Author traces roots of U.S. political conspiracy theories

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Extremist political conspiracies such as birthers and truthers may be a dominant theme of post-9/11 America, but in a new book by Arthur Goldwag, he argues that modern conservative groups may be a product of history repeating itself.

In Goldwag's book, The New Hate: A History of Fear and Loathing on the Populist Right, due out on February 7, the author traced the historical origins of rhetoric and ideologies associated with birtherism, Islamophobia, anti-immigration sentiment and other touchstones of modern conservative factions such as the Tea Party movement.

Throughout his book, Goldwag highlighted similarities in rhetoric between such past movements and some present political discourse, drawing parallels between anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic literature from 100 years ago and statements from contemporary politicians and commentators concerned that Muslims represent a threat to America's security and way of life.

If you read the really anti-Islamic stuff, it reads exactly like the anti-Semitic stuff from the 1920s, Goldwag told Reuters. It has this totalizing quality, projecting immutable characteristics onto a whole class of people, and it's never going to be true if you do that.

Although Goldwag is worried about the spread of movements based on hatred and simplistic thought, he said America has come a long way from the days of the old hate, citing the 2008 election of Barack Obama as the nation's first African American president by a significant majority as a sign of progress.

We're a more sophisticated society, and a less racist society, he said. We are improving, but one of the real challenges that we face are the people who are trying to pull us backward, and they have a lot of help.

The author said this help comes in several forms, and is what separates the new hate from the old. He pointed to the proliferation of 24-hour cable news, talk radio, and the Internet as platforms that have allowed fringe ideas to penetrate the political mainstream to a much larger degree than in the past.

One thing is that there is so much more media than there used to be, he said. People that are small in number have a much larger impact that they did before. The tiny minority, the really hard-core racists, have a megaphone that they didn't used to have in the Internet.

While political groups previously relied heavily on postal mail and newspapers, the Internet made it easy to reach a larger audience more efficiently and cost-effectively with websites, email, podcasts, and video, shifting the focus of political discussion toward more ideological issues, the author said.

Newspapers used to be very partisan, but newspapers weren't being shouted at you 24 hours a day. People are talking about big ideological ideas with an intensity that they didn't use to so much, he said.

The author also explored how tough times and uncertainty -- from Russia's 1917 Bolshevik Revolution to the 2001 September 11 attacks -- can create fertile ground for more extreme ideas.

Whenever the economy gets bad, people start looking for people below them to blame, or people above them to blame, he explained. There's a lot of resentment.

However, he implored readers not to despair, advising people of all political stripes to rely on logic, to maintain a level of healthy skepticism and to be wary of simple explanations.

The antidote is truth and healthy skepticism, he said. Be very suspicious of simple explanations. Real life is always more open-ended and complicated.

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