Conspiracy Theories, Not the Issues, Have Polarized Us
It’s almost become a cliché to state that we are living through unprecedented times. As Covid-19 continues its merciless resurgence, and the soon-to-be former president desperately tries to overturn a democratic election in what can only be described as a dictatorial coup attempt, it’s understandable that many of us would like to simply take a break from politics, unplug and unwind over the holidays as we hope for a return to relative normalcy under the incoming Biden administration.
Yeah… that would be nice, wouldn’t it?
Ousting the orange authoritarian was a big deal — an incredible amount of needless human suffering will likely be prevented as a result, and it may well have saved the project of constitutional democracy as we know it — but it isn’t necessarily going to put us back on track towards a more free, just, and prosperous future, given the damage that has already been done.
According to a few recent polls, somewhere between 70% and 80% of Republican voters believe the unfounded conspiracy theory that suggests massive coordinated voter fraud, not the will of the people, is what handed Biden a staggering electoral victory. And this isn’t even the most outrageous conspiracy theory to take root within the GOP base. Approximately 38% of Republicans (that’s more than one in three) now entertain the belief that Democrats literally feed upon the blood of children (a Republican politician who openly believes this just won a seat in the House). About the same number of GOPers believe that Covid-19 was created in a lab, while over half believe that the media is “greatly exaggerating” the harm it has done. And who can forget the omnipresent, anti-Semitism-laden conspiracy theories concerning George Soros and “the deep state.” Once fodder for the far-right fringes, these conspiracy theories have become a fundamental part of the Republican Party’s identity.
Not terribly long ago, these increasingly popular Republican beliefs would have sounded like jokes. Imagine going back in time and telling a Republican acquaintance 10 years ago that by 2020, they’d be marching in the street for a known con man who promotes such incredible falsehoods. They would probably be insulted that you would even suggest such a thing.
How have so many wild and utterly baseless conspiracy theories become so popular within one of the major US political parties? Why do many top Republicans seem keen on nurturing these extreme beliefs rather than challenging them?
Since the Obama years, a common talking point in American political discourse has been about increasing polarization and tribalism. This narrative often seems to suggest that red and blue Americans simply can’t agree on anything, almost as if they live in alternate realities. Republicans and Democrats, we’re told, just have vastly different values and priorities when it comes to the role of government. What might be surprising to those who hold to this outdated view is just how much consensus there is amongst the American public. On topics like immigration, climate change, healthcare, economic stimulus, drug laws, and gun control (generally considered “hot button” issues), there is actually a surprising level of common ground between the left-leaning and right-leaning population.
While it is true that Republicans and Democrats have more contempt for each other than they once did, for Republicans, this has little to do with the issues. When you tease apart the policies from party labels and partisan rhetoric, most of Biden’s pragmatic, center-left agenda actually enjoys broad popularity. This is similar to the way in which the details of Obamacare actually get a fair amount of support from Republicans when they aren’t associated with Barack Obama.
It’s also easy to see a good deal of consensus around recent ballot initiatives (cannabis legalization in New Jersey, felon re-enfranchisement in Florida, or the new state flag of Mississippi), where supermajorities of voters across party lines all voted the same way. Even some states that went red in the presidential election passed new initiatives like a $15/hour minimum wage, a policy almost all elected Republicans oppose.
This is a rather inconvenient truth for the Republican Party. In order to sow fear and hostility towards the other side, then, Republicans can’t simply criticize Democrats on the issues. Instead, they have to make their constituents believe that the Democrats are evil, nefarious people who are all plotting and scheming to destroy everything that patriotic Americans hold dear. If you can convince a segment of the population that the Democrats aren’t just people who are wrong, but in fact a serious existential threat, then they will condone anything in the name of stopping these evil Democrats — even if that means usurping democracy.
This cynical strategy has evidently served Republican politicians and right-wing media quite well. Want to make Obama a less consequential president? Invent bogus stories about him being an Islamist born in Kenya. Want to hurt Biden’s chances with Cuban-Americans in Florida? Craft a narrative that says he’s a trojan horse for the international communist conspiracy. Want to make it harder for Republican Senators to work with Biden? Make up a story about how he “stole” the election and is therefore an illegitimate president. Worried about journalists debunking all these nonsensical claims? Just say that all mainstream media is part of the global leftist plot and can’t be trusted. Keep planting those seeds of doubt, and they will grow.
Assuming the ongoing coup attempt fails, which seems more than likely, Biden will take office on January 20th, 2021. The GOP’s post-election shenanigans are more likely an effort to create further feelings of distrust and anger towards the new administration than anything else. If they are able to block most of the Democrats’ popular policy agenda over the next four years (which they will probably do if they maintain control of the Senate), growing apathy and defeatism among young progressives in particular is likely to result in lower voter turnout. After all, why bother voting if, “nothing really changes?”
Through tirelessly working to keep the government from working, Republicans are banking on less Democratic enthusiasm come 2024. With virtually no ideas of their own to run on, the only way they can continue on their obstructionist path and still maintain a significant base of support is if their supporters keep believing that Democrats are worse than Satan. No matter how moderate or willing to compromise the Democrats may be in reality, ludicrous conspiracy theories will continue to permeate the American right’s narrative. They have to, because these beliefs are the only thing keeping the modern GOP from disintegrating. Post-truth America lives on.