Generally speaking, the new-age populists have a fascination with nostalgia of fantasy, and conspiracy theories, be it the idea that Obama was not American, or that George Soros is funding unrest to destroy “Christian” nations (this is particularly popular with anti-semites), Pizzagate, etc.
But what precisely are conspiracy theories?
Conspiracy theories are broadly characterized as counter-subversive narratives; they are narratives which explain an event as the natural outcome of a “plot” by a powerful group. Populism, on the other hand, defines the political as a struggle between the people and “the elites,” where people are good and elites are bad. One can naturally notice how populism and conspiracy theories blame a similar group for the dysfunctional politics: the powerful elites. It is noteworthy that populism is not exclusively a right-wing ideology, but in this article we will be focusing on right-wing populism, as it is more relevant to our society at the time.
One can argue that perhaps the world’s greatest atrocities and genocides are an outcome of this fusion of conspiracy theories and populism, be it the Holocaust or the Soviet great purge. This article explains this relationship by examining it through the lens of behavioural economics. Before we begin understanding the recent rise in conspiracy theories and populism, we first need to investigate how we got here.
How did we get so polarized?
First, it is important to point out that the presidential (most powerful office in the nation) is not decided by the popular vote but is decided by the electoral college. This means that one Texan vote in the presidential election has much lower impact when compared to one vote form Wyoming. This combined with the neoliberal policies implemented by the US government has contributed to historic distrust of politicians in the US. According to Pew Research Center, only 17% of Americans trust the government to do the right thing always, or most of the time.
If one is to describe behavioral economics in the simplest form, it is the rejection of the perfect rationality assumption of neoclassical economics. A key concept of behavioral economics is the prospect theory, it describes that individuals have a S-shaped risk averse function. One can interpret this as individuals prefer certain gains over uncertain gains but prefer uncertain losses over certain losses. Therefore, if there is distrust in politicians, then people would be more willing to accept conspiracy theories which they view as being preferred over the certain loss in trusting the “establishment”.
This phenomenon is being capitalized on by the current president, through slogans like “drain the swamp,” and propagating conspiracy theories such as the existence of the “Deep-State.”
Therefore, the people who have been alienated by the state, who distrust the state, view the regime as the savior, the outsider. They believe that while the current political system is bad, the individuals in the regime are good, as they affirm the existence of the conspiracy, and therefore people vote for them.
It follows that, as the establishment affirms the conspiracy theories, people who believe in them think they are more certain and thus start believing in more of them or in them more intensely. This can easily spiral in the atrocities discussed above as the “elites” must be reprimanded for the evil they have done. This punishment ultimately takes the form of mob justice on a crime which never happened, thus ending as tragedy for the group deemed evil.
While the situation is dire, there is a possibility of change if we recognize what the regime is capitalizing on, then solving for the root cause enables solving for the effects. In simpler terms: if we solve for the alienation of the political system, i.e. the electoral college and the neoliberal policies of the state, we offer an alternative which is more certain in comparison to the gains offered by the conspiracy theories. This would present people with a more certain alternative and decrease the reliance on conspiracy theories.