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Book Review: ‘Conspiracy Theories and Other Dangerous Ideas’ by Cass R. Sunstein

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Before this book I had never read anything by Cass Sunstein, but I knew the name. Partially it came from his time as head of the Office of Management and Budget in President Obama’s first term, but more so from his frequent mentions by Glenn Beck as a living, breathing, pillar of evil. From the tone and volume of Beck’s cries against anything Sunstein has to say I imagined the book would be filled to the brim with radical, communist, socialist agenda-promoting fantasies from the far-left, but I was somewhat sadly misled.

Conspiracy Book CoverConspiracy Theories and Other Dangerous Ideas is a collection of essays by Sunstein ranging over a number of topics. He covers same-sex marriage, global warming, free speech and a number of other hot button issues that we face in the country today. In each chapter he lays out the original problem or situation and proceeds to break it down from each side, measuring the common responses for and against to see which ones pan out. It’s a book written to make you think, not tell you what to think.

When Sunstein first walked into the limelight of the White House administration, the political extremes in the country saw diametrically opposed illusions. The left side of the country imagined wild and radical shifts in government, opening the doors to a wild wonderland of progressiveness and equality for all. The right imagined the complete and utter destruction of personal rights and capitalism, a roller coaster launch straight into the bread lines of Old World Russia. When he turned out to be much more moderate and reasoned in his policies, instead of either side taking a deep breath and releasing some of their fervor, they just hated him.

This book is a perfect reason of why. You cannot pin him down or pigeonhole his outlook into a cozy little box. He references “New Progressivism” numerous times throughout as the way forward, but since it is a political ethos of his own design, he can make it fit whichever legislative outcome he likes. The anti-capitalist crowd might be surprised by Sunstein’s argument against excessive damages in civil trials, including those awarded for emotional loss, suffering or even lost limbs. While the anti-government folks might be shocked by one of his core tenets for the New Progressivism:

This is the sense in which New Progressivists endorse the old idea that there should be “No rights without responsibilities.”

That sounds much more libertarian than communist.

The idea most pursued in this book is the need to really think about your standpoint and follow it beyond the horizon, see where it leads and whether it is worth the journey. Many choices sound beneficial in the outset (like massive increases to the minimum wage to help the working poor rise out of poverty), but when drawn out in studies and historical data they can lead to much different conclusions (dramatically increasing the minimum wage historically creates higher unemployment since only a fraction of the working poor retain higher wage jobs, while the rest are cut completely.)

Sunstein is more a hero for the moderate and studied middle over either extreme. Neither the devil of Glenn Beck’s nightmares nor the revolutionary of radical left, he uses his studies to navigate the chaos of public policy in the modern age.

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About Luke Goldstein

A writer, movie junkie and political nerd. Basically anything that tells a good story is enthralling to me.
  • bob pinhole

    Dr. David Ray Griffin has written an entire book debunking this crackpot.

  • Sally Reinhardt

    I know, it’s called Cognative Infiltration and shows just how much a bozo the clown is.

  • ryan alto

    Did this guy call for banning conspiracy

  • Bret

    And a lot more too…he believes building seven came down by magic.

  • http://www.themotleystew.com/ The Motley Stew

    I think “debunking this crackpot” should be put into context considering what Dr. Griffin is writing about is his continued belief in the 9/11 Truther movement. And as to the other comment about “banning conspiracy”, Sunstein at no point talks about that, he only discusses the origination, proliferation and ability for conspiracies to take hold in modern day society. He thinks that helping people to understand where they come from can also help hinder the danger they can represent if taken too seriously.

  • judy

    I know. I think the comment was referring to an earlier essay the mad man had written and if you read it you will see that he says banning and taxing conspiracy websites and groups definitely on the table. Interesting how you don’t respond to that. He calls for secret agents to infiltrate groups that challenge the official account.

    • The Motley Stew

      While Sunstein may propose infiltrating groups to change or disrupt the discussion and push the narrative in a particular direction, he is by no means the only person to suggest that. The tactic is used by nearly everyone, from the far right to the far left. That’s common propaganda practice. As for the idea of banning conspiracies, I haven’t read the essay where he suggests that, but I can assume from his later writings that his theory stems from the danger of unchallenged and unproven conspiracy theories and the damage they can incur on a society.