This week a host of digital platforms gave Alex Jones’ programming the boot. Conspiracy theories have big consequences in a polarized political world, because they can amplify basic human skepticism about political institutions into absurd, and sometimes violent, belief systems.
But the language of mainstream politics can often work the same way when leaders use short, pithy phrases to signal all kinds of beliefs. From “mistakes were made” to the “food stamp president” slur, careful choices about framing can cover up an issue or conjure up stereotypes to swing voters.
In the past two years, you may have noticed a new term entering the American political lexicon: the “deep state.” Used to refer to insider groups of political specialists (especially in government agencies like the FBI or in the media), “deep state” conjures up images of a shadowy network of political power brokers who operate outside of elected office. The term has really caught on—search data from Google Trends shows a huge spike in “deep state” searches since 2016.
Deep state talk catches my interest because I have heard it before. For years now, politicians in Turkey have raised allegations about secretive “deep state” organizations plotting to overthrow the government. While Turkey has had coups in the past, these kinds of accusations are also one way that leadership has been able to justify cracking down on political opposition. Sure enough, trends also show deep state searches spiked in Turkey about ten years before the US (I also added the global trend for context).
This data doesn’t show a direct connection between the Turkish and American cases. It does show us that new political ideas don’t necessarily spring out from nowhere. For example, work by sociologists like Chris Bail shows how ideas from the fringes of the political world can make their way into the mainstream, especially if they rely on emotionally-charged messaging. As political consulting and strategy goes global, it is important to pay attention to how these ideas play out in other times and places when we see them emerging in the United States.Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston. You can follow him on Twitter.