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PSCI 261
Conspiracy Theories in American Politics Fall 2020
Division II
Cross-listed PSCI 261 / LEAD 277

Class Details

The phrase “conspiracy theory” typically evokes images of paranoid cranks–of cars plastered with vituperative bumper-stickers and of people who wear tin-foil hats. To be sure, the claims that conspiracy theorists advance can be astonishing, from Pizzagate–alleging that Democratic Party officials ran a human trafficking ring out of a Washington, D.C. pizza restaurant–to the Flat Earth movement, which holds that the earth is, indeed, flat. At the same time, the persistence and power of conspiracy theories in American politics should provoke us to wonder why such preposterous-sounding notions gain traction in the first place, and who benefits from them. That conspiracy theories tend to advance a partisan or ideological view, often intended to discredit a competing movement or ideology, suggests that conspiracy theories can function as a kind of remote leadership–“leadership” without any clear leaders at the helm. This course will examine notable American conspiracy theories, such as the Kennedy Assassination theory, “9/11 Truth,” and “Birther-ism,” in light of recent scholarship on conspiracism, demagoguery, and populism. Our goal will be to understand the political and discursive forces that empower conspiracy theories and the functions they serve in American politics. Where and with whom do conspiracy theories originate? Why do some gain traction while others quickly wither? How can we distinguish between a conspiracy theory based on plausible evidence and one that exists simply to create chaos? And why do some conspiracy theories persist even in the face of direct public refutation?
The Class: Format: seminar; This course will be hybrid, combining elements of synchronous meetings and asynchronous content so as to allow both in-person and remote students to participate.
Limit: 14
Expected: 14
Class#: 2438
Grading: no pass/fail option, yes fifth course option
Requirements/Evaluation: Several short essays, weekly writing assignments, and a longer research paper with presentation.
Prerequisites: None
Enrollment Preferences: Leadership Studies Concentrators and Political Science Majors
Distributions: Division II
Notes: This course is cross-listed and the prefixes carry the following divisional credit:
PSCI 261 Division II LEAD 277 Division II
Attributes: LEAD American Domestic Leadership

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