How do conspiracy theories relate to non-democratic regimes?
One of the striking features of ‘conspiracy theory’ in the advanced democracies is how marginal it is. Conspiracy theory is a term of derision, and political leaders tend to be wary of being associated with any claims that could plausibly be called a conspiracy theory. The anxious liberals of the 1950s who gave us terms like ‘conspiracy theory’ and ‘paranoid style’ in something like their current sense were motivated at least in part by a fear that many citizens in established democracies had within them a latent authoritarian personality. But it is (I think) quite rare to see mainstream political leaders in advanced democracies making conspiratorial claims.
I’m wary of drawing a clear line between what is and is not a democratic regime. But perhaps one of the signs that a democracy is becoming more authoritarian is that accusations of conspiracy (or the propagation of conspiracy theories, if you think those claims are cynical and absurd) are used to delegitimise dissent and mobilise popular sentiment. Think of Orban’s accusations of European conspiracy against his authoritarian democracy in Hungary, or Erdogan’s accusations that foreign financiers are the hidden movers behind an ostensibly popular protest. These are democracies, at least by the Freedom House definition of regular elections and rotation of office. Yet I think the intuition in these sorts of cases is that a norm of responsible representation is being violated.
Another way of putting it is that partisan competition is always walking a line between on the one hand creating oppositions and stoking suspicions of the other side, and on the other hand being bound by a common commitment to some norms and practices of competition itself. How far political actors invoke unitary or adversarial models of democracy seems to me perhaps an important feature of their propensity to invoke conspiracies.
If we think of how successfully democratic a regime is not just in terms of its partisan competition and electoral politics, but in terms of its media ecology, then we could say that conspiracy theory looks different in regimes with highly limited information sources. So terrorism, Sunstein suggests, is more likely to arise in countries without civil liberties because there will be less information, which makes them more vulnerable to bad information from limited sources. Indeed, “authoritarian nations produce a crippled epistemology on the part of their citizens” (Sunstein 2009: 116). They are thus (he thinks) more likely to believe conspiracy theories.
Another dimension along which we might assess democracies / non-democracies is rule of law and quality of government. If laws are prospective, open and clear, they should be able to guide behaviour. They should be predictable too in their enforcement. Where getting a licence for your business (or whatever) depends on personal relations, bribes and so on, or where expediency and arbitrary decisions override procedures, it won’t be crazy to interpret decisions and events in terms of conspiracies. But imagining conspiracies in this context is not in the pattern of ‘paranoid’ or ‘irrational’ projections. Imagined conspiracies have a different shape and tone when they are set against a background of stable, transparent and largely trustworthy legal and administrative procedure. (Conspiracy theorists in America often rely with great credulity on official reports and documents; I would be surprised if this were the case in authoritarian regimes).