Conspiracy Theories and Mass Mobilization
Karl Lowenstein wrote long ago, “Fascism is not an ideology but a political technique.” Totalitarianism is distinct from authoritarianism. Both are undemocratic, but totalitarianism mobilizes the people. It makes them complicit in the assault on democracy. It’s difficult to wrap your head around. Authoritarianism, on the other hand, removes people from any form of political participation. The state drives the political narrative. Rather than excite or energize the public, it sedates them with propaganda designed to remove politics from daily life.
Joseph Stalin governed the Soviet Union as a totalitarian. He used political conspiracy theories to keep the people engaged and purge his political rivals. Leonid Brezhnev, on the other hand, was more of an authoritarian. Soviet propaganda told plenty of lies and misinformation, However, it did not encourage conspiratorial ideas designed to keep people on edge. Juan Linz and Alfred Steppan described this era of Soviet life as Post-Totalitarian. Scott Radnitz finds conspiratorial ideas pose risks for autocrats. He writes, “Incessantly captivating audiences with narratives about conspiracy requires time and effort, an aptitude for always staying one step ahead of the public, and perhaps the type of personality conducive to demagoguery.”
Conspiracy theories are a tool of mass mobilization. Many conspiracy theories arise out of civil society like the John Birch Society. Moreover, most conspiracy theories challenge the authority of those in power. Nonetheless, demagogic personalities often find they can use conspiracy theories to undermine their opponents. So, political leaders adopt conspiracy theories in environments of mass political mobilization like totalitarianism or democracy. This is where things get bizarre. Democracies provide ideal conditions for conspiracy theories to develop and spread even though they also provide “the transparency, independent knowledge production, and the free and open dissemination of information” necessary to defend against them.