How Rumors Rule Washington

Nominated to a White House job, legal scholar Cass Sunstein has become a victim of the very thing he writes books about: conspiracy theories and paranoid rumors.

This summer has felt at times like an accidental romp through the mind of a mad man, with a new conspiracy theory surfacing every day: the birthers, the Democrats-will-euthanize-granny crowd, and so on. And now, in perhaps the greatest irony of the season, a respected legal scholar who has written extensively about these sorts of paranoid rumors has fallen victim to them himself.

The rumors that have prompted Republican senators to put a hold on Sunstein’s nomination allege that he will curtail gun rights and allow pets (pets!) to sue their owners.

This spring, Cass Sunstein, a Harvard professor and friend of Obama’s from their days teaching at the University of Chicago, was nominated to run the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, a little-known but powerful White House department in charge of reviewing federal regulations. The Wall Street Journal quickly seconded the nomination, calling Sunstein a “savvy choice” and praising his restrained approach to financial regulation. On the left wing, environmentalists and others fretted that he would be too conservative.

But no one disputed his academic achievements. Sunstein has written some 350 articles and 34 books, including the recent title Going to Extremes, about the spread of fringe politics and conspiracy theories. His latest book on this topic, On Rumors: How Falsehoods Spread, Why We Believe Them, What Can Be Done, will be published in September. It could easily have included Sunstein’s own stalled nomination as a case study.

The rumors that have thwarted Sunstein’s appointment for seven months, prompting Republican senators to put a hold on it not once but three times, allege that he will curtail gun rights and allow pets (pets!) to sue their owners. Like many conspiracy theories, these have grown from small seeds of fact—Sunstein has in the past said and written some provocative things about animal rights and hunting. Most notably, he suggested in a 2004 book, Animal Rights: Current Debates and New Directions, that humans should be allowed to sue, on behalf of animals, other people who violate existing animal-protection laws.

Asked about these arguments by senators at his May 12 nomination hearings, however, Sunstein explained that he is a strong believer in the Second Amendment, and he promised that he will not promote litigation on behalf of animals. Nevertheless, shortly after those hearings Senator Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) put a hold on Sunstein’s nomination, citing the very concerns the nominee had addressed in his testimony. Meanwhile, sinister accusations about Sunstein’s radical left-wing agenda were whipping around the blogosphere, fueled by Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck on Fox News.

Sunstein met with Chambliss to allay his concerns and then wrote a letter to the senator that very same day promising (again) that he would do nothing to dismantle gun rights or promote animal lawsuits. Shortly afterward, Chambliss released his hold and entered the letter into the Congressional Record.

But as Sunstein himself noted in a paper he co-authored in 2008, “Conspiracy theories turn out to be especially hard to undermine or dislodge; they have a self-sealing quality, rendering them particularly immune to challenge.” A week later, Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) placed another hold on Sunstein, citing the same anti-gun, pro-animal-rights allegations. (Cornyn’s press secretary did not return a call for comment.)

In early August, Cornyn dropped his hold, and it looked for a minute as if the Sunstein nomination might finally go to a vote. But another senator quickly placed a third hold on the nomination, this time anonymously. So as the Senate heads into the recess, Sunstein is facing at least another month in limbo.

In Going to Extremes, Sunstein offers an intriguing explanation for why conspiracy theories and radicalism may be on the rise. Like-minded people tend to become more extreme after they spend time talking amongst themselves. In a series of studies, this phenomenon seemed to cut across all groups. White people who tend to exhibit racial prejudice will likely display even more racial prejudice after they spend a little time chatting with each other. The same is true of feminists, conservative judges, or any group with a slight leaning in one direction.

And of course, the Internet makes it easier than ever for like-minded people to talk amongst themselves. As the group becomes more extreme, the process accelerates, Sunstein notes. “Once polarization occurs…and the group’s median view begins to move in a certain direction, doubters and halfway believers will tend to depart, while intense believers remain.”

In his past work, Sunstein has argued that the best way to defeat conspiracy theories is to rebut them early and often. Otherwise the echo chambers of modern media make it too easy for people to find dubious information confirming their worst fears. But in this case, Sunstein can do little to stop the madness—the Obama administration does not allow appointees to talk to the media until they are confirmed. (Citing that policy, Sunstein declined to speak to The Daily Beast.) All the while, pro-gun groups continue to urge their supporters to call their senators and stop Cass Sunstein.

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The few studies that have been done on conspiracy theories suggest that these narratives are oddly comforting, especially in times of uncertainty. They offer a way to channel—and even excuse—generalized feelings of anxiety, fear, or anger by providing a clear target and a satisfying storyline.

The godfather of conspiracy theories, Senator Joseph McCarthy, explained their appeal quite eloquently, if unintentionally, in a speech to the Senate in 1951: “How can we account for our present situation unless we believe that men high in this government are concerting to deliver us to disaster?” he said. “This must be the product of a great conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man.”

If only he could see us now.

Amanda Ripley writes about risk and human behavior from Washington, DC. She is the author of The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes—and Why.