Must-Read: David Roberts: Why Conspiracy Theories Flourish on the Right

Must-Read: David Roberts: Why Conspiracy Theories Flourish on the Right: “Matt Yglesias flagged this quote from Ryan Lizza’s great story…

…on the turmoil in the Republican House, but it’s worth reading again:

‘I used to spend ninety per cent of my constituent response time on people who call, e-mail, or send a letter, such as, ‘I really like this bill, H.R. 123,’ and they really believe in it because they heard about it through one of the groups that they belong to, but their view was based on actual legislation,’ [House Intelligence Committee chair Devin] Nunes said. ‘Ten per cent were about ‘Chemtrails from airplanes are poisoning me’ to every other conspiracy theory that’s out there. And that has essentially flipped on its head.’ The overwhelming majority of his constituent mail is now about the far-out ideas, and only a small portion is ‘based on something that is mostly true.’ He added, ‘It’s dramatically changed politics and politicians, and what they’re doing.’

We don’t need Nunes to tell us this, of course…. Some new research in political science helps home in on the circumstances and character traits that allow conspiracy theories to flourish–and casts a fairly grim light on the direction of American politics…. For liberals, more knowledge reduces endorsement of CTs, no matter the level of trust, and more trust reduces endorsement of CTs, no matter the level of knowledge…. For conservatives, on the other hand, more knowledge increases endorsement of CTs among those with low trust; for high-trust conservatives, knowledge seems to have no effect…. The high-info/low-trust dynamic is in fact the conspiracy theory sweet spot, but primarily for conservatives…. Low-trust, high-knowledge conservatives are a breeding ground for CTs, and more and more conservatives are low trust and high knowledge….

There are some horrible incentive structures built into current conservative politics. Conservative media, activists, and politicians have every reason to convince their most engaged supporters that the whole system is rotten and can’t be trusted–it makes it easier to fill their heads with nonsense about Sharia law, Agenda 21, and all the rest, which in turn increases their intensity and engagement…. But as we’ve seen, if that process goes on long enough, it produces two unpleasant results. First, the most engaged conservative voters will be more and more adrift in a paranoid fantasia… hassling politicians… and making it effectively impossible for lawmakers to do their job in a reasonable way, as Nunes pointed out. And second, they won’t trust conservative elites any more than they trust liberals, scientists, or the media. That means they are not only deluded but unchecked, beyond the influence of any moderating force, easy prey for demagogues and hucksters. They become the conspiracy-addled tail that wags the political dog. And that’s exactly what we’re seeing unfold…

December 11, 2015


Brad DeLong
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