Guest post: The result is delegitimation

Originally a comment by Bjarte Foshaug at Miscellany 6.

I recently finished reading A Lot of People Are Saying – The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy by Russell Muirhead and Nancy L. Rosenblum. In it the authors make a distinction between “classical conspiracy theories” and what they call the “new conspiracism” which they describe as “conspiracy without the theory”. Where the former were at the very least attempts to explain real events and appealed to supposedly “scientific” data and “rational” arguments (e.g. the obsession of 9-11 truthers with the temperature of burning jet fuel and the melting point of steel), the new conspiracisms don’t attempt to explain anything (more often than not, there isn’t even anything to explain), are based on nothing but assertion (“the election was rigged!”), insinuation, or innuendo (“there’s something there”, “a lot of people are saying”), and substitutes endless repetition, as well as “liking”, sharing, retweeting, forwarding etc. for evidence and argument. I do think the authors tend to give the classical conspiracy theorists more credit than they deserve, but that’s an argument for another day.

The new conspiracism doesn’t even require belief in the literal truth of the conspiratorial claims as stated, only the notion that they are “true enough” (“it’s entirely plausible”, “it wouldn’t surprise me”), which seems to jibe well with the logic of the post-truth era: “It might not be literally true that Hillary Clinton is running a child sex trafficking ring from the basement of a pizza parlor in Washington DC, but I’m going to go with it anyway. It’s exactly the kind of thing she would be capable of after all. Just look at the thing with the emails! I hate her, so anything I can use against her is fine by me. Who cares if its technically ‘true’ or not?! Everybody is always lying anyway, so I might as well go with the lies that favor my own tribe.”. There is also what I have called the “Superman Fallacy” because it’s almost the perfect flip-side of a straw man: As we all know, a straw man is a dishonest portrayal of the views of your opponents specifically designed to be easily refuted or even self-evidently absurd. A Superman by contrast is a dishonest portrayal of your own views specifically designed to be easily defended, e.g. claiming for a fact that Obama tapped Donnie’s phone, and then, when challenged, moving the goalpost to “it’s possible”, “it could be true” etc. Or if you want to have it both ways: use insinuation and innuendo to get the the idea of a conspiracy out there, and then abdicate any responsibility by claiming to be “just asking questions”, requesting more information (“somebody should look into that”, “what I already know is disturbing enough”) etc.

As people like Timothy Snyder and Peter Pomerantsev have pointed out, the new authoritarians are different from the tyrannies of the past in that they don’t actually require you to believe anything, only to distrust everyone enough to dismiss any criticism of authoritarianism as well as any appeal to “democracy”, “rights”, the “rule of law” etc. as part of somebody else’s nefarious plot or hidden agenda: In other words conspiracism! Even people who know perfectly well that there’s no truth to the claims often end up either actively endorsing them or passively failing to correct them, whether out of cynical opportunism, tribalism, or cowardice.

The result is delegitimation, beginning with the political opposition. Delegitimation goes deeper than any normal disagreement or conflict over policy. I.e. the opposition is not just portrayed as wrong, or misguided, or even dishonest, but outright criminal, treasonous, or even totally evil. There is no room for argument, negotiation or compromise with pedophiles, murderers, and traitors determined to destroy everything you hold dear in this world. You just do whatever it takes to stop them, and if that means playing dirty, cheating, throwing out democratic rules of the game, then so be it. Besides the political opposition the other main target of deligitimation are knowledge-producing institutions and expertise in general, from climate scientists to the FBI, and from Anthony Fauci to the free press. Again the explicit or implicit claim is that these institutions are not just flawed, or wrong, or even biased, but actively engaged in a criminal plot against the nation and its leader. The delegitimation of independent institutions obviously has the potential to become a self-fulfillimg prophecy: The initial accusations become a pretext for defunding the institution, filling it with loyalists, or ignoring it altogether. As a result the institution does indeed begin to look increasingly corrupt, dysfunctional, and illegitimate, thus providing further justification for getting rid of it entirely.

This goes beyond mere political polarization into what the authors call “epistemic polarization”, i.e. people are not just divided over what is in fact true, but what it even means to “know” something and ultimately who “owns reality”. The new conspiracism, based as it is on mere assertion, is very much like divine revelation in that it claims special insight into layers of reality that are hidden to everyone else, cannot be independently tested or verified, and must therefore be taken on faith. Ultimately this whole situation is incompatible with democracy. Without a shared set of facts, or even a common understanding of what it would take to get to an agreement, it becomes impossible to make informed decisions, have reasoned, intelligent arguments or even disagree in any meaningful sense. When that happens, there is nothing left to appeal to but brute force.

11 Responses to “Guest post: The result is delegitimation”