provided examples of political cynicism. We also debated the various sides to the argument as to whether conspiracy theories are harmful to democracy.

Our general class consensus was that conspiracy theories can indeed pose a threat to individuals or small groups – for example, those whose careers were maligned during the McCarthy trials or whose lives were lost during the recent Arizona shootings. However, we also concluded that conspiracy theories posed no major threat to American democracy as a whole, because they never gain widespread acceptance and have yet to seriously jeopardize the authority or legitimacy of our governmental institutions.

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