so, you elected a conspiracy theorist…
We all love a good conspiracy theory. Aliens and evil bureaucrats in secret lairs planning to send out brainwashing beams across the world and playing with the global financial system like their twisted version of Jenga seems a lot more fun and a lot less disturbing than political strife, wars, and banking meltdowns being the end result of human stubbornness, greed, hate, and general incompetence. Even if the intent of the powers that be is malicious, at least the events aren’t a result of random, complex factors boiling for years, if not decades or centuries and requiring just as long to fix. They’re part of a plan. They’re organized. Those putting them into action are very much in control.
And that frame of mind sets up the other allure of conspiracy theories. Each has a villain you can defeat and almost magically fix whatever problem is bothering you. Sure, it might not be easy and there may be multiple evildoers, but you at least know where to aim. Even if you’re facing an angry hydra with hundreds of heads, there’s the problem in your sights and as soon as you find a way to get past its snapping, doubly regenerative heads to set it on fire, you can kill it as the hero you are and rid the world of its evil. But this is where conspiracy theories can get the best of us and exactly what makes them so dangerous when we allow them to guide our worldviews, votes, and policies.
when conspiracy theorists attack the ballot box
Now, we could talk about paranoid and conspiracy prone voters. We can discuss how the poor and those with less education are more prone to conspiracies and justifying violence to bring down the bogeymen with whom they’re presented. We could dive into the elaborate plots to which they ascribe, like their belief that the world is being ran by wealthy Satanic pedophiles, or their insistence that instead of decades of support for predatory, supply-side casino capitalism backfiring on them, they’re being replaced by a cabal of Jews and foreigners. And can mention how feelings of powerlessness make people more prone to believe in conspiracies, as well as explore the relationship between populism and conspiratorial ideation.
However, as much damage as conspiracy-minded voters can do to civil society, the bigger and more urgent danger is the fact that politicians in command of multi-trillion dollar budgets, with entire militaries and intelligence agencies at their disposal, and the ability to create and enforce laws are also rapidly becoming conspiracy theorists as well. Instead of trying to solve very real and pressing problems, they battle invisible demons lurking in the shadows and lash out at their critics not as political opponents, but as malicious traitors conspiring in the shadows with the forces of evil, appealing to their base not as a group of concerned citizens but foot soldiers in their war against those nefarious entities.
when politicians go off the deep end
Rather than see their nations’ citizens as people for whom they’re responsible, they see anyone who didn’t vote for them as enemies, and because they now control the levers of oversight and law enforcement, they feel free to commit crimes with impunity since those who would be prosecuting them also ascribe to the same conspiracy theories. Take the Trump administration trying to extort the government of Ukraine into launching investigations into Trump’s political opponents based on his belief that Ukrainians were behind the DNC hack, then framed Russia and tricked the FBI into starting the investigation into his campaign. He even went as far as to send Attorney General William Barr to get foreign governments to undermine and discredit American intelligence services to advance his own conspiracy theories.
While trying to humiliate your own spies and investigators, and force other nations to meddle in elections on your behalf should be completely beyond the pale, in the alternate doomsday universe of the Republican Party, this is just a hapless victim fighting back against the sinister Deep State that conspired to quietly sit on intelligence that should have cost him the election, then try to remove him from office because reasons. If that doesn’t make sense to you, don’t worry because you’re right, it doesn’t make sense. But it doesn’t have to. It just has to affirm the victimhood mentality of conspiracy theorists, give them a convenient scapegoat for their shortcomings, and justify their illegal and unethical actions as self-defense.
Using their conspiracy armor, they can pretend that they haven’t spent decades placing their bets on harmful policies thinly veiled by aspirational-sounding bullshit, underinvesting in their communities, and doubling down on dying industries while ignoring klaxons signaling brand new and genuinely disruptive technologies on the horizon. Politicians using conspiracies to elude the glaring evidence of their failures is hardly novel, but whereas they once understood that there were limitations to what their voters would believe, they’ve become crazed zealots themselves, wholeheartedly believing that it’s impossible for even their most catastrophic and glaring failures to be their fault.
conspiracy theories are an international problem
While United States may be a giant, flashing neon warning sign of what happens why you let the least qualified, most paranoid citizens with a tenuous grip on cognition and reality run just about everything, things aren’t going well in other nations either. Just look at Canada’s Western separatist movement known as Wexit. Its founder, Peter Downing, sounds like a Trump acolyte spewing almost every racist and neo-fascist conspiracy theory that gives denizens of far right internet forums a funny feeling in their pants. He even gets regular assists on social media from Russian troll farms looking to sow discord in developed nations by weaponizing the constant, simmering rage of older rural anglophone whites and disaffected youth, which, to be fair, is their job.
On the surface, the campaign is framed as a quest by two provinces for economic leverage in exporting oil, one doomed to fail even if Alberta and Saskatchewan do split off from the rest of Canada. In reality, it’s a conspiracy theorist’s quest to create a heavily guarded petrostate safe from the evil tentacles of “globalists” trying to commit #WhiteGenocide through immigration, homosexuality, and environmentalism. You see, it’s not that agriculture is being even further consolidated and mechanized, or that fossil fuels are doing a lot of environmental damage and a lot of people want their local governments to divest from the oil and gas business, it’s all a conspiracy by a malevolent cabal with a searing hatred for white people.
Selling immigration, modernization, and corporate consolidation as nefarious conspiracies by outside forces in the wake of inaction and poor planning by far too many world leaders has been crucial to the populist takeover of Hungary and the rise of far-right parties in Germany, Denmark, Brazil, Australia, France, Italy, and the UK. Pick a political party against immigration and with a hatred for modernization in any way, shape, and form, and some fear-mongering conspiracy theory targeting older rural and exurban whites and their children is basically the entirety of its appeal to would-be voters and an instant justification for the rapidly slipping or stagnating quality of life under their rule.
how to draw the line between skepticism and conspiracy
In a way, critical thinking is a combination of two razors, if you will. The first is Hanlon’s razor, which tells us not to attribute to malice that which can be explained to incompetence, and the other is Occam’s razor, which asks us to consider that the simplest explanation with the fewest assumptions is likely the correct one until shown otherwise. Conspiratorial thinking flips them both on their head, looking for malice by default and making assumptions about who could be behind those sinister plans whenever something even remotely upsetting happens. It’s certainly fine to be skeptical and ask for as much detail as possible, but once you start reaching beyond that evidence, you’re in conspiracy land and the further you go, the harder it is to come back.
If we look at the areas of the developed world having the most trouble today, we typically find rural outposts built around one or two industries and lacking any backup plan for what would happen if they left. Today, thanks to advances in technology and the evolution of finance, there’s a lot of creative destruction in the marketplace. Only hubs with many diverse industries can survive, much less thrive in this active environment, and even then, they’ll require changes in how we view jobs and careers to support frequent job changes and foster entrepreneurial projects by those with promising ideas — with the latter being within reason, of course.
We could make peace with the fact that this is just how the world works today and figure out how to transition and train as many people as possible for success in this future, or we can turn to vast conspiracies by the Deep State Globalist Illuminati Reptoid menace to wipe out rural denizens for shits and giggles. The fact that so many of our politicians are choosing the latter and turning their long-held grudges against other nations and politicians who crossed them into obstinate pissing contests instead of getting it through whatever ultra-dense alloys were used to construct their skulls that they’re living in a fundamentally different world than they did even a few decades ago is alarming, foreboding, and a perfect reason to kick them out of office at the earliest possible opportunity.