Polio vaccines in Nigeria are part of a Western plot to make African women infertile. Foreign zombies are replacing indigenous labourers in South Africa. Barack Obama was born in Kenya and is a secret Muslim who hates the United States and wants to institute ‘death panels’ to govern the healthcare system. The United States triggered the earthquake in Haiti to expand America’s imperial reach.
These are just a small slice of the conspiracy theories floating around the global ether of rumour and innuendo. Such theories are hardly a new phenomenon in world politics. Athens fell victim to the politics of rumour and conspiracy during the Peloponnesian war. A century ago, Russian elites published The Protocols of the Elders of Zion to suggest that Jews were trying to take over the world — making it easier to label them as the root of all evil in Europe. There is a long and distinguished history of conspiracy-crazed politics in Latin America, Africa and the Middle East.
Political paranoia is something of a tradition in the United States. Historian Richard Hofstadter’s 1964 essay, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, provides the most well-known evocation of this idea. Hofstadter clinically observed the key symptoms: ‘The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms — he trafficks in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilisation.’ The paranoid style obsesses about power, but is profoundly hostile to those who currently occupy the commanding heights of the power structure.
Hofstadter formulated his argument to describe the movement behind the Republican candidate Barry Goldwater. Yet today, across the world, the conspiratorial bent he identified seems to be getting stronger. In every continent, people are growing more and more sour towards politics. The paranoid style has gone global.
It is easy to be flippant about such a claim. Maybe modern commentators are just being paranoid about paranoia. There is plenty of evidence, however, to suggest that anger, frustration and distrust — the necessary conditions for paranoia — are spreading into the body politic of advanced industrialised democracies in new and profound ways.
In Europe, the financial crisis has had a dramatic and negative effect. European Commission polls showed that by last year, public trust in all major European institutions had nosedived; indeed, for the first time ever, more Europeans distrusted the European Central Bank than trusted it. This distrust has played out in national elections this year; far-right nativist parties have done very well this year. The most prominent example is Hungary’s anti-Semitic and anti-gypsy Jobbik party, which finished third in parliamentary elections last month. Far-right parties have also secured significant gains in Italy, the Netherlands and France. And no matter how the British National Party fare in this week’s election, it is obvious that the dominant mood among today’s British electorate is one of hostility towards the political class.
Such frustration and anger with authority is a transatlantic phenomenon. In the US, the latest Pew survey finds that 22 per cent of Americans say they can trust the government in Washington always or most of the time, which is one of the lowest levels in the last half-century. And government institutions are not the only ones eliciting mistrust. Fewer than 35 per cent of Americans expressed a positive view of large corporations, the mainstream media, the entertainment industry or labour unions.
What has caused this transatlantic spike in suspicion? One obvious factor is the economy. The trust cycle follows the business cycle. When economic times are good, trust in government institutions increases. When there is a downturn, it dissipates. The global economy just suffered the first year of negative growth since the end of the second world war. Of course trust is down and suspicion and rage are up. Last week’s May Day clashes in bankrupt Greece, in which anarchists and extremists wreaked havoc, only prove this trend.
The European Commission poll showed that, while trust in Europe-wide institutions declined as the Great Recession hit, trust in national governments actually increased. In the United States, the Pew survey revealed that 58 per cent of Americans believed that the federal government was interfering too much in state and local affairs. The economic crises have forced the highest levels of government to act. Since, however, this is also the level of government most removed from the average citizen, it is hardly surprising to see a growing sense of frustration and powerlessness have begun to well up.
Moreover, just as political power appears to be centralising, globalisation is increasing the magnitude and vicissitude of market forces. This is not a novel phenomenon, but its volatile effects on the developed world are new. Most citizens in most advanced industrialised economies were buffeted by an economic shock they played no role in precipitating. Global behemoths such as General Motors and Citibank had no choice but to request government bailouts. In the aftermath of the Great Recession, national governments like Greece are finding themselves at the mercy of unforgiving capital markets. In this kind of economic environment, individual perceptions of powerlessness inevitably rise, making conspiracy theories more appealing.
Another obvious explanation for the rise in global paranoia is the advent of the internet. In recent weeks, online political commentators in the United States have been debating whether the conservative movement in America is suffering from ‘epistemic closure’. If conservatives get their information and opinion only by listening to conservatives, the argument runs, they cannot contemplate reasonable criticism from outside their intellectual echo chamber. The internet has greatly facilitated this kind of self-imposed ideological apartheid. To be clear, it’s not that the internet creates paranoid or conspiratorial views. The worldwide web simply allows like-minded extremists separated by geography to form their own online cocoon.
Today, people holding extreme views might not think of themselves as so extreme. According to a recent New York Times poll, for example, 84 per cent of ‘Tea Party’ supporters believe their opinions generally reflect the views of most Americans; only 25 per cent of all Americans agree with that assessment. Similarly, on global warming, Gallup showed that 46 per cent of Americans either believe that scientists are unsure about the existence of global warming, or that most scientists believe global warming is not occurring. In fact, the scientific consensus about global warming is quite strong.
What is clear is that, thanks to the technological and globalising revolutions of the last two decades, modern life has become infinitely more complex. The world has become far less easy to understand in terms of its economic and social organisation. Yet humans remain hard-wired to look for patterns in a chaotic universe. As David Aaronovitch recently observed in Voodoo Histories, conspiracy theories offer the comfort of a narrative, no matter how crazy it sounds.
Added to that is the fact that we live in an age in which political legitimacy without transparency is next to impossible. The trouble is that sometimes powerful organisations and associations really are guilty of malfeasance. A series of child abuse scandals have rocked the Catholic Church in the United States and Europe. Investigations into the subprime mortgage crisis have revealed that ratings agencies abjectly failed at their job, and government regulators were surfing porn sites instead of monitoring
the financial system. It is little wonder that faith in elites has ebbed. In this age, mistakes can tarnish the reputation of previously unassailable public figures or groups. One reason for the increased scepticism about global warming, for instance, was a series of revelations from emails and other sources suggesting that climatologists are people too. They disdain sceptics and want to push the policy agenda in their preferred direction. None of these revelations fundamentally undercut the hypotheses of anthropogenic climate change. They do puncture the myth of scientists as strictly impartial and rational technocrats.
Will anger and distrust be a permanent fixture in the politics of affluent countries? A global economic rebound should lead to increased trust in both business and political elites. Beyond trying to revive their economies, however, there must be something that governments can do to earn back the trust of some of their people. The most obvious first response would be to offer more information to persuade angry and distrustful people that their worst fears will not be realised. Unfortunately, such a policy might backfire. Political scientists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler conducted experiments to see whether correct information could erase misperceptions. They discovered that ‘corrections actually strengthened misperceptions among the most strongly committed subjects’. The very attempt to correct erroneous beliefs simply causes the most extreme adherents to put themselves into a cognitive crouch. This might explain why, even though an image of Barack Obama’s Hawaiian birth certificate can be accessed on the web, many ‘birthers’ still believe the President was not born in the USA.
A more dangerous response would be to grant extremists their wish — let them into the corridors of power. Hofstadter argued that ‘the situation becomes worse when the representatives of a particular social interest — perhaps because of the very unrealistic and unrealisable nature of its demands — are shut out of the political process: having no access to political bargaining or the making of decisions, they find their original conception that the world of power is sinister and malicious fully confirmed.’ This would obviously dissipate if extremist groups were exposed both to the realities of policymaking and the need for re-election. Unfortunately, bringing in fringe parties into government does carry the downside of having to implement some of their policies. This would of course produce serious social backlash.
There is an even riskier option, however. In a 2008 paper, the law professors Cass Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule suggested that the ‘cognitive infiltration of extremist groups’ could disrupt the trend of epistemic closure among these groups. In particular, they proposed that, under certain circumstances, ‘government agents (and their allies) might enter chatrooms, online social networks, or even real-space groups and attempt to undermine percolating conspiracy theories by raising doubts about their factual premises, causal logic or implications for political action’.
Their argument, in effect, was that the best way to deal with paranoid citizens is to spy on them. This sounds disturbingly similar to the policies of authoritarian countries. Press reports indicate that China pays pro-government commentators 50 cents for every pro-regime post; Russia has implemented a similar programme. Not surprisingly, Sunstein and Vermeule’s paper triggered considerable controversy in the United States — particularly after Sunstein was appointed to head the White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. In other words, a man who proposed intensive state-run surveillance now has the ear of the most powerful man in the free world. I’m sure that won’t make anyone more paranoid.
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated May 8, 2010