Professor Richard Evans answers the question, ‘Are Conspiracy Theories a Threat to Democracy?’
The main arguments in favour of an answer in the affirmative are (1) they sow distrust in government in particular and politics in general, and (2) they substitute irrational suspicion for a cool appraisal of the evidence and so make it difficult for democracies to make reasoned decisions.
- The question that needs to be addressed here is whether conspiracy theories provoke or reflect distrust in government. Opinion polls should be a help in answering this question. We have seen during the project how academics close to government, like Cass Sunstein express deep alarm at what they see as the growing prevalence of conspiracy theories, arguing they stoke suspicion and make government more difficult. Yet those who hold such theories are most likely already suspicious of government. If we regard conspiracy theorists as belonging to communities of alternative knowledge, then they can also be regarded as members of self-sealing systems, unlikely to generalize their beliefs. For example, it doesn’t seem to me as if conspiracy theorists refuse to vote, whatever their beliefs may be. They may of course incite disobedience to government orders, for example on inoculation, and where democratic governments adhere to conspiracy theories, as with Thabo Mbeki’s ANC government’s refusal to support drug therapies against HIV/AIDS, they may cause many thousands of deaths. But this isn’t really a threat to democracy. Ultimately the South African electorate didn’t press for a dictatorship instead; they pressed for the government to respond to expert opinion and, for that matter, to popular public criticism. Authoritarian and dictatorial governments from Hitler to Putin deploy conspiracy theories as a political tool, but democracy has already succumbed here. It might be the case that the existence of an authoritarian government sparks popular conspiracy theories about its intentions and its policies, but I doubt whether this will undermine the movement, such as it is, for a restoration of democracy.
- Conspiracy theories more often reflect a wider departure from evidence-based politics than constituting a force behind their decline. Politics and government have only a tangential relation to reality at the best of times. I’ve just read (for review) a new translation of Karl Kraus, The Last Days of Mankind, which pillories the vast chasm between newspaper reporting and government propaganda on the one hand, and the terrible realities of conflict at the front and starvation at home on the other. One might also point to the Labour government’s rejection of David Nutt’s report on the legal status and medical dangers of drugs as another example. The movement against MMR inoculation in the early 2000s in the UK was an example of a (numerically limited) distrust in science but I don’t think it threatened democracy on any wider scale.