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How do conspiracy theories relate to non-democratic regimes?

This entry was posted in Conspiracy and Democracy Project, Conspiracy Theories on 17 December 2015 by

In their now infamous paper on conspiracy theories, Sunstein and Vermeule write that ‘in a poll conducted in seven Muslim countries, 78 percent of respondents said that they do not believe the 9/11 attacks were carried out by Arabs, the most popular account, in these countries, is that 9/11 was the work on the US or Israeli governments’. Elsewhere they cite a ‘2002 Gallup Poll conducted in nine Islamic countries found that 61 percent of those surveyed thought that Muslims had nothing to do with attacks of Sept. 11, 2001’. Even by American standards, 78% and 61% belief in conspiracy theories is quite high, and it seems clear that the role conspiracy theories play in non-democratic regimes – apologies ‘Muslim countries’ have to be a stand-in for these – is quite different to the one played in democratic ones. Those figures suggest that what we would describe as conspiracy theories – given these are polls about 9/11 and Muslims, perhaps not the most neutral, and the figures might not be the most reliable in any case – would appear to be quite mainstream, as opposed to the more marginal(ised) role they play in western democracies. Can we still talk about conspiracy theories with such figures, or should we be describing this phenomenon by another name: ideology, belief or simply politics?

On this basis we might be able to come up with a typology of the different role conspiracy theories play in non-democratic, transitional, to democratic regimes, from perhaps quite mainstream to more marginalised. This might also follow a scale we discussed last time round in terms of Argentina, of whether this might also depend on a unitary versus pluralistic conception of politics: when unitary conspiracy theories articulate the common ideological position of the population, to becoming oppositional in binary transitional regimes (Argentina), to being marginal in pluralistic regimes. No doubt there is also a link between the way politics is understood within the different regimes and how people in those regimes conceive of the world: if in a non-democratic regime the only form of effective politics is in the conspiracy mould, and one has a history, especially a colonial history – think of Iran and how they blame everything on the British – of real conspiracies taking place, then it would appear more natural to understand the political world through the lenses of conspiracy theories. What this does point to is an underlying unity, however, in conspiracy theorising across different types of regimes, that they are a way in which to make the world comprehensible and thus manageable: we can think of conspiracy theories in western democracies as one way of making sense of the information overload that is a feature of open societies, and this ties in with the fact that democracies at least formally encourage a critical disposition. And they are often, of course, linked to different political positions. The question remains whether they can also serve as safety-valves, as I have tried to think about in democratic regimes earlier, in non-democratic settings.