Conspiracy theories, surprises and democracy
What most – pleasantly – surprised me was how it was in fact possible to link conspiracy theories directly to politics. Most of the literature on conspiracy theories I encountered at first analysed it from the perspective of psychology, American studies etc, but the survey work I have been doing with Rolf and YouGov opened up my eyes to the fact that conspiracy theories, and indeed conspiracy theorists, can be linked directly to political problems. The conclusions we have started to draw from our studies is that it is in fact political, economic and social exclusion that are the prime factors in determining whether one is more likely or not to believe in conspiracy theories. So in many ways conspiracy theories can be regarded as a symptom of a larger problem in contemporary democracies, namely social, economic and political inequality. This may have implications for public policy. Much of the talk about addressing conspiracy theories and theorists is thinking about ways in which to talk to them and to make them see reason, so to speak. This is quite an agent-focused approach, but our research suggests that we might also take a broader structural approach, namely that in addressing issues of political, economic and social exclusion, this may in fact reduce conspiracy theorising. This route may be indirect, but it may turn out to be more effective. In our future research we hope to show that by comparing European countries who are more equal (say Scandinavia countries) to more unequal countries (say Portugal) on the basis of the Gini coefficient – also perhaps ranking them according to Transparency International’s index, there is often quite an overlap between the two – countries which are more inclusive demonstrate lower levels of conspiracy ideation.
This research has also led me on to thinking about whether conspiracy theories are indeed harmful to democracies, or whether in fact conspiracy theories should be seen as the price to pay for a critical public which is essential to a healthy democracy. For democracy to work, we need a citizenship that questions and challenges the decisions of its leaders, and conspiracy theories do that to certain degree, even if they do so in a slightly unorthodox and sometimes unproductive manner. So conspiracy theories and theorists are part-and-parcel of a well-functioning democracy, and indeed at the extreme may serve as something like a democratic safety-valve. Most conspiracy theories today seem rather of the harmless sort – David Icke’s final proposal is that we ‘love’ each other more – and it might appear to be the case that for those frustrated with how the political system works, conspiracy theories offer many explanatory and soothing factors: a sense of comprehension and thus control over how the world works, and thus also a sense of power over it. Little direct action appears to spring from it, and whilst it is the case that a critical public is essential for democracy, an overly hostile one is not, and conspiracy theories may in fact channel some of that excessiveness in a manner that is less dangerous than other options, like Fascism or Communism, or indeed terrorism, have in the past.
It also speaks to our liberalism, if that is a value we want to affirm. We should be tolerant about how other people understand the world, their culture and how they socialise with one another, given it’s clear that conspiracy theorist often belong to communities of alternative knowledge. That diversity – the different forms of human existence, their different epistemic views of the world – once it does not become hostile to others, is something we might want to affirm, although that does not mean we should not also be engaging with the deeper political problems it is a symptom of as highlighted above. It is a characteristic of a pluralist, liberal, democracy, and moves us away from more unitary conceptions of politics which have proven dangerous in the past. Trying to force conspiracy theorists to think like us might be very perilous indeed, and is characteristic of regimes we no longer want to live under.