07/05/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Did Right-Wing Pundits Help Pull the Trigger on Tiller?

Scott Philip Roeder, charged in the shooting death of Dr. George Tiller, was a regular consumer of conservative talk radio, television, and websites. But did Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck—or any other commentator whipping up an audience with overheated demonizing rhetoric—actually help pull the trigger?

It’s not quite that simple. These pundits are not legally culpable for the assassination of Dr. Tiller--but they must share some portion of moral responsibility for creating a dangerous environment in which Tiller's death was made more likely.

Right-wing pundits demonize scapegoated groups and individuals in our society, implying that it is urgent to stop the groups and individuals named by the pundits from wrecking the nation. Some angry people in the audience already believe conspiracy theories in which the same scapegoats are portrayed as subversive, destructive, or evil. Add in aggressive apocalyptic ideas that suggest time is running out and quick action mandatory and you have a perfect storm of mobilized resentment threatening to rain bigotry and violence across the United States.

Demagogues and conspiracy theorists use the same “tools of fear,” consisting of four main elements:

1) dualism.
2) scapegoating.
3) demonization.
4) apocalyptic aggression.

The basic dynamics remain the same no matter the ideological leanings of the demonizers or the identity of their targets. Meanwhile, our ability to resolve disputes through civic debate and compromise is hobbled. Currently, its right-wing demagogues and conspiracy theorists who dominate the political landscape.

I've just published a new study: Toxic to Democracy: Conspiracy Theories, Demonization, & Scapegoating, that sadly is especially timely given the assassination of Dr. Tiller. The study focuses on the history and dynamics of conspiracism, but argues that it is the combination of demagogic demonization and widespread conspiracy scapegoating that is so dangerous. In such circumstances, angry allegations can quickly turn into aggression and violence targeting scapegoated groups or individuals

Conspiracy theories are widespread among right-wing populists in the Patriot Movement, which spawned the armed citizens militias and the Freemen in the 1990s—networks from which Roeder seems to have emerged.

I trace the roots of conspiracism throughout U.S. and European history, and argue that conspiracism is a lousy form of political analysis. Modern conspiracism is rooted in bigotry, especially antisemitism and racism. Conspiracy theories encourage demonization and scapegoating of blameless persons and groups—distracting society and would-be agents of change away from the real causes of social and economic injustice. Conspiracism is practiced by demagogues on the Right and on the Left—and both inside and outside the corridors of power.

What historian Richard Hofstadter famously described as the “paranoid style” in American political rhetoric is a form of apocalyptic belief that can quickly move far beyond the conscious intent of those who practice it. That's because people who believe conspiracist allegations sometimes act on those irrational beliefs, and this has concrete consequences in the real world.

Thus the tools of fear pointed to Dr. Tiller, and what happened is now tragic history.

Toxic to Democracy is available in PDF format from PRA at