Why Conspiracy Theories Thrive in Democracies

Conspiracy Theories Thrive in Democracies
Donald Trump speaking at a rally in Fountain Hills, Arizona. Photo by Gage Skidmore.

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Conspiracy Theories Thrive in Democracies

Moisés Naím describes a new authoritarian figure in his most recent book, The Revenge of Power. He refers to the 3P autocrat who relies on populism, polarization, and post-truth. Post-truth is an ambiguous term, but came into vogue with the ascendance of Donald Trump. He thrived on misinformation and disinformation to cast doubts on traditional political figures. But alongside the more pedantic lies were more outlandish conspiracy theories. The conspiracy theories often originated from his supporters in chat rooms or social media, so it was not always necessary for him to embrace them. Nonetheless, he often subtly referred to them without endorsement through the phrase “a lot of people are saying.”

Still, Trump did not emerge from an authoritarian system. Americans elected him president in a democratic election. Indeed, many of the 3P autocrats emerged from competitive if not democratic political environments. Scott Radnitz studies conspiracy theories which are a small piece of what Naím refers to as post-truth. He writes, “Democracies provide fertile ground for conspiracy theories to grow and spread.” He goes on to clarify why, “The suppression of information may make people suspicious, but an excess of it provides the oxygen that conspiracy theories need to thrive.” Radnitz writes about conspiracy theories, but we can easily apply the same reasoning to misinformation and disinformation.

The implication is liberal democracy sows the seeds of its own destruction. While democracy provides an environment to disprove conspiracy theories, it also provides an environment where lies can thrive. The challenge for democracy then is not so much the allure of authoritarianism. Rather it is a paradox where democracy provides unrestrained freedom, but depends upon the self-restraint of its citizens. The proliferation of conspiracy theories and other aspects of post-truth are simply one more challenge democracy must overcome.

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