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The psychology behind Republicans' Benghazi obsession

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Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Liberals have a real problem believing conservatives seriously care about Benghazi. They figure Republicans must be after Hillary Clinton. Or trying to distract from Obama's otherwise successful record. Or something — just not actually learning about Benghazi.

But everything we know about Benghazi suggests that Republicans are serious about it. Take the Speaker of the House: one Republican aide described John Boehner as "obsessed" with Benghazi. He apparently "brings it up all the time" in personal conversations. Boehner is the reason the new special select committee on Benghazi is happening, and has been a major force behind past investigations.

So it's not a cynical ploy.

In 2008, law professors Cass Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule penned an article on conspiracy theories and how they work. They didn't use the term in the way that we ordinarily do — to refer to crazy crackpot beliefs. Rather, for Sunstein and Vermeule, a conspiracy theory is "an effort to explain some event or practice by reference to the machinations of powerful people, who have also managed to conceal their role." Believing that Watergate happened, on Sunstein and Vermeule's definition, is believing in a conspiracy theory: Nixon actually did conspire to manipulate political events and, for a time, concealed the fact that he was doing it. "Some conspiracy theories," they note, "have turned out to be true."

Sunstein and Vermeule argue that conspiracy theories are, in their way, quite rational. "Most people are not able to know, on the basis of personal or direct knowledge, why an airplane crashed, or why a leader was assassinated, or why a terrorist attack succeeded," they write. And so they search for information that fits what they already believe about the world and is confirmed by people they trust.

That's when conspiracy theories end up taking hold. Sunstein and Vermeule call the process by which they spread "conspiracy cascades." They happen in a variety of different ways.

Perhaps a group of people propose the conspiracy theories and others, not having good information to contradict them, come to accept it (an "informational cascade"). Other times, people don't want to contradict their family or social group, who has largely come to believe a conspiracy theory, and gradually accept it (a "reputational cascade"). In yet other cases, a group of people accept a conspiracy theory because their preexisting beliefs about the world make them likely to believe it (an "availability cascade"). Once a cascade spreads a conspiracy theory to a group, it becomes hard to dislodge: anyone who doesn't accept the theory might be in on the conspiracy.

This is exactly what happened with Benghazi.

Let's take a look back at the origins of the Benghazi controversy. After the actual attack on September 11th, 2012, Benghazi immediately became the top issue in both the right-wing press and, really, the whole American mediasphere. To conservatives, it was more than just a national tragedy. It was confirmation of their belief Obama wasn't up to the task of confronting anti-American extremists, beginning an availability cascade.

Then the Obama administration's initial story on Benghazi fell apart. The attack was a targeted strike on a US facility, not a spontaneous reaction to an anti-Islam film. Conservative journalists and policymakers, already primed not to trust Obama, became convinced that there was a scandal. The Administration failed, then seemingly lied about their failure. They had to be hiding something!

Among conservatives, this argument hit dead center. They already believe Obama is a feckless, incompetent liar. They think he plays fast and loose with American national security, and the credulous mainstream media is in the tank for him. The details of the Benghazi incident fit so perfectly into this already-extant perception of the President that Benghazi — more than the IRS, Solyndra, or any other purported Obama scandal — became the evidence du jour of Obama's failings among conservative voters, politicians, journalists, and think tankers. As the belief spread, an availability cascade became both informational and reputational. Conservatives inferred from each other that there was something real here (the informational component), and believing in an administration failure on Benghazi became part of being a conservative in good standing (the reputational component).

So Benghazi became a classic Sunstein-Vermeule conspiracy theory. Conservatives became convinced the administration was covering up the truth about Benghazi and anyone who argued otherwise began to look like part of the conspiracy, or at least an unwitting dupe. A wealth of psychological research on group polarization shows that, when a group of likeminded people discuss an issue together, everyone's mind tends to shift towards the dominant view of that issue in the group. The more conservative legislators and media figures dug in on Benghazi, the more all conservatives were likely to believe in some kind of administration malfeasance.

Conspiracy theory adherents, Sunstein and Vermuele write, "become increasingly distrustful and suspicious of the motives of others or of the larger society." This means that "the government's effort at rebuttal" might actually "serve to fortify rather than undermine the original belief." Evidence the Obama administration released disconfirming the existence of any Benghazi wrongdoing became confirming evidence of a coverup. The State Department internal review, Hillary Clinton's testimony, even key military and CIA witnesses confirming the administration's story to House and Senate Republicans' faces — none of it changed all that much. Why would the White House be spinning so hard if they had nothing to hide?

The media supercharged this psychological effect. We know from research on American politics that when the President takes a position on an issue, the opposition party is strongly inclined push back in the opposite direction. Conservative media has a similar dynamic with the mainstream media: as more and more outlets concluded there was no "there" there, conservative media became more convinced that the mainstream side simply had Obama's back.

These political pressures combined with the psychology Sunstein-Vermeule identified to produce a vicious cycle. Republicans investigated Benghazi, the Obama administration resisted, the mainstream media seemed to side with the Obama administration, and so Republicans redoubled their efforts. This led to the conservative media doing stories on how the Obama Administration is stalling the investigations, which created more of an incentive for legislators to continue investigating the issue, which created more resistance from congressional Democrats, which only stiffened Republican resolve.

The new announcement of the special select committee is a case in point. A conservative group, Judicial Watch, asked the White House for any documents that hadn't already been provided during House Hearings. They found emails from White House aide Ben Rhodes that contained some problematic language about Benghazi .

The fact that the Administration had not provided these emails to prior Benghazi investigations convinced Boehner, who had previously resisted conservative pushes for a special committee, that only more investigations would get to the bottom of the Benghazi well. As one of his aides put it, "The Speaker was furious to learn that the administration withheld relevant documents from a congressional subpoena. He's sick and tired of this evasion and obstruction."

If you're John Boehner, convening a special investigation in response to this perceived "evasion" is a totally rational move given what you've come to believe about Benghazi. As Speaker of the House, you've possibly got the tools necessary to force the administration to come clean, to prove that they lied to the public about the events of September 12th, 2012.

And if you've got the power to expose the conspiracy, shouldn't you do it?

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