Conspiracy belief and Anti-EU attitudes among populists and the extreme right

In an era of an ever-increasing relevance of populist political actors (Inglehart & Norris, 2016), ideological polarisation is permeating the political debate. Political rhetoric that had previously been deemed unacceptable or, at best, common within autocratic regimes, has in recent years become increasingly normalised in developed democracies. This divisive rhetoric is used by populists to pit the ‘common’ people against malignant elites and constitutes a Manichean worldview, in which people are divided into two groups - either good or evil

- without any possible nuances in between (e.g., Mudde & Kaltwasser, 2017; Müller, 2016). It is common for populists to emphasise the relevance of the popular will over the rights and freedoms of individuals. They do not depict ‘the people’ as individual, autonomous citizens but as an ‘organic whole’. Populists often portray political parties and other representative institutions as divisive instruments of corrupt elite politicians and privileged interests. Populists prefer majoritarian decision-making mechanisms to the complex checks and balances of liberal democracy, and they regard pacts and political negotiations as forms of corruption and impediments to the expression of the popular will. They do not advocate for the complete invalidation of representative institutions but favour the identification of the people with their political leader, unmediated by professional politicians and political parties. Populists favour top-down political mobilisation and mechanisms for direct political participation, such as plebiscites and referendums.

Historically, conspiracy theories are a frequently used tool by populists. Conspiracies can be utilised by populists to smear their enemies, deepen polarisation and reinforce the idea that their political opponents are working towards undermining the interests of the common people (Stack, 2016). Thus, it comes as no surprise that the voters of populist parties, on both the left and the right, are most likely to believe in conspiracies (Thorisdottir et al., 2020). Such divisive tactics are not only used by populist politicians as a tool of defamation, they are also exploited for the advancement of political goals, such as promoting Euroscepticism (Krouwel & Abts, 2007). Therefore, it is only logical to argue that citizens susceptible to populist rhetoric will not only be more likely to believe in conspiracy theories (see also Silva, Vegetti & Littvay, 2017), but they will also be more prone to distrust supranational institutions such as the EU. Given that critics of European integration often present the European Union as an institution aimed at destroying, or at least weakening, nation-states by - for instance

- promoting immigration, it comes as no surprise that support for populist parties is also associated with collective narcissism (Marchlewska et al., 2018). This psychological construct reflects the perceived superiority of an ingroup (usually one’s own nation-state), and predicts not only increased hostility towards outgroups but also belief in conspiracy theories (Golec de Zavala & Cichocka, 2012; Golec de Zavala & Federico, 2018). Given that previous research has established the links between collective narcissism, conspiracy belief and populism (e.g. anti-immigration conspiracies explaining the Brexit vote) (Swami et al., 2018; also see Bergmann in this volume), we argue that such connection also exists between conspiracy belief and Euroscepticism.

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