Are conspiracy theories a threat to democracy?
When I began reading around the literature in conspiracy theory coming out of psychology and political science in particular, and certainly in discussions of conspiracy theory in the media, there was what struck me as a lazy and somewhat self satisfied assumption, never really cashed out, that conspiracy theories were undermining democracy.
The ‘dangers to democracy’ thesis assumes that we can (a) define conspiracy theories on epistemic grounds, and (b) that belief in false conspiracy theories (like false beliefs more generally) is damaging to democracy. Sunstein and Vermeule exemplify this view. They insist that the conspiracy theories they worry about are false. They then suggest that if these false beliefs could be corrected, perhaps by means of ‘cognitive infiltration’ of the milieu of the believers, then democracy would be improved.
My argument for the potential virtues of conspiracy theories was directed largely against the second assumption. False beliefs can be useful, and certainly need not (necessarily) be dangerous. I doubt, for instance, that conspiracy theories play much of an independent role in people’s decisions to forego vaccinating their children or to blow themselves up on a bus (though that’s an empirical claim and it could be wrong.)Furthermore, I said, the first assumption, too, is questionable. If we assume we don’t already know what’s true and what’s false, then what is at stake is a process of inquiry. The question then is whether conspiracy theories promote or hinder inquiry. This strikes me as very much a case by case judgment, but I think ‘inquiry promoting’ or ‘inquiry constraining’ is one quite good way of assessing their merits. The ‘Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11’ conspiracy theory, for instance, very firmly shut down debate, and was in so far bad for democracy.
Another dimension of their democratic merits (or demerits) has to do with inclusion. Does the conspiracy theory constrain or inhibit inclusion in terms of votes or voice? Are conspiracy theories causing citizens to be stripped of their rights to vote or otherwise participate in political processes?
A third democratic good against which we can assess conspiracy theory is the capacity to make and enforce collective decisions. If conspiracy theories somehow prevent polities from making and carrying out binding collective decisions, then we might say they are undermining democracy. There is some evidence that in this respect conspiracy theories can be bad news. Vaccine refusal, for instance, amounts to non-compliance with a democratically authorised decision (with the minor wrinkle that in the UK vaccination is sadly not compulsory), and to the extent that it is a product of conspiracy theories (a very big if) then conspiracy theories here would be something for a democracy to worry about.
How would I reframe my earlier argument, if I had time? I think I would say that the central point is to assess the dangers of conspiracy theory according to their impact on particular democratic goods, and I would emphasise public debate (which I sort of mean by inquiry), inclusion in terms of votes and rights, and the capacity to make binding collective decisions.
This whole argument, of course, along with a lot of the literature, assumes that we are dealing with stable pluralist democracies, with expectations of (legitimate) adversarial and partisan argument, a largely free and independent press, a citizenry confident enough in their rights and strong enough in their capacities to challenge and question authorities, and so on. It seems fair to say that the effect of conspiracy theory in such polities is not the same as its effect in authoritarian or democratic populist regimes or what have you.
There is also a danger of underplaying the role of leaders and elites in limiting the dangers of conspiracy theory. It is worth remembering just how marginalised anything designated ‘conspiracy theory’ is, at least in the UK and USA (and Germany, too). Political elites come to grief if they are associated with anything popularly called a conspiracy theory (I use this careful formulation because there are plenty of beliefs that look an awful lot like conspiracy theories, and which are believed by elites, but which are not called conspiracy theories). It is an interesting question how political elites are supposed to represent constituents who believe conspiracy theories, but there is at least a case to be made (and some political theorists are now making it) that our worries about the democratic dangers of conspiracy theories should focus on the political elites who indulge or even promote them.
This also leaves aside the more interesting (to me) question of how different ways of seeing and not seeing conspiracies have developed through the twentieth century. But I’ll leave that for another day.