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Shared dualisms: On populism and conspiracy theory

By Steven Van Hauwaert

The number and importance of conspiracy theories appears to have increased globally over the last couple of decades. Many of these have focused on specific events (classics include the JFK assassination and the WTC attacks), but some of the more important contemporary conspiracy theories have been a direct consequence of socio-political developments in today’s society (e.g. globalisation, EU integration, etc).  The appeal of conspiracy theory is accentuated by the apparent paucity of other, alternative explanatory frameworks within which to understand these processes, at least from the point of view of many who believe in conspiracy theories. More and more, scholars of conspiracy theory in fact advocate how compatible conspiracy theory can be with other explanatory frameworks for political reality, most notably populism.

 From the literature, one can distinguish three distinct categories of agents that comprise a conspiracy: conspirators, the unknowing people, and the whistleblowers.  It is the latter category that divides the world into good versus evil, right versus wrong,  victims versus conspirators.  According to this select group of whistleblowers (often journalists, intellectuals, party officials, etc.), conspirators operate on different levels (international, national and individual) to covertly establish, control or manipulate outcomes, which will disadvantage the unknowing people.  Such dualism can also be found in the ideological basis of populism, which opposes a putatively ‘pure people’ against a ‘corrupt elite’.

With populism as one of the core ideological constructs of the far right, a conduit has been created that easily facilitates the entry of conspiracist rhetoric into their programmes.

 Since both conspiracy theorising and populism construct such a dualistic approach to political reality, it is perhaps not surprising that they would  appear together, or even complement each other. In the past three decades, this has increasingly been exemplified in the activities of West-European far right parties.  With populism as one of the core ideological constructs of the far right, a conduit has been created that easily facilitates the entry of conspiracist rhetoric into their programmes. In France, the FN’s combination of these two constructs, populism and conspiracy theorising, has been analysed, most notably in its discourse (Cuminal et al., 1997; Guland, 2000; Jamin, 2009).

 Following the early successes of Pierre Poujade’s UDCA in the 1950s, the FN adopted populism as part of its outlook upon emergence in the early 1980s. The principal focus of the FN’s populist attacks has always been the establishment, and its desire to stay in power rather than uphold their electoral promises to the French people.  Jean-Marie Le Pen referred to this phenomenon as ‘la bande des quatres’, Marine Le Pen refers to it as ‘le système UMPS’, and even academics have occasionally accepted its existence in the form of cartel parties (Katz and Mair, 1995).  In short, the FN does not want to overthrow the democratic system, nor does it want more government.  Rather, it proposes a solid democratic system, with better government, i.e. not by the parties currently holding all the power.

  As far as conspiracies go, the FN’s conspiracist discourse can be divided into two phases.  Up until 1989, like most far right parties’ discourse, the FN was very focused on the dangers of communism.  The FN systematically rejected communism (as it did capitalism), which they saw as reducing socio-political reality to merely materialist basis.  It saw a grand communist conspiracy to influence the world, mostly through its covert influence over the UN and NATO.

By the time of the fall of the Soviet Unionin 1989, the EU commenced its formation and integration.  Accompanied by other on-going processes of globalisation, the Treaty of Maastricht (1992) and the First Gulf War in Iraq indicated increasing international cooperation. The FN saw this as a Trojan horse for a New World Order, covertly led by the US, NATO, the EU itself or even the Jews, looking to establish its influence and manipulation through the institutions of the EU.  The FN opposed this evolution on the basis of the extreme liberalisation that accompanied it, and the decreasing attention placed on traditional structures such as nations, borders, people and national economies that this involved (Jamin, 2009).

  The key to the successful combination of populism and conspiracy theory is reinforcement.  As noted, both approaches use a dualistic worldview, which means society is interpreted through membership of one of two groups.  Both approaches oppose a small minority with a grand majority: Populism uses the narrative of two opposing groups, the corrupt elite and the pure people, while conspiracy theorising tends to oppose an ‘unknowing people’ and the conspirators. Populist parties like the FN identify the corrupt elite with the conspirators and the pure people with the unknowing, and victimised, people, thus reinforcing both oppositions.

By assuming the untainted ‘outsider’ role, the FN appears to have succeeded in complementing populism and conspiracy theory

 The FN has been able to do this very successfully, especially since the end of communism.  Conspiracy-wise, its principal focus has been on Europe (or the EU) and globalisation.  Its target has been the corrupt elites, accusing them of participating in and encouraging covert manipulations.  On an international level, EU-institutions, the European Parliament, the IMF, and so forth seem to personify this ‘corrupt elite’.  On a more national (or local) level, the traditional parties perform this personification.  In its discourse, the FN claims there is no difference between the two, as the elite remains the elite, regardless of the level on which they operate.  By assuming the untainted ‘outsider’ role, the FN appears to have succeeded in complementing populism and conspiracy theory, using one to reinforce the other.

  However, it’s worth making one small, if slightly obvious, observation: since far right parties are less and less perceived as ‘outsiders’ (see De Lange, 2007), would this strategy still be possible if a far right party were to assume parliamentary or governmental responsibilities?  It would be more difficult to oppose the elite if one is part of that elite, or to accuse conspirators in powerful positions when one holds such positions as well. It would be worth investigating how the conspiratorial dimension of far-Right parties evolves as they approach mainstream sources of power and responsibility.


  • Cuminal, I., Souchard, M., Wahnich, S., Wathier, V. 1997. Le Pen, les mots: Analyse d’un discours d’extrême droite. Paris: Le Monde Editions.
  • De Lange, S. 2007. A New Winning Formula? The Programmatic Appeal of the Radical Right, Party Politics, 13(4), pp. 411-435
  • Guland, O. 2000. Le Pen, Mégret et les Juifs: L’obsession du “complot mondialiste”. Paris: La Découverte.
  • Jamin, J. 2009. Imaginaire du complot. Amsterdam: University of Amsterdam Press.
  • Katz, R.S., Mair, P. 1995. Changing Models of Party Organization and Party Democracy: The Emergence of the Cartel Party. Party Politics, 1(1), pp.5-28

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