The fact that local government elections have attracted a large number of conspiratorial candidates is not surprising. It reflects efforts that have taken place in the United States, and we should pay attention.
One candidate to represent the Christchurch school board is Philip Arps, who has been jailed for encouraging the sharing of a video of the Christchurch mosque filming. Arps are associated with “alt-right”.
The alt-right — a rebranded form of white supremacy — burst into the public consciousness as a pro-Donald Trump activist during the 2016 U.S. election. Converged and nourished by the echo chambers of online networks, the conspiracy theories they peddled have become entangled with various fringe groups, especially the anti-vax movement, and spread to many countries around the world, including New Zealand.
Many people think they are crazy, but they don’t see themselves that way. For the alt-right, this period is similar to Germany in the early 1930s, when the Nazi Party rose from obscurity to complete dominance. In the alt-right’s online community, they talk excitedly about the dawn of their time in the sun.
Using this German analogy, the alt-right frantically talks about the fact that they need a crisis. Just as the social and economic crisis of the Weimar Republic propelled the Nazis, a wave of dissatisfaction lifted their ship.
Then came Covid-19.
In the US, the alt-right will elect Donald Trump as evidence of the public’s “awakening” and belief that the response to the pandemic – either a hoax or a biological weapon, depending on what is convenient at the time – is a conspiracy to regain control effort.
The United States quickly discovered that conspiracy was a common language, and other fringe groups had adopted the same or similar—often downright unbelievably bizarre—ideas.
This is what we saw in New Zealand. The anti-authorization protests in Wellington, for example, inspired the alt-right, but also brought together a variety of different causes inspired by conspiracy beliefs. The problem of alt-right has evolved into a bigger, harder-to-define problem.
The concerted tactics of these groups to participate in New Zealand’s local council elections are a direct reflection of what has happened in the United States, where deranged conspirators have made considerable gains in taking control of democratic institutions at the local level.
Generally poor voter turnout in local elections makes these institutions vulnerable to concerted efforts by activist groups that simply represent their own candidates and convince their members to vote to disproportionately affect the results. The same goes for other local government processes: just as councils allow wealthy retired Nimbys to exercise disproportionate influence because they are often the only ones with free time and a tendency to submit comments and attend any meaningful meetings, so too are conspiracies Whether the bloc can turn the absurd conspiracy into a central question for councils and school boards in many parts of the United States.
While we can learn a lot from what’s happening in America, the similarities are far from accurate.
In the U.S., the stolen 2020 election fiction — “The Big Lie” — is pushing the political right in the same direction. Trump’s big lies also opened the door for conspiracy theories to seep into the mainstream, further undermining public trust.
While New Zealand’s fringes share a common language of general distrust of government and a whole host of conspiracy theories, they don’t have the big lies of a restraining agency so powerful in the US.
Also, unlike the United States, we are protected by the leadership of political parties that have so far refused to make room for any brutal conspiracy that has successfully infiltrated the American right. Unable to garner support from existing political parties, New Zealand’s fringes have had to go alone, but without the veil of legitimacy provided by mainstream parties, they have been exposed to the spotlight of public scrutiny.
Advance New Zealand entered the 2020 general election led by twin candidates Billy Te Kahika and Jami-Lee Ross, but the summer has been as good as it has snowballed.
With Advance New Zealand failing, it is unclear whether the new party will succeed in securing the 5 per cent threshold to enter parliament. But sure, the road to school boards and local councils is easier.
Alternative views and doubts about the state are good, but what we see is more than just a hint of sinister, and where sinister doesn’t exist, it’s replaced by madness.
Like many others, I’ve written before about the dangers of disinformation and conspiracy theories and how we need to address them online. While that’s still true, the insane online community wants to support their computer keyboards through community committees.
Whether or not they succeed is ultimately up to voters.
• Dr Jarrod Gilbert is a Sociologist and Director of Independent Research Solutions at the University of Canterbury.