Conspiracism & Democracy: In the White House

Dr Matteo Bonotti, Senior Lecturer, Monash University | Dr Zim Nwokora, Senior Lecturer, Deakin University

The prominence given to conspiracy theories stands out among the controversies generated by the presidency of Donald Trump. In his early days in office, Trump made it clear that he was not going to play by the traditional rule that presidents should not promote obvious falsehoods. Amongst other things, he claimed that a record crowd attended his inauguration ceremony when video footage vividly showed that this was factually untrue. More seriously, he claimed without any evidence that there had been massive fraud in the 2016 election. This was why he didn’t emerge as the victor in the popular vote, he repeatedly stressed, even though this is not what determines who wins the White House. Although he wasn’t the initial source of the “birther” conspiracy that his predecessor, Barack Obama, wasn’t born in America, Trump poured fuel on these rumours.

Conspiracy

The falsehoods continued through his presidency. Trump’s final month in office will be remembered by the storming of the US Capitol by rioters motivated by Trump’s argument that he somehow “won” the 2020 election, despite all the evidence proving that he had been well beaten in the Electoral College. According to Russell Muirhead and Nancy L. Rosenblum’s recent book A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy, what Trump engaged in was much more than simply spreading falsehoods. Rather, the Office of the President encountered its first serious conspiracist, with Trump’s fabrications representing a concerted attempt to “create a reality wholesale” (p. 68). Conspiracy theories are not at all new, of course. They appear and disappear in American politics, and in the politics of other countries. However, the “new conspiracism,” the novel version of the phenomenon that came to life during the Trump presidency, is quite distinctive. Most obviously, this is due to the ease with which Trump engages with conspiracy, and his eagerness to conspire.

Conspiracy theories have traditionally been exiled to the political fringes, with former presidents limiting their airtime and debunking their authority as sources of truth. Conspiracism, however, moved with Trump into the White House, and to the heart of the political system, motivating important policy decisions. With Trump, conspiracism morphed. The new conspiracism is less coherent than traditional, or classic, conspiracy theories. Their principal goal is to delegitimise those institutions responsible for effective representation, notably political parties, and reliable information, including government agencies, the media and universities. This new conspiracism shakes the foundations of what we know and how the West thinks democracy works. It represents a potent problem for democracy in America, and elsewhere, raising questions that were urgent during the Trump presidency and which remain so, even now his presidency has ended.

Conspiracy theories have traditionally been exiled to the political fringes, with former presidents limiting their airtime and debunking their authority as sources of truth. Conspiracism, however, moved with Trump into the White House, and to the heart of the political system, motivating important policy decisions.


Why do so many people produce and consume conspiracy theories? There are many possible explanations. Some may be inclined to embrace conspiracy theories due to certain psychological biases, including intentionality bias and confirmation bias. In other cases, the inclination to embrace conspiracism may result from certain personality traits. Or, perhaps, conspiracism emerges from, and is central to, certain ideological beliefs, especially extremist ones such as far-right ideologies or religious extremism (for a summary of these debates, see Cassam 2019). Another plausible explanation is that conspiracy theories are stories, or narratives. By identifying plots, heroes, villains, and a moral of the story (Cassam 2019, pp. 58-59), conspiracy theories help those who believe them to make sense of their social and political world. Whatever their roots, however, conspiracy theories have the ability to cause serious harm to liberal democracies and their citizens.

The new conspiracism is less coherent than traditional, or classic, conspiracy theories. Their principal goal is to delegitimise those institutions responsible for effective representation...This new conspiracism shakes the foundations of what we know and how the West thinks democracy works...


So, what, if anything, should be done to counter new conspiracism? In their book, Muirhead and Rosenblum propose two solutions: “speaking truth” to conspiracy theorists and “enacting democracy” by complying with and drawing citizens’ attention to democratic decision-making rules and processes. But new conspiracism also raises issues concerning freedom of speech and its limits. To what extent should governments curtail the freedom of speech of those who produce or consume conspiracy theories? Standard arguments about free speech may not provide us with a conclusive answer to this question. Some, following philosopher John Stuart Mill, might argue that conspiracy theories can somehow help us to discover the truth, by providing us with the opportunity to challenge their false claims and reaffirm the truth about certain facts. On the other hand, it is also plausible that allowing the expression of these theories might in fact contribute to their widespread endorsement and the resulting epistemic and moral harms, an argument sometimes made with regard to Holocaust denial (e.g. Schauer 2012, p. 137). Furthermore, while some might argue that, since conspiracy theories are typically linked to broader ideological views, new conspiracism has the capacity to contribute to democratic debate and self-government, in reality the promotion of conspiracy theories and the spread of new conspiracism disrupts the deliberative process that are central to democratic life (cf. Chambers 2020).


In summary, this is a topic that requires further investigation in political theory.  Muirhead and Rosenblum’s insights and suggestions open up this space for wider discussion on an urgent, growing debate.

References

Cassam, Q. (2019). Conspiracy Theories (Cambridge: Polity).

Chambers, S. (2020). ‘Truth, Deliberative Democracy, and the Virtues of Accuracy: Is Fake News Destroying the Public Sphere?’, Political Studies, OnlineFirst, first published on2 April 2020: 1-17. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0032321719890811

Schauer, F. (2012). ‘Social Epistemology, Holocaust Denial, and the Post-Millian  Calculus’, in M. Herz and P. Molnar (eds.), The Content and Context of Hate  Speech: Rethinking Regulation and  Responses (Cambridge: Cambridge  University Press), pp. 129-144.

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