The prevalence of conspiracy theories within a society or nation can have a profound effect on its politics. Indeed for the last several decades scholars of conspiracy culture have been signalling the growing acceptance of conspiracy beliefs across the globe and their potential to distort political debate.
As Kathryn Olmsted notes in her work, Real Enemies: conspiracy theories and American democracy from World War 1 to 9/11, the prevalence of conspiracy theories can lead the ordinary citizen to become:
“… less likely to trust the government to do anything: to conduct fair elections, say, or spend their tax money, or protect their children or the planet. The result is a profoundly weakened polity, with fewer citizens voting and more problems left un-addressed for a future generation that is even more cynical about the possibility of reforms.’ (page 238)
And while there has been a growing acceptance of conspiracy theories, there are some that are particular to what is called American “New Right”. There can be no doubt they have been influencing the tone of political debate within the United States (even spilling over into Australia and across the globe thanks to the Internet).
George Johnson in his text Architects of Fear: Conspiracy Theories and Paranoia on American Politics notes the New Right emerged in opposition to liberalism and the perceived incursion of the state beyond what was necessary:
“Since the 1970s, New Right leaders have been building a well-organised political force whose members are motivated by the conviction that their beliefs are rooted in the absolute truth of the Bible or in old-fashioned American morality based on individualism and laissez-faire capitalism.” (page 163)
For some time I have argued we should stop viewing climate change sceptic movement as simply a tool of big oil. We should also stop viewing climate sceptics as cynical shills, funded by the polluting industries to prop up their bottom lines for as long as possible by delaying action on climate change.
Most sceptics are genuine in their belief climate change does not exist . For many evidence exists of a vast, overarching hoax involving scientists, the UN and even international bankers. Nor did they simply come these conclusions themselves: much of this conspiratorial thinking has come from the New Right and were formulated decades ago.
A recent survey conducted Public Policy Polling in the United States lends weight to this argument.
Conspiracy nation: fear of the coming New World Order, Obama the anti-Christ and climate change as a hoax
Recently the group Public Policy Polling (PPP) looked at 20 “widespread and/or infamous conspiracy theories” and surveyed their acceptance or rejection by >1240 registered Republican and Democrat voters.
The results were telling, as far greater number of Republican/conservatives held conspiratorial beliefs. Here are some of the numbers (see the full survey here):
- 37% believed global warming a hoax while 51% don’t – Republicans a 58-25 margin; Democrats a 11-77 margin
- 21% of voters say a UFO crashed in Roswell – More Romney voters (27%) did so than Obama voters (16%)
- 28% of voters believed a “secretive power elite” where planning a New World Order – 38% of Romney voters feared the NWO
- 27% believed Obama was the Anti-Christ – 22% of Romney voters believed that and – would who believe it – 5% of Obama voters?
On a few issues Democrats and Republicans were roughly equal (19% of Democrats believed vaccines caused autism, as opposed to 22% of Republicans). As they note:
“There is an intense partisan divide on whether or not global warming is a hoax: 58% of Republicans agree that it is a conspiracy, while 77% of Democrats disagree. 20% of Republicans believe that President Obama is the Anti-Christ, compared to 13% of independents and 6% of Democrats who agree. 51% of Americans believe there was a larger conspiracy at work in the JFK assassination, while 25% think Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. 29% believe aliens exist and 21% believe a UFO crashed at Roswell in 1947…” – Public Policy Polling
In nearly every conspiracy theory, Romney/Republican supporters seemed to be more readily accepting of conspiracy theories. The question is why?
Much of this I think has to do with the history of conservatism in the United States and the emergence of the New Right in the 1970s.
From the New Right to climate sceptics movement: the lineage is plain to see
The climate sceptic movement is but one subset of a broader movement whose agenda includes the propagation of libertarian values, advocacy for limited government, conservative or explicitly Christian morality and the free market: the New Right.
Fears of a New World Order emerged in the 1950s and 1960s, but were particular to the Evangelical movement from the 1970s onward. Militia groups also feared the coming NWO, and there was a great deal of cross-over between these two groups, as they exchanged ideas about who was behind the NWO – usually a mixture of the UN, bankers and communists.
While the fossil fuel lobby helped seed the climate sceptic movement (pace Oreskes and Conway; Washington and Cook) it’s true heritage lies with the emergence of the New Right and its tendency to accept and propagate conspiracy theories.
The results of this can be seen in the PPP survey results and the clustering of conspiracy beliefs among Republican/conservatives. This is why political debates – not just in the US – but across the world are becoming intractable.
If you’re primed over decades of conspiratorial thinking and paranoia about a coming NWO, then the idea that climate change is a hoax will come naturally. Indeed, these two ideas are often folded together.
If climate change is a hoax perpetrated by that Anti-Christ Obama in collusion with New World Order types about to herd you into a FEMA concentration camp, why do anything?