Why More Democrats Are Now Embracing Conspiracy Theories

Written by Brendan Nyhan (NY Times)

Even as Democrats decry the false claims streaming regularly from the White House, they appear to have become more vulnerable to unsupported claims and conspiracy theories that flatter their own political prejudices. The reason isn’t just that a Republican now occupies the White House. Political psychology research suggests that losing political control can make people more vulnerable to misinformation and conspiracy theories.

Before the election, supporters of Donald J. Trump were the main audience for fake news stories. Mr. Trump shattered previous norms against making easily disprovable falsehoods in his public statements (including that he opposed the Iraq war from the beginning and that President Obama was not born in this country), and he paid little political price among his supporters.

Plots Afoot?

A survey administered just after the election in November showed that Democrats were more likely to agree with conspiracy-minded statements than they had been a few months earlier. For Republicans, the change went the opposite way.

But since the election, there has been a noticeable increase in the flow of dubious and unsupported claims among liberals. One widely circulated post on Medium portrayed the Trump administration’s fumbling rollout of a travel ban in late January as an elaborate “trial balloon for a coup d’état.” Brooke Binkowski, managing editor at the rumor-tracking site Snopes, recently told The Atlantic that she has been seeing more false reports aimed at liberals or from liberal sources — “a lot of dubious news, a lot of wishful-thinking-type stuff.”

Even some prominent liberals like Robert Reich, the former Secretary of Labor under Bill Clinton, seem open to conspiracy theories of the sort typically espoused by figures like Alex Jones and Glenn Beck. (After the recent violent demonstration at the University of California at Berkeley, Mr. Reich raised the possibility that the far right “was in cahoots” with the agitators, writing a blog post titled “A Yiannopoulos, Bannon, Trump Plot to Control American Universities?”)

A simple explanation for this shift is that misperceptions often focus on the president and are most commonly held by members of the other party. Just as Republicans disproportionately endorsed prominent misperceptions during the Obama years (like the birther and death panel myths), Democrats are now the opposition partisans especially likely to fall victim to dubious claims about the Trump administration.

But the shift in vulnerability to conspiracy theories may have deeper psychological roots. Research suggests that people embrace conspiracy beliefs as a way to cope with perceived threats to control. In particular, Joseph E. Uscinski and Joseph M. Parent at the University of Miami have argued that conspiracy theory beliefs increase in response to group threats, including among losers of elections. These beliefs can help rally groups and coordinate action in response to a decline in status or power.

To evaluate this conjecture, the political scientists Christina Farhart, Joanne Miller and Kyle Saunders, who study conspiracy theory belief, compared how Democrats and Republicans changed in their responses to a conspiracy predispositions scale created by Mr. Uscinski and his co-authors.

The scale asks respondents to evaluate a series of statements:

Much of our lives are being controlled by plots hatched in secret places.

Even though we live in a democracy, a few people will always run things anyway.

The people who really “run” the country are not known to the voters.

Big events like wars, economic recessions and the outcomes of elections are controlled by small groups of people who are working in secret against the rest of us.

Ms. Farhart and her co-authors found in this unpublished study that even partisans’ conspiratorial predispositions can vary depending on which party holds political power. In a survey administered by Survey Sampling International immediately after the election (Nov. 7-10), Democrats’ conspiracy scores increased significantly compared with a previous survey in July, especially on the “people who really ‘run’ the country” item.

In total, the percentage of Democrats who agreed on average with the conspiracy claims in the scale increased from 27 percent before the election to 32 percent afterward. By contrast, Republicans’ willingness to endorse conspiratorial claims declined after the election over all and for three of the four statements, pushing down the percentage of Republicans who agreed on average with the statements from 28 percent to 19 percent.

In other words, losing the presidential election made Democrats more likely to blame secret conspiracies for the state of the world, while making Republicans less willing to indulge these sorts of claims. If you don’t believe me, just compare your social media news feeds with what you saw during the campaign — or ask yourself who you think is behind the news you are seeing.

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