Scott Radnitz is an associate professor of Russian and Eurasian Studies at the University of Washington and the director of the Ellison Center for Russian, Eastern European, and Central Asian Studies. He is the author of Revealing Schemes: The Politics of Conspiracy in Russia and the Post-Soviet Region and coeditor with Harris Mylonas of the forthcoming book Enemies Within: The Global Politics of Fifth Columns. His article “Why Democracy Fuels Conspiracy Theories” was recently published in the Journal of Democracy.
There’s something natural and organic about perceiving that the people in power are out to advance their own interests. It’s in part because it’s often true. Governments actually do keep secrets from the public. Politicians engage in scandals. There often is corruption at high levels. So, we don’t want citizens in a democracy to be too trusting of their politicians. It’s healthy to be skeptical of the state and its real abuses and tendencies towards secrecy. The danger is when this distrust gets redirected, not toward the state, but targets innocent people who are not actually responsible for people’s problems.
- Conspiracy theories Russia uses to justify their invasion of Ukraine
- Why Russia relies on conspiracy theories in its political rhetoric
- The use of conspiracy theories in democracies and autocracies
- The recent proliferation of conspiracy theories in the United States
- How to mitigate the harmful effects of conspiracy theories in politics
*Please note during the interview the host says “conspiracy” rather than “conspiracy theory.” The transcript has been corrected.*
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Today’s guest is Scott Radnitz. Scott is an associate professor of Russian and Eurasian Studies at the University of Washington and the director of the Ellison Center for Russian, Eastern European, and Central Asian Studies. He is the author of Revealing Schemes: The Politics of Conspiracy in Russia and the Post-Soviet Region. He also has a new forthcoming book coedited with Harris Mylonas called Enemies Within: The Global Politics of Fifth Columns. But it’s his recent article in the Journal of Democracy that caught my attention. Its title is, “Why Democracy Fuels Conspiracy Theories.” I’ve included links to all three publications below in the show notes.
I reached out to Scott, because conspiracy theories are an overlooked part of politics. Polite society wants to pretend they don’t exist or maybe just that they don’t matter. But they do exist and they definitely matter. Politicians use conspiracy theories to gain political advantages and citizens use conspiracy theories to make sense of a complicated world. At the same time, they nearly always mislead and are frequently dangerous. So rather than ignore them, we need to understand the meaning and purpose of conspiracy theories better and there is nobody better qualified to help us to do that than today’s guest. This is my conversation with Scott Radnitz…
Scott Radnitz, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.
Thank you for having me on Justin.
So, Scott ever since Russia invaded Ukraine, I’ve been told that their justification was the denazification of Ukraine’s government and nobody in the west really took this idea very seriously. But Russians apparently did. Nobody that I listened to – and I listened to a lot of people writing and talking about the Ukraine conflict – nobody really offers a good explanation for what this means or why it’s believable for Russians. Journalists and even experts just gloss over the idea as to why the Russian people would accept what comes across to me as just a blatant conspiracy theory. So, can you help us understand why Russians except this account and really what it tells us about the power of conspiracy theories?
Putin has used a variety of rationales to justify this war. One of them is that Ukraine is supposedly full of Nazis and in particular it’s ruled by a Nazi government. When he’s does this clearly, he is referring to the analogy of World War II. The Great Patriotic War looms large in the Russian national narrative. So, Putin here is basically saying Ukraine is our enemy and whoever stands behind them and anyone who’s against us, Russia, is by definition fascists. That means they’re the bad guys.
We’re the good guys. Because you can’t get any worse than Nazis and this time in kind of a twist on World War II, the West is on the same side as the Nazis. So, it’s clear also that by referring to World War II, he taps in to this broader historical memory the way that the Second World War is taught in Russian schools, the way it’s celebrated publicly. Last week, Russia had its May 9th Victory Day Celebration out on Red Square where it brought out veterans and weaponry to demonstrate Russia’s military might. So, this is what Putin is trying to tap into when he uses Nazis as a justification for this really unjustifiable war.
But I would argue that this particular claim is not a conspiracy theory. Putin never elaborates on what exactly Nazis are doing there and what exactly the plot is. I think this is just a kind of name calling. It’s a way of calling your enemy the worst thing imaginable like saying you’re a jerk or in the West we might find it familiar for politicians to call somebody who they really hate a terrorist. But there’s no plot elaborated here. So, I think this is not a conspiracy theory. Now, other rationales for this war are actually conspiracy theories. In particular, the claim that Ukraine is a proxy of the West and that it’s acting as the tip of the spear pointed at Russia as part of a longer-term plot by the West to weaken or encircle Russia.
So, most conspiracy theories have a kernel of truth. And in Putin’s mind, it’s the fact that NATO has been expanding to Russia’s borders. It makes it at least possibly plausible that Ukraine might be seen as part of the next step in NATO’s expansion. But the Nazi claim has no basis in reality. It’s purely manufactured and I interpret this as kind of a way for Putin to show that he doesn’t really need to convince people, especially outside of Russia. It’s just a way to show a signal to the world that this is really high stakes and by calling his enemies Nazis, Putin is taking this really seriously.
Now, I find it interesting in what many have called the post-truth era that there’s really a lot of different elements to this. There are good old-fashioned lies, there’s misinformation, and, of course, what you just described, conspiracy theories. Can you break down what exactly is necessary for something to be a conspiracy theory? What are the elements of it? And we can use maybe one of the conspiracy theories that Russia has been propagating to kind of help us break it down, but just kind of dissect it for us so that we know when we see one.
A conspiracy theory involves a claim about a nefarious secret plot. Plots involve some kind of design, some kind of intention aimed toward a goal, and it usually names actors who are involved in perpetrating the plot. So, conspiracy theories, as a kind of narrative, are well-suited to stoke anxiety, fear, and paranoia and that’s one of the reasons why politicians find that they come in handy in a lot of situations. Now there are other kinds of unsavory rhetoric that politicians often engage in. Politicians lie everywhere, in democracies and autocracies alike. ‘Iraq has weapons of mass destruction’ or ‘I didn’t have sexual relations with that woman’ from the Clinton era.
So, these are lies, but these are not conspiracy theories. These are just politicians wanting people to believe something other than what is actually true. Misinformation and disinformation have also proliferated, especially in the era of social media. Some of that misinformation and disinformation can be conspiratorial, but not necessarily. For example, the false claim that the COVID vaccines don’t work is a kind of misinformation or disinformation if it’s used intentionally. But it only becomes a conspiracy theory when it’s connected to a plot that somebody has created the COVID vaccine to achieve some nefarious goal like planting microchips in our skin. Then it becomes a conspiracy theory.
So, while not all of these other kinds of not entirely truthful claims are conspiracy theories, they could be made into conspiracy theories. More broadly, to step back a little bit, when we talk about the post-truth era, all these things probably go together. Where you see more conspiracy theories in political rhetoric, you’re probably also likely to see more misinformation and more lies and more ad hominem name calling because this is all a symptom of a larger problem of threats to democracy and the degradation of public discourse.
Let’s put a pin in the idea about threats to democracy, because I do want to come back to it. But one of the reasons why I was thinking of the denazification of Ukraine as a conspiracy was because it does feel like it’s a nefarious plot that Nazis somehow infiltrated the government of Ukraine and that Russia needs to come and be able to save the Ukrainian people from Nazis that infiltrated the government. Am I missing something here? Because it feels like there is an element of conspiracy within that.
I think it wouldn’t take much to make this claim into a conspiracy theory. The problem is that Putin has never elaborated on what exactly the plot is. Why are there Nazis in the Ukrainian government? How did they get there? Who stands behind them? I’ve studied conspiracy theories for a long time. I could make some of these up and maybe people would find some of them plausible. But Putin has spent more time elaborating plots that involve the West, NATO, and Ukraine’s increasingly westward trajectory.
No, that that’s completely fair and that makes a lot of sense. The fact that so far, it’s just been a claim he hasn’t developed into a plot and that’s the necessary component that we’re missing to turn misinformation or even just a smear into a full conspiracy. But you’ve written a full book literally on conspiracies that come out of Russia or rather the post-Soviet space and in it you made the case that a lot of conspiracies do originate out of Russia. Why do so many conspiracies originate from Russia?
Like for a lot of things, I would argue it’s a product of history and agency. During the cold war, a lot of the discourse coming out of the Soviet Union was conspiratorial, referring to things like capitalist encirclement, infiltration by the CIA, and a lot of the rhetoric from the Soviet era hearkens back to previous areas of Russian history during which Russia would often express resentment and frustration at the fact that it always lagged behind Europe developmentally. Russian historians have pointed to a sense of embattlement and paranoia coming from Russian elites going back a pretty long time. But I don’t think any of this makes conspiracy theories as political discourse inevitable after 1991.
After the Soviet collapse, a lot of unhappy elites who lamented the collapse of the Soviet Union promoted various kinds of conspiracy theories about how the Soviet Union really collapsed. They accused Yeltsin of various kind of conspiracies, of cavorting with his allies in the West. But the Yeltsin government did not use conspiracy theories habitually as a political tool. But under Putin, after a few years, conspiracy theories came back into the rhetoric of the state. Putin then used conspiracy theories to justify his rule, to explain away internal threats, to account for democratic revolutions abroad that worked against Russian foreign policy according to him. So, in a way you could look at this as reverting to the norm of Russian/Soviet political discourse. So, it’s not surprising that if you look at the long scope of Russian history, that the Russian elites are quite conspiratorial in their rhetoric.
Is that part of the political culture that comes from a totalitarian state? For example, if we look at China, we’re going to see something similar that comes from the totalitarianism that really began with Mao and a lot of his conspiratorial claims. You could also probably date to Lenin and definitely Stalin as the originator of creating that type of culture. Or is it something else? Is it something about Russia or is it just their particular historical circumstance?
This is a difficult question to answer, because there hasn’t been that much research on this. I think there’s an argument to be made that a Communist ideology by its very nature has a conspiratorial element within it, because it’s a revolutionary ideology and counterrevolutionary states and movements arose to fight against. But I don’t think you can necessarily assume that because the country is authoritarian or because of any particular historical episode that happened in its past or that a country with a particularly traumatic past necessarily means that political elites today will find conspiratorial rhetoric useful. One thing I try to do in the book is look at the role of contingency and how political elites react to what’s happening in the moment.
Politicians always tap into historical narratives and the political culture that they inherited, so they can use some of that and repurpose that for their own ends. So, it’s important to focus on what the political incentives are at the moment. It’s important to hold individuals accountable for their rhetoric and not to slip into a political culture argument that would portray anything as historically inevitable.
Well, let’s look at a slightly different example of a totalitarian state that was not communist. For instance, Hitler’s Germany had a lot of conspiracies that proliferated. The hatred towards the Jews was inherently conspiratorial from the outset.
Yet to kind of confirm your point, Germany today is not conspiratorial or at least it’s not in the mainstream. There is a far-right contingent that continues conspiratorial claims, but it’s not part of the mainstream political conversations. So, I guess instead of talking about communism being inherently conspiratorial, I guess my question would be is totalitarianism conspiratorial in part, because they’re trying to mobilize people, energize people and get them overly excited about political issues or about something to be able to do the bidding of the state?
Conspiracy theories are a versatile form of political rhetoric that can serve various purposes and one problem with trying to identify any particular kind of regime or any particular kind of leader that’s especially inclined to it is that it’s just so common. It’s common in some autocracies. It’s common in some hybrid regimes. It’s becoming increasingly common in democracies now. So, this serves a variety of purposes. When we talk about Hitler, it’s important to recognize that the conspiracy theories were a means to an end. Conspiracy theories in and of themselves are not necessarily harmful. They’re probably not the best kind of rhetoric for a healthy democracy, but in and of themselves, they don’t cause any particular harm.
But they do when they’re acted upon. That is when beliefs translate into behaviors and they become especially harmful when conspiracy theories are taken up by state officials who have the power of the coercive apparatus of the state behind them and then they choose to act against the people who are accused of conspiracies. So, when we look at conspiracy theories more broadly, we have to understand that they’re pervasive. There have been some studies showing that more than half of Americans believe in one conspiracy theory or another. That was about 10 years ago when that study came out. I think it’s probably much higher right now.
And in a way, believing in conspiracy theories is simply a normal way of thinking about the world, of thinking about power. Politicians naturally gravitate toward rhetoric that borders on conspiratorial when they engage in ordinary politics. Politics is about building coalitions. It’s about establishing group boundaries. In a democracy, persuading people to vote for your side and not the other side, because you are virtuous and the people that you’re running against are, if not evil, at least not as morally virtuous as you are. So, when you’re drawing these lines between us and them, between inside and outside, it doesn’t take much for this then to become conspiratorial, because it’s an appealing way of dividing up society and dividing up political coalitions.
So, what you’re saying is really remarkable, because I’ve always been taught that conspiracy theories really were quite exceptional and you’re giving me the impression that conspiracy theories are really a natural part of political discourse. That they’re much more common than what we anticipate or what we expect, even though they can be extremely harmful when they’re used against a group or acted upon. Am I understanding that right?
I would argue that what we’re seeing now, not only in the U.S., but across much of Europe and in autocracies across the world, especially in an era of democratic backsliding, especially in an era of populist rhetoric, is that what we’re seeing is in some ways, a reversion to the norm of how politics has always occurred. Politics historically in the U.S. and around the world is rough and tumble. It’s about defeating your adversaries short of using violence. Although sometimes politics also involves violence. I think we Westerners might have been lulled into complacency by a relatively recent period of more or less genteel fact-based political discourse from perhaps the cold war era, maybe from the fifties, up until say 2015 when Trump entered politics. But even then, the U.S. endured McCarthyism and the Second Red Scare.
So, conspiratorial ideas have always been out there. Recently though, in Western democracies, there was a stigma against using them. No politician would want to be accused of being a conspiracy theorist because that’s a way of saying you’re a kook. You’re outside of the mainstream and therefore you should be dismissed. There’s no reason why anybody in their right mind would vote for you. So, politicians or potential politicians would not want to fall into that trap, because this would possibly end their political career. Well, this has changed recently.
Now we see that in democracies, there may be certain benefits to being perceived as somebody who’s willing to push the boundaries of acceptable political discourse, especially where there’s a susceptible population. People who are alienated from the political system, people who feel left behind, who see a politician transgressing conventional political norms by saying things that offend polite society and getting all the media attention associated with that can be really attractive to a lot of voters and can lead to somebody’s political ascent. Trump demonstrated this in spades and Trump’s example, showing that you can engage in transgressive rhetoric and succeed, has now encouraged copycats, mostly in the Republican party, to use similar kinds of rhetoric and also to successfully win office.
So, is conspiracism then a technique that can be used successfully by a wide variety of politicians or was it really something that takes a certain amount of charisma that somebody like a Trump needs to be able to have? I mean, it feels like there’s a certain danger in trying to use it because you can kind of come off like a buffoon if people don’t believe you.
So, this gets at a chicken and egg problem. Whenever we study political rhetoric, we have to look at both what the public wants and what politicians deliver. There’s a supply element and a demand element and it may be hard to know in advance what kind of rhetoric will succeed. Politicians are always trying and testing various kinds of political appeals to see what works. At some moments, in some places this kind of rhetoric doesn’t succeed. But sometimes it does.
I think until Trump, there was still this psychological barrier for politicians who otherwise were ready to use conspiratorial rhetoric, possibly because they themselves are believers, to use this in public. Now that the dam has been broken (Trump demonstrated that this can work not necessarily to win a majority of the popular vote, but enough to win enough electoral votes to become president), someone like Marjorie Taylor Green seeing that success and knowing that she’s running in a very Republican district was correct to think that espousing the conspiracy theories that she probably sincerely believes would also be a winning political strategy. The extent to which conspiracy theories would be successful depends on the political situation and the political system.
In authoritarian regimes, a lot of people already are inclined to believe a variety of conspiracy theories and people then may be receptive to political appeals as long as the conspiracy theories are blaming the right people. So, we see this kind of rhetoric, not only in Russia, but in places like Turkey, Egypt, and Pakistan, because people already believe that the U.S. or the CIA is secretly trying to weaken their country or help their adversaries or there’s a secret oligarchy that really pulls the strings in the country (which is actually true in a lot of countries). By blaming those bad actors, telling stories about them, and positing that they’re involved in various plots to harm ordinary people, this can also be a winning political strategy.
Let’s come back to the idea of democracies and conspiracies. In your recent book, you wrote, “Democracies are ideally suited to defend against conspiracy theories as they rest on a foundation of transparency, independent knowledge production, and the free and open dissemination of information. For some of the same reasons democracies provide fertile ground for conspiracy theories to grow and spread.” So, when we kind of come back to the idea of why conspiracies would proliferate within democracies, it’s something that you repeat throughout your recent book, Revealing Schemes, where you emphasize that it’s political competition. It oftentimes helps fuel conspiracies because there’s somebody to kind of claim as being your enemy, if you will.
I mean, in an authoritarian regime where you literally have eliminated all political competition, conspiracy theories can be quite dangerous because oftentimes they’re going to theorize that the conspiracy involves the state doing things against the citizens. But if there’s real competition, you can kind of theorize that it’s somebody else. Is it states that are hybrid regimes that have some kind of competition that there’s really the most potential for these conspiracy theories to kind of develop?
That’s an excellent question. So, I cannot answer this question definitively, because I have not done this research myself comparatively across a variety of regimes. For my book, I studied 12 post-Soviet countries and unfortunately in those 12, there was not a consolidated democracy. So, that lay outside the scope of my study, but I would love for other people to do this research. So, competition has some of the elements that make conspiracy theories attractive in politics, because when politicians have to win votes, they have incentives to tear down the guy they’re running against. Especially where political competition is unrestrained rhetorically or it’s gloves off and especially, I would argue, in places where politics is polarized, where there are strong, regional, ethnic, or ideological divides, it makes it much easier to demonize your opponents, because that’s the way to win elections and build a coalition around yourself.
And in addition to political competition, elections that either the incumbent or the challenger can win, where you have a free and open media, and where there’s civil society that can get involved in politics and where protests are possible, this creates a situation in which conspiratorial rhetoric can flourish. One example that demonstrates how hybrid regimes are associated with conspiracy theories is Ukraine. Ukraine has all of these elements. It’s really a raucous political system. There’s true competition. There was, at least before the war, this east-west divide that was really strong. Plus, there was the reality that there were high levels of corruption. There really are oligarchs that do a lot of shady things behind the scenes. There really is shadowy politics where politicians collude with oligarchs and others to advance their own interests at the expense of the public.
So, in this situation, you have all of these ingredients that make conspiracy theories plausible and therefore fair game when it comes to engaging in political competition.
Yeah. I would imagine that in a country like Ukraine or Georgia that while you’re dealing with a kind of hybrid war that is both a cyber intelligence war and a physical war, where Russia is, if not supporting separatist regions, actually invading your country just out right that conspiracy theories make a lot of sense where they come up with different types of claims that different groups are working together against your government. I mean, some of those outlandish conspiracies could even be accurate.
That’s right. So, one additional element that is evident in Ukraine is the geopolitical aspect. Even before this war Russia actively mettled in Ukrainian politics. It supported more or less openly some candidates and tried to tear down others. Russia, most likely, was responsible for the poisoning and attempted assassination of Yushchenko before the Orange Revolution. So, this adds an additional element of intrigue to what is already a really rough and tumble political system. So, politicians who get involved in the political arena not only can accuse their opponents of being corrupt, being involved in shady deals, but also, they can allege with some actual basis that they may be in cahoots with external powers whether it be the U.S. or Russia. This is also the case in Georgia and to some extent in Moldova.
So, countries that already have this competitive element and already have media, in addition to the fact that Russia and the West are more or less involved in influencing their political systems really have all the ingredients. So, some conspiracies are actually real in these countries and other places. However, politicians can still benefit by going beyond what people already know is true by exaggerating what’s happening and going a few steps beyond the plots that have actually been demonstrated.
So, when I think about Ukraine and I think of just a pivotal moment in their history which was the Revolution of Dignity in 2014 and the ousting of Yanukovych from the presidency. It brings me back to another theme within your forthcoming book which is the idea of fifth columns. Because the Revolution of Dignity was in many ways a revolution against a sense that Yanukovych was acting as a fifth column of Russia. It’s something that we’ve dealt with here as well within the United States with the assertion of Russian collusion from Trump and others. Why don’t you just explain this concept? Because it was one that was very unfamiliar to me, because I’d like to dive into it a little bit more. What is a fifth column?
A fifth column is a domestic group or actor that is within one’s own country that is working with or supported by an external power in ways that work against the interest of the state. So, a classic fifth column claim historically in the U.S. is that Japanese Americans during World War II were secretly helping to assist Japan in the war effort against the U.S. from within. So, fifth columns are enemies within that are supported by actors outside the state. Our book investigates not necessarily actual fifth columns, but instead focuses on the rhetoric of the accusations of fifth columns, which are probably much more frequent than actual fifth columns.
An example that comes from the case that we just discussed is President Putin’s claim in a speech that he gave in March of this year in 2022 in which he singled out Russian fifth columns. That is Russians within Russia who he accused of secretly nefariously serving the interest of the West. There’s a great line in that speech in which he says he doesn’t begrudge those Russians abroad who are enjoying their foie gras and oysters, and so-called gender freedoms. They’re already outside the country.
But the Russians that remain in the country that mentally are over there, implying in the West and not here, these are the people that we need to watch out for. Because these are the people, he implied, are undermining the war effort and not being true Patriots. Because they do things that people who are in love with the West might do. He didn’t elaborate, but what does that mean? I don’t know. Maybe it means drinking cappuccinos or eating sushi or listening to Radio Liberty. He made this very menacing threat about these people who he argued are bent on Russia’s destruction from within and he did use the term fifth column in that speech.
So, this points to the fact that sometimes leaders find it useful to refer to this category of people. That it’s a useful trope, especially in a time of war when people are feeling anxious and when it helps political leaders to focus their citizens on the enemy within.
Now we’ve been talking a lot about politicians making conspiratorial claims and now we’re kind of emphasizing the idea of politicians using claims of fifth columns to be able to find enemies within their countries. What about civil society? Do claims of fifth columns, do conspiratorial claims, do those frequently arise from civil society? Because typically we think of civil society as a bulwark of democracy, as something that works against nefarious attempts of the state. But can it actually work against itself? Can it actually be one of the causes and one of the origins of conspiracy theories and fifth column claims?
Absolutely. Civil society, which essentially means society organized into groups that develop for specific purposes, can be pro-democratic or anti-democratic. They can be tolerant or they can be ethnocentric and prejudiced. There’s one chapter in our edited volume about fifth columns about the stigmatization of Japanese Americans and about how labor groups actually lobbied their state governor to designate Japanese Americans as a fifth column, because they were perceived as competing with other Americans for jobs. So, civil society groups can also act anti democratically and intolerant.
Another example from contemporary America is QAnon. Is that a civil society group? Arguably. I would argue that it’s a movement and it’s a movement built around a conspiracy theory that claims that Democrats are secretly Satanists and pedophiles and a whole bunch of other things. It has animated a large number of people in this country to vote, to advocate for various policies, to protest against Biden’s election and now to help elect Republicans into office. So, civil society groups are not endowed with any particular virtues or vices. It simply depends on what the people in the group are advocating for.
Now that you mentioned Q Anon, it makes me feel like something like the John Birch Society might even be a better example. Because it was a real organization with a real hierarchy behind it.
Yes. So, some scholars have pointed to this continuity of reactionary politics in America whenever we’re going through a period of social change whether it be the Civil Rights Movement or the election of Obama or demographic change which occurs more slowly. There’s always been this conspiratorial reactionary fringe, which may end up becoming more than a fringe, that emerges from below and advocates its own political objectives. So, I think you can draw a line from the John Birch Society during the cold war, which promoted conspiracy theories about communists infiltrating the government through the Tea Party after Obama was elected and to QAnon today. It’s an animating force among the right wing in America and now it’s extremely influential in Republican politics.
So, when we think about conspiracy theories in the United States in particular, but oftentimes even in other countries, we think of it as something that’s a conservative or even reactionary force. I think of the book that came out just a few years ago by Nancy Rosenblum and Russell Muirhead, A Lot of People are Saying, where it was very much focused on the new conspiracism referring to things coming from the right and Donald Trump.
I’d like to ask a little bit about conspiracism on the left or from liberals as well. One of the things that I think of is the claims of collusion that Donald Trump was working with the Russians. There’s still a lot of stuff that we don’t know about. But it definitely feels like some of those claims started to cross the line from being just questions into conspiracies. Do you think that’s accurate or do you think that that’s too harsh on those people who brought up those things?
I would contend that the claim that Donald Trump was an asset of the Kremlin or was Putin’s puppet, was either being paid by or blackmailed by the Kremlin, I would argue, that is a conspiracy theory. Why? Because it involves speculation quite a bit beyond what had actually been demonstrated. It required imagination beyond what the evidence itself could show and to this day the evidence that would make that link explicit has not come to light. So, I want to point out first that a lot of research on popular belief in conspiracy theories shows that no one is immune. It is not necessarily partisan. People on the left and people on the right are both capable of believing in conspiracy theories.
However, today there’s no equivalence between the conspiracy theories that are believed on the right and the left or among Democrats and Republicans and that gap is especially wide when it comes to the political elites on the right or the left that promote conspiracy theories. That is to say, conspiracy theories are now part of mainstream Republican politics and that is absolutely not the case among Democrats.
So, when it comes to the Trump conspiracy theory, the so-called Russiagate scandal, the reason that a lot of people believed that there was something fishy was that Trump did act suspiciously. In some cases it was like he went out, it was way to encourage that kind of speculation. There’s no doubt he was enamored with Russia. He spoke openly about it. Trump sometimes speaks off the cuff. He also goes out of his way to be provocative. We don’t know which one he was doing, but he did a lot of things to encourage that kind of speculation. It did end up driving his opponents crazy.
So, there was something real there. There was some basis in fact. Trump really did have a special inclination toward Russia. He really did seem to admire Putin and Trump had business interests in Russia going back quite a while. So, there was something real that will lead to the kind of speculation that there was a conspiracy and then people engage in motivated reasoning. That is any time new information appears, people make that link to what they previously knew and people are more likely to absorb supporting evidence into their beliefs and reject evidence that would conflict with their preexisting beliefs.
Then there’s the allure of taking the next step. Once we have some evidence that might indicate that there’s something fishy about Trump and Russia, it doesn’t take much then to finally make the leap and say, ‘You know what, he’s a Russian asset. He’s being blackmailed.’ So, there’s plenty of material out there and yet it still qualifies as a conspiracy theory in my book.
Sure. That’s fair. I guess I just wanted to clarify that it’s something that’s not an exclusive to one side or the other. At the same time, Trump has put out, not just mistruths, but has encouraged a lot of conspiracy theories. He’s been considered to be part of what, like I said, Rosenblum and Muirhead described as the new conspiracism. Is there a point when putting out conspiracy theories, or at least embracing them rather than putting them out, just kind of supporting or giving a gentle nod to them over time, can become counterproductive? That it no longer actually produces the effects that you’re hoping to accomplish. Does it hit a point of diminishing returns?
So, one argument that I make in the book is that there are hazards to overusing conspiracy theories as political rhetoric. The advantages initially showing that you’re the kind of politician who transgresses conventional norms, gaining people’s attention in ways that mobilize them to support you or vote, these effects work because they’re novel. But over time, if you continue a drumbeat of promoting conspiracy theories, people naturally get acclimated to that. The initial benefit to using conspiratorial rhetoric, the shock value, wears off over time. So, in order to produce the same dopamine hit, you’d have to go even further. Make your claims even more outlandish or do something else to get people’s attention.
There’s this ratchet effect where there’s a constant escalation in the outlandishness or the rhetoric that can’t go on forever. At a certain point, people might just tune it out. So, this doesn’t necessarily mean that this rhetoric will fail. But especially when it comes to democracies, if the benefits to this kind of rhetoric is signaling your distinction, showing that you’re not a conventional politician, if that’s the benefit to using that rhetoric, then that effect can only work at the beginning. At some point, if you get into office and you’re responsible for governance, If it turns out you can’t govern, even conspiracy theorists may decide that you’re not worth it. You’re not the best person to be representing them and in a democracy, they can vote you out.
Well, we’ve also seen, exactly like you just described, the escalation. I think that if you see successors or people who are coming in after the original person who was the conspiracist, somebody who tries to follow that has to escalate it like you said. We saw that with Madison Cawthorn recently. He’s put out some incredibly bold allegations that haven’t been backed up at all and we’ve seen elites in Washington turn against him, because at some point his allegations are literally going to be against the people who are near him, people in the Republican party itself. So, some of the people who were supposed to be as allies are the people who he’s claiming are conspiring against the American people.
So, currently the Republican Party is in a conspiratorial fervor. The Trump effect has generated this new group of politicians that seeks to emulate his rhetoric and in some cases is even crazier than he is at least rhetorically. So, Madison Cawthorn is a great example, along with Marjorie Taylor Greenw and Lauren Boebert. The people who get a lot of news who are in the media a lot. These people may continue to get elected, because they’re in heavily Republican districts and this rhetoric seems to work for now.
But I think we should take a longer view and recognize that it’s possible that this may just be a moment that because of a variety of political dynamics and because the Republican establishment now has decided that the party is better off rejecting democracy and trying to use the levers of power in order to engineer victories that may even go against the vote. There are incentives now for politicians who want to be successful as Republicans to be mini-Trumps. In this sense it’s also worth noting that conspiracy theories here are a symptom and not a cause. That is the conspiratorial political style is working, because the Republican party as a whole has decided it’s not going to embrace facts. It’s not even that concerned about policy.
Instead, it has this mission where its job is to try to steer the country in a very different direction by turning it against everything Democrats stand for. So, conspiracy theories are one of the effects of that strategy. But conspiracy theories and this political style may not be an enduring, successful political strategy and in a few more election cycles, there may be a reversion back to the norm, although I’m not sure exactly what the norm would be because the style has shifted so much of late. But conspiracy theories are not necessarily always going to be successful.
So, to get back to the idea of democracy and the idea of the decline in democracy, your recent paper was called, “Why Democracy Fuels Conspiracy Theories,” and you just kind of mentioned that maybe this might be just a moment in time. But your paper and your recent book, Revealing Schemes, definitely gave the impression that democracy may actually encourage conspiracy theories in different ways. I’m wondering though whether or not conspiracies would proliferate in a healthy democracy or if they proliferate more when you have a fragile democracy or even a democracy that’s in decline.
I would argue that by definition rampant conspiracy theories indicate poor health in a democracy and that’s because conspiracy theories are a symptom of something deeper. When is a conspiracy theory effective? When people are receptive to that kind of rhetoric and that’s probably because there’s enough people who are distrustful, alienated, who feel powerless, who feel the government is not responsive to their needs. So, these are deeper structural problems that democracies have to solve, if they’re going to get their way out of this. The presence of conspiracy theories and the kinds of arguments they make serve to only deepen distrust and that leads to a vicious spiral of distrust which politicians can choose to exploit if they want to.
So, in order to solve the conspiracy theory problem, democracies need to solve their trust problem, their demagoguery problem, in the U.S. the problem of inequality, the problem of structural racism. Unfortunately, none of these problems are easy to solve, but we can see conspiracy theories as an outgrowth of these deeper underlying sources of dissatisfaction and distrust.
So, clearly widespread conspiracism is going to be a symbol of a democracy that’s no longer healthy. But at the same time, we see healthy democracies that still have conspiracy theories that float around. The United States had conspiracies about the JFK assassination when I think everybody felt that American democracy was pretty secure. We see conspiracy theories float around in Germany on the margins, even though I don’t think anybody questions the health of German democracy at this moment. Can democracy eradicate conspiracy theories from mainstream public discourse or is this really too much to ask?
In short, no. Democracies cannot and should not try to eradicate conspiracy theories from politics. As I mentioned before, there’s something natural and organic about perceiving that the people in power are out to advance their own interests. It’s in part because it’s often true. Governments actually do keep secrets from the public. Politicians engage in scandals. There often is corruption at high levels. So, we don’t want citizens in a democracy to be too trusting of their politicians. It’s healthy to be skeptical of the state and its real abuses and tendencies towards secrecy. The danger is when this distrust gets redirected, not toward the state, but targets innocent people who are not actually responsible for people’s problems.
So, in the longer term, democracies are likely to endure to the extent that they can successfully meet the real needs of people. It will never prevent your Marjorie Taylor Greenes or Madison Cawthorns from appearing and appealing to those people who still feel left out. That’s always going to be part of any pluralistic society. But in the longer run, I think that if democracies really do govern well and solve people’s actual problems that there will be enough people who will be receptive to conventional appeals that don’t have to resort to conspiracy theory and will push conspiracy theories to the sidelines of politics where they belong.
Well, Scott, thanks so much for talking to me. This is such a fascinating topic. Thinking about why conspiracy theories exist, why people believe them, what their role in politics is. It’s a fascinating topic and you’ve written some incredible pieces recently. I already mentioned the Journal of Democracy article, “Why Democracy Fuels Conspiracy Theories,” but also Revealing Schemes last year and then coming out this year, Enemies Within. Thank you so much for writing those. It’s been a joy reading it.
Well, thank you and I always love discussing conspiracy theories.
“Why Democracy Fuels Conspiracy Theories” by Scott Radnitz in Journal of Democracy
Enemies Within: The Global Politics of Fifth Columns edited by Harris Mylonas and Scott Radnitz
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