Dismantling Credibility: Conspiracy and populism

People claim you can’t convince anyone of anything on Facebook. After thinking about it, Facebook seems to do an excellent job at convincing a whole host of people on a great number of topics. From friends to family there is no end to the uncomfortable reality that, when left to our own devices we end up with some pretty wild conclusions about the way the world works.

Some disagreement is healthy. But what isn’t healthy is when these opinions verge off into complete, impossible to deal with insanity; that doctors are intentionally poisoning children, the world is flat, COVID-19 is a liberal/Chinese hoax, airplanes are dumping chemicals in the air to subdue society, give me $9.99 for mint extract so I can cure your flu, the list goes on. All these arguments are based on the idea that, well did you know, xyz times in the past the government has done something bad therefore anything is possible so why not a nationwide conspiracy?

This boils down to the erosion of trust which, at times were propagated for political ends (climate change denial being the most prominent). But the steps to erode trust all seem to follow the same formula, if I wanted to create my own conspiracy theory these are the steps:

  1. Start by assuming that human beings are fundamentally greedy and act in self-interest
  2. Some institutional actor is providing information I am skeptical of given a prior trouble I’ve experienced
  3. I discover some external actor who I trust is acting in good faith
  4. This good faith actor provides an alternative set of facts which disagrees with institutional actors and agrees with my suspicions
  5. I am vindicated and believe that this provides more proof the suspected institution is bad (it is greedy, it is power hungry, etc.).
  6. I believe the good faith actor also acts in self-interest but is more trust worthy than the institution because… (why not!)
  7. I share this discovery with the world

The same people who use as a crux the supposed corruption of our medical system (it is acting in in capitalistic self-interest) are often the very same who will then turn around and assign trust to a man who will sell a cure for any ailment you want for just five easy payments of $19.95.

Why? Because one system either says that your troubles are unsolvable with today’s science and charge $1,000 for the trouble OR the other confirms what you already know (the world is evil, people in power abuse this power, greed is bad, etc.) so now that i’ve gotten your attention what do you have to lose? The alternative in contrast feels like a trust-worthy bargain and paradoxically less greedy. But note the assignment of credibility, we’ve brought the institution down to the level of our lavender oil salesmen, who is to say one is more trust worthy than the other now?

Therefore, the power of this reductive argument is not in its assignment of credibility, but rather its ability to strip credibility away from any source. When an internet blog (Brietbart) is considered equally trust worthy to any (albeit it left leaning) major newspaper, then we know we’re in trouble. But these aren’t new problems. What’s new is the ability to find (via the internet) just one guy out there who says yes, you aren’t crazy. But hey, be sure to like and subscribe to find out for sure.

This distrust in institutions pervades our politics, it results in massive split between what we expect our politicians to accomplish (say, a dramatic change from the established order) and what’s actually possible (very little, as per design circa 1776). We do not exist in a society which is capable of rapid change and if the beliefs of its citizens became so disjointed that a win for one team is a loss for another than only social instability can result. Populism gains its power from its ability to leverage this frustration, to take already agreed upon criticisms of our society and to take it to a seemingly logical conclusion and say well, if you can only trust them some of the time, then why do you trust it at all?The majority of policy proposals issued during Trump’s campaign were leveraged liberal arguments (free trade is bad, big money & career politicians corrupt our political process, we are a nation of inequality, the war in Iraq was terrible, etc.), much to the frustration of the rightwing establishment. Trying to apply some ideological consistency to these beliefs is to miss the point. The same person who buys $9 lavender seed oil will be the first in the emergency room when a heart attack hits. Similarly, the same person who rallies against how America has been ‘cheated’ from free trade and NAFTA will bemoan the evils of Bernie Sanders’ socialism. They do this precisely because every actor now has perceived, equivalent credibility.

One day I will post on facebook that drinking alcohol will stop COVID-19 and the next I’ll take my insulin shot so that I don’t die the next time I eat a candy bar. There is no contradiction here, my peddled free advice is equally valid to a corrupt and evil institution.

And why shouldn’t I do this?

We demand from our politicians some excitement, energy, or desire to reform and change the way things are. But the price we pay is that in order to get this we need a movement who criticizes the existing order, who dismantles the credibility of the way things are in order to justify his/her argument for how things should be. Each time we do that and fail to ‘fix’ it, we suffer the consequences. Overtime this distrust of experts and institutions becomes ‘common sense’ and from that point, it’s a free for all. We either have to start from scratch or devolve into the insanity of; your expertise is worth less than my bullshit all because I have a better banner on a blog page.

Social media is uncomfortable because we are beginning to learn what happens when people are allowed to fester political opinions without the iron fist of a Liberal (with a capital L, by the way) media oligopoly keeping them on the tracks. As unjust as that arrangement may have been, at least people took their shots. Small seeds of distrust (our medical care is too expensive) grow unhindered into the realm of literal garbage (doctors are evil and poison our children through vaccines). The pompous arrogance of preaching the sermon ‘educate yourself’ has come full circle. Who should do the educating? If the very institutions of social progress, the very machinery responsible for literally billions worldwide being lifted from subsistence poverty is now derided as a ‘liberal college’ and can’t be trusted then there is nowhere left to go, it’s off to the blogs and headlines from Facebook, achievements of scientists and experts over the past 200 years be damned.

If the left is to receive some blame here, it is from their erroneous belief that just about any field of study can be given the blessing of ‘degree’. Fueled by an ethos of the universal benefits of any college education came degrees which, to be frank, are exploitative. While liberalism isn’t responsible for exploitative college practices, they did hinge their credibility of the supposed intellectual ‘consensus’ it provided without much push back. This opened themselves up to a very predictable criticism, que Fox news spending hours of TV time talking about some women’s studies professors twitter feed, a story that fed so well into an already established narrative for the under educated masses in rural america. Intellectuals are oppressing you, intellectuals think they are smarter than you, but i’m here to say intellectuals are idiots anyway so you don’t need to waste your time with that. You can trust us just as much as you can’t trust them. Trust us please, we are desperate for the ad revenue.

The right moved in on this vulnerability and peddled it wholesale. Climate change became the rallying cry of the conservative, not because the bible says ‘and burn the earth and dump pollution into the air for that is god’s will’, but because the argument split urban liberals with rural ‘folk’, equating climatology to the flaws of ‘liberal’ social studies. If ‘liberal’ PhDs are hopelessly ignorant about race and -insert hot social issue here-, then the same ‘liberal’ PhDs must be wrong about rising temperatures and environmental degradation. If they are wrong about the climate then they must be wrong about anything else that’s political convenient (like immunology experts claiming COVID-19 is dangerous). The reasoning is irrelevant (often we are given the globalist conspiracy explanation for this one) because the result is genius. Knowing the difference between ‘fact’ and ‘myth’ in this brave new world is distilled into a single question.

“Are you a liberal?”

But it seems those same people who were so often critical of Liberal hegemony are unwilling to apply the same criteria level of ‘common sense’ criticism to this profit driven ‘good faith’ actor. The only reasonable answer is that this degenerates into thinly veiled tribalism. People follow their leaders and leaders are a reflection of their people. We are in a feedback loop of stupidity. A twisted nightmare Plato probably had once where a ship’s crew teeter between the selection of two different captains promising to navigate them back to safety, but the only criteria necessary to determine his fitness for service is if his views on taxation ‘make sense’.

Who now decides if a fact is true or not in this toilet world of ours? Paradoxically, we are told (by grandparents on facebook or by some garbage news web page) just a different set of self-interested greedy ‘good faith’ actors who are so graciously willing to accept our money, our clicks, or our fleeting attention. The profit motive finds itself continuously teetering between being the justification of why our institutions are so evil and what makes our society so supernaturally excellent. But if in exchange for this cognitive dissonance you reward me with the warm embrace of ‘you were right all along’ then I’m willing to look the other way.

Liberalism requires there to be some quantitative, non-debatable reality upon which we can apply human science to. With that science we can conquer our world, reform humanity, and not starve to death (hopefully). Losing this means partially abandoning the ideological framework of Classical Liberalism and the current proposed alternative of the economic nationalist will therefore (predictably) drift closer and closer to the only alternative left, unashamed Fascism.

We will never find our utopia but we are stuck together. At some point, this deconstruction phase must end. Whether conservatives like it or not, they will be forced to begin to agree to a baseline about what a fact is and compromise about who we both trust to present it. Because if they do not then the next two decades will be an endless cycle of 51% bashing in the face of the remaining 49% and there won’t be any popcorn left for sale.

2 comments

  1. “We are in a feedback loop of stupidity.” Ugh, you sum it up a little too well. Are we on our way to full-blown Idiocracy?

    This perspective on the world also makes it impossible to debate anything. Oh, scientists have shown that x? Not true, brainwashed sheeple, it’s y! What are my sources? I’m not going to tell you–you should go out and do your own research, like I did!

    And if you think an endless cycle of bashing is bad, what if the distrust and hostility rises to such a level that the political conflict becomes a violent conflict?

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