Course code:



M - Intermediate

Class size limit:


Meets the following requirements:

  • HS - Human Studies

Typically offered:


The fear of the “hidden” enemy that lurks behind the shadows is a narrative theme that appears periodically in the political discourse of all democratic societies.

Yet, this narrative of fear (often labeled as conspiracy theory) is regularly criticized as somehow being inherently antidemocratic, irrational, or dangerous. At the same time, this form of argument can also be “mainstreamed” and defended as a legitimate response to the events of the moment. How do we make sense of this tension? If conspiracy theory as a mode of explanation is inherently “irrational,” what does this mean for its enduring presence in our political discourse? Is the only difference between a reasonable claim rooted in fear and the conspiracy theories of “kooks” and “nutjobs” simply a matter of which one is “correct?”

This class will address the role fear and anxiety plays in our social and political lives. We will explore a variety of topics related directly to how threats, conspiracies, agents of “evil,” and “otherness” become manifest in public discourse. Specific topics include: the possible tension between “rational” deliberative decision making and the cultivating of anxiety in public governance; why we dismiss some claims as mere conspiracy theory and yet have no problem accepting other similarly formed arguments; what role the “outsider” plays in cementing cohesion within an “in” group; and the disturbing possibility that fear is actually a healthy component of democratic debate.

The class will look at both contemporary and historical examples from the United States and around the world. There are three primary goals of the class: first, to expose students to the analysis of primary texts rooted in public fear and anxiety; second, to provoke discussion about the role of conspiracy and threats in democracies; and third, to provide students with a survey of secondary work that seeks to situate and make sense of these topics.

Readings will be a combination of primary artifacts for interpretation (such a speeches, manifestos, pamphlets, and movies) as well as secondary analytical readings. In addition to the regular class meeting time, students will be expected to attend a weekly evening lab session devoted to the screening of visual works and/or presentations by speakers. Evaluation will be based on readings driven discussion as well as individual student writing assignments. Students will produce several short length essay assignments during the term as well as a longer research paper at the end of the term. This class is open to students of all interests regardless of their experience with politics, government, or social theory.



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