Supporters of the QAnon conspiracy theory were implicated in the January 6th storming of the capitol. Former supporters have even been elected to Congress. Is conspiracy thinking on the rise? Has it taken over the Republican Party? Joseph Uscinski finds little evidence that conspiracy theory beliefs are rising due to Trump or the pandemic. Instead, Trump mobilized the long conspiracy-minded. Adam Enders finds that we are prone to noticing conspiracy theories on the political right, but conspiracy beliefs do not align with the political right or left. They are part of a separate anti-institutional dimension of public opinion. New conspiracies echo those of the past, drawing the same types of Americans.
Guests: Joseph Uscinski, University of Miami; Adam Enders, University of Louisville
Studies: “American Politics in Two Dimensions” and “Why Do People Believe COVID-19 Conspiracy Theories?”
Matt Grossmann: Conspiracy beliefs are not increasing or exclusive to the right, this week on The Science of Politics. For The Niskanen Center, I’m Matt Grossmann.
Supporters of the QAnon conspiracy theory were implicated in the January 6th storming of the Capitol, and some former supporters have now been elected as Republican members of Congress. So is conspiracy thinking on the rise and has it taken over one side of American politics? It turns out these conspiracy beliefs are pretty rare, and conspiracy thinking overall does not align with the left-right political spectrum.
On this week’s special conversational edition, I talked to Joseph Uscinski of the University of Miami and Adam Enders of the University of Louisville about their research on conspiracy beliefs. We talk about several recent articles they’ve published together with co-authors, including American Politics in Two Dimensions in The American Journal of Political Science, and Why Do People Believe COVID-19 Conspiracy Theories? in the Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review.
They both find little evidence for a rise in conspiracy theory beliefs due to the pandemic. Instead, today’s conspiracy theories draw on a long tradition of similar views. And they both say that although we are prone to noticing conspiracy theories on the political right, conspiracy beliefs do not align with the right or the left. Here is our conversation.
So, Joe, you’ve been studying conspiracy theory beliefs for a long time. Does it seem like the same kinds of conversations develop with each new round? And what are the big myths that you see repeated?
Joseph Uscinski: Well, the biggest myth that keeps getting repeated seemingly going back decades is that now is the time of conspiracy theories. Particularly in 2020, much of the reporting about conspiracy theories and misinformation more generally adopted the tone of this is a problem and it’s worse now than it’s ever been in the past.
The problem is that if you go back to the media coverage for the last 60 years, journalists have always been saying this, and you can find every year where they say, “This is the golden age,” but the problem is that those claims are never made with any evidence to back them up and they can’t obviously always be true.
So I think that’s the biggest myth. I mean, if I was to dig a little bit deeper than that, in 2020, as an example, much of the coverage that QAnon is big and getting bigger and it’s gone mainstream and it’s going to take over the country, and Adam and I have been polling on this for a few years now and we’re just not finding these increases. When you poll on QAnon properly, it’s small, it’s stable, and it’s one of the fringier beliefs out there, yet the media coverage was, “This is huge.”
Matt Grossmann: So, Adam, you’ve been looking at who believes these conspiracy theories. And I’d say the conventional wisdom is that at least at the moment that this is a bunch of Trump supporters on the far right, but you’ve been finding that it’s sort of an orthogonal set of beliefs and related to some other kind of antiestablishment view. So talk us through those results and how we should interpret them.
Adam Enders: So we theorize about and operationalize this anti-establishment dimension of politics as being a sort of confluence of conspiratorial and populist and Manichaean thought. So generally speaking, this dimension of opinion captures a disillusionment and disenchantment with, and a suspicion and a distrust of the political establishment, including politicians, parties, democratic institutions, and the media. And we find that this anti-establishment dimension really doesn’t overlap with the left-right one. They are orthogonal, they’re uncorrelated, because people on the political left and on the political right feel this way about politics. There’s nothing inherently partisan or ideological in the liberal conservative sense at least about disdain for the establishment. To be anti-establishment is to reject parties and party labels.
So we see sort of anti-establishment tendencies and left-right concerns as being distinct sort of ingredients of mass opinion.
Matt Grossmann: So let’s make that a little bit more concrete. What kinds of questions are there that do correlate with a kind of belief in conspiracy theories, and what do the survey questions look like that cause someone to be high on this dimension?
Adam Enders: We ask people the extent to which they think that small groups are controlling politics, the extent to which everything is not as it seems. We ask about people’s sort of orientation toward the system or toward sort of politics more generally. Do they think that all politicians are liars, that we need to do more to sort of elect regular sort of folks and not lying politicians to public office?
Matt Grossmann: So Joe, maybe the reason that people believe that things are more correlated with the left-right spectrum is because we see these QAnon protests kind of coinciding with some other pro-Trump constituencies. So I guess why is it that at the moment, the kind of public display of these conspiracy theories appears to be more on the political right, and what should we learn from that?
Joseph Uscinski: Well, in terms of the public display of it, I mean, for four years we had Trump as president, and he was very much a president who used conspiracy theories to build and maintain a coalition. So because the President has the biggest megaphone in the world, obviously we were going to notice whenever he engaged in conspiracy theorizing, which he did often. And beyond just him using that rhetoric, he built a coalition of people who liked that rhetoric very much and shared beliefs with that rhetoric.
So once he built this group of people around him who had these views and he continued to speak to them with conspiracy theories, obviously that was going to get a lot of coverage and it was going to seem as if, “Oh my gosh, the right has gone down the rabbit hole,” but it’s sort of an optical illusion. What we were really seeing was just one person, Trump, with a bunch of people who are already conspiracy minded. I mean, I don’t think Trump was changing a lot of minds. He wasn’t turning non-conspiracy theorists into conspiracy theorists. He was just bringing people who were already conspiracy minded into the political process and giving them a more prominent role.
But I’ll say something else too. I mean, it has been thought in mainstream circles for a long time, perhaps going back to the work of Richard Hofstadter, that it’s the right who are the conspiracy theorists and not the left. So people were saying, “Oh, it’s the right wing of the country that are more prone to this than the left,” and they were saying that long before Trump came along.
Matt Grossmann: Is it possible that there’s a more general supply issue there, that conservative media and other I guess parts of the American right mean that there’s just more information out to spread coming out to the right conspiracy theorists than the left, or do you think this really is Trump specific?
Joseph Uscinski: Well, for right now it’s Trump specific, but there’s always been this view that the right does it more than the left. But in surveys, when we measure generalized conspiracy thinking, we don’t find that it’s more the right than the left. When we look at large groups of conspiracy theories, we find that the left is just as likely to buy in as people on the right.
So what a lot of this comes down to is what’s the media paying attention to, and given the biases in the media, oftentimes they’re going to pay more attention to the conspiracy theories that the other guy believes, that the other side buys into, and they’ll ignore the ones on their own side, right? And there are psychological reasons for that. Our conspiracy theories aren’t conspiracy theories, they’re conspiracy facts. It’s the other guys’ conspiracy theories that are conspiracy theories.
Matt Grossmann: So, Adam, you’ve also connected this to attitudes about science, but again, kind of found that they appear on both sides once you ask the right questions. So talk about that association, and I guess, is there a circumstance in which maybe because scientists are perceived as more liberal, that that kind of attitude would be more associated with the right?
Adam Enders: As we can expect from any research program, our inferences are only as good as our operationalization and measurements. So we find that many of the studies that are arguing for partisan ideological asymmetries in conspiracy theorizing tend to focus on only a small number of beliefs in specific conspiracy theories that are more popular on the right. A prime example of that involves climate change conspiracy theories, but skepticism, if not full-blown conspiracism about climate change has been systematically cultivated on the political right in a top-down fashion in the US for the last 20 years at least. That’s pretty well-documented.
So if political leads from one party or ideological camp are systematically promoting some idea, whether it’s a conspiracy theory, an issue position or something else, the party rank and file tend to follow suit. Political scientists know that public opinion formation is substantially a top-down affair. So we’ve got other examples of that, birtherism and many COVID-19 conspiracy theories that Donald Trump explicitly encouraged, the deep state, which has sort of become part of the Republican vernacular recently.
So to sort of differentiate partisan conspiracy theories from others, we simply look to the partisan content of the belief or the lack thereof and the elite communication environment. So if a partisan figure or group is implicated in a conspiracy theory or responsible for spreading the theory, it’s going to find asymmetric support among partisans in the mass public.
So given the influence of partisan motivated reasoning on beliefs and conspiracy theories, it would certainly matter if people viewed scientists as liberals, though I think there’s also a potent non-partisan, non-ideological version of science denialism and distrust that also leads people toward conspiracy theories involving scientists and science more generally.
Matt Grossmann: And are you finding that there’s any difference based on kind of the category of the elite? The questions you mentioned earlier were sort of, I guess, about the government, but it doesn’t sound like this is specific to attitudes about the government. It could kind of extend to experts or leaders of any kind, is that right? Or is this more specific to the political system?
Adam Enders: Anybody can be involved in a shadowy cabal. There’s not really a rules to conspiracy theorizing in that sort of way and who can be involved. So yeah, it can extend more broadly.
Matt Grossmann: So, Joe, how did the COVID-19 situation that we’ve all encountered help to bring conspiracy theories to the fore? How different were they from other conspiracy theories? And was there any difference in terms of who was likely to believe those theories versus others?
Joseph Uscinski: Well, I think at the beginning of the pandemic, both Adam and I were sort of thinking that, oh my God, conspiracy theories are going to go through the roof during this thing, and that there was just this confluence of factors that were going to turn everyone into a COVID conspiracy theorist. Luckily, we were wrong. And I think that one way to best describe this, it’s the same theories, just different nouns. Pretty much every goofy theory we heard about COVID-19, we’ve heard about before just with a different name. So people were talking about, “Bill Gates is going to stick us with a vaccine with a chip.” Well, it was George Soros before that, and the Koch brothers before that, and the Rockefellers, and the Rothschilds and you name it. So it’s just been the same stuff warmed over with slightly different details to adapt it to new circumstances. So in terms of the theories themselves, there was nothing really new.
And in terms of who was believing these theories, I mean, you would get the impression from reading the news about this, that people were just getting randomly infected with conspiracy theories, like a virus whenever they went online. But it really wasn’t random, and it really didn’t have that much to do with information online. We’re pretty good at predicting who’s going to buy into what theories based on who they are. Do they already have high levels of conspiracy thinking? Are they on the left or the right? And if you answer those two questions, you’ve got a lot of the contours down about who’s going to buy into what and when.
Having watched this play out, I mean, when we polled on COVID-19 conspiracy theories in early March of 2020, and then repolled in June and then October, we didn’t find any increases. So circumstances on the ground change, people were spending more time online, there was supposedly the Plandemic video and all sorts of other nonsense floating around on social media. But the reason why people were buying into these beliefs was because of who they were and how they saw the world.
Matt Grossmann: We’ve talked about the psychological profile, is there sort of a demographic profile of a conspiracy theory believer, or is it sort of cut across traditional categories like education, race, and gender?
Joseph Uscinski: Well, I generally tell people, I say, “Close your eyes and imagine who you think the conspiracy theorist is.” And oftentimes people will imagine a middle-aged, slightly conservative white guy living in his mother’s basement with a ham radio. That’s a caricature, but the data doesn’t bear it out. I mean, men and women are equally likely to have conspiracy theories depending on which theories we’re talking about, it cuts across race and age and generational cohort. You will find differences in different studies, but it generally comes down to what particular conspiracy theory you happen to be talking about at that time.
Matt Grossmann: In some ways we’ve talked about the political environment mattering a lot, with Trump, for example, but you just said that, that even though had COVID-19 ongoing, it didn’t matter much. So I guess I wonder, do signs of the realism of conspiracy theories matter? I mean, we did have people being told that they couldn’t leave their house except in extraordinary circumstances, we did have decisions made by a small number of people. So I guess I wonder why that didn’t make more of a difference in people’s belief in these kinds of ideas.
Joseph Uscinski: Whenever I talk about conspiracy theories, the believers say, “Well, there’s good evidence for it.” But here’s the interesting thing, is that for most of these things, the same evidence is out there for everybody, right? Particularly with something like COVID where it’s highly salient, but people interact with that evidence in different ways. So it’s not really the evidence itself, it’s much more what they already believe when they see that evidence. And a lot of times people will believe in a conspiracy theory and not even know what the theory is, like you have a lot of people who believe that there was a conspiracy to kill JFK in 1963, but then you ask them who did it, and they’re like, “I don’t know.”
And there are studies where you ask people, “Do you think, Osama Bin Laden is still alive, or do you think he was dead before the Navy Seals got to him?” And you find a bunch of people who believe both, which is impossible. So it’s not some rational thought process where people are going through the information to figure out what’s true and what’s not, it’s people very much relying on the dispositions and worldviews they already have to come to conclusions about the world. And sometimes there’s evidence, sometimes there’s no evidence, but of course when you ask people they’ll say, “Well, I believe it because it’s true and there’s great evidence for it.” Even if they don’t know what that evidence is.
Matt Grossmann: So Adam, you’ve experimented with different questions to measure a conspiratorial thinking, so tell us about kind of the classic ways of measuring that and maybe any innovations that you’ve made, and just how we should think about it. It kind of sounds like a political attitude, but it seems like it may be something that is more of a psychological characteristic of individuals.
Adam Enders: Yeah, so Joe and I definitely conceive of conspiracy thinking as a predisposition, others call it conspiracy ideation, conspiracy mentality, or simply conspiracism. So, Joe has a battery of questions that he created, I did one a while back, lots of different psychologists have created batteries of questions to measure this thing. What they all tend to have in common is confronting respondents with ideas about small groups of shadowy figures that are working against the rest of us by violating norms and laws. So each of those elements cuts to the heart of the definition of conspiracy theory.
The questions also bring in some of the psychological biases that are behind conspiracy beliefs. So humans tend to see patterns instead of sort of noise, right? We’re pattern seekers, we ascribe intentionality instead of assuming coincidence, we like certainty more than uncertainty. And this is all to say that we sort of like plans, and conspiracy theories are great plans, they impose some structure on an otherwise messy world. So there are these sort of purely psychological ingredients that go into conspiracy theorizing, to some extent, at least. So we might also ask questions that attempt to get at those things, perhaps asking respondents to asseverate what extent they believe that. Nothing is really as it seems, or everything is connected once you know where to look, that’s kind of getting at intentionality bias and pattern seeking.
Matt Grossmann: And is there any sense of where these come from? Is this something that would show up as heritable in twin studies or be about basic personality characteristics? Or is this something that develops over someone’s lifetime, do we know the roots?
Adam Enders: Yeah, we don’t really know the roots. I suspect that it’s not necessarily an inherently political attitude, because the psychological biases that I just mentioned aren’t inherently political, right? They’re just sort of these innate cognitive factors that we all engage in. So I suppose there is some natural psychological foundation, though we just don’t really have that evidence. The empirical conspiracy theory literature is basically a decade old or so, most of the work started around 2010. Before then there was no systematic research program into conspiracy beliefs, so we still have a lot to learn.
Matt Grossmann: So, Joe, tell us about the QAnon specific research. How did you figure out that it was limited? Why didn’t it grow over time? And I guess, since this has been covered in the media, some people may know some parts of it, but sort of which pieces do people pick out as the most common beliefs?
Joseph Uscinski: So QAnon started in 2017, and it really wasn’t attracting much notice in 2017 and 2018 until some QAnon supporters wore their regalia to a Trump rally in Tampa, here in Florida in, I think, August of 2018. And at that point it started attracting a lot more media attention because people were saying, “Who are these people wearing Qs at a Trump rally? I mean, is this an important part of the president’s coalition?” So right after that happened, I happened to have a survey about to go into the field in Florida, and we put on there a feeling thermometer where people could express their feelings about the QAnon movement from zero to a hundred, with a hundred being, they really like it and zero being, they really hate it, and it came in at about a 24.
And just as a comparison, we also put Fidel Castro onto the feeling thermometer, so people could rate him. And if you know anything about Florida, you know we don’t like Castro here very much. So QAnon came in about two points ahead of Castro, which has no stunning endorsement of QAnon. And a lot of people didn’t rate it because they never heard of it. So we continue doing those polls with the feeling thermometers in 2019, 2020, and haven’t found any increases, if anything, we found some slight decreases. So it wasn’t as if it was getting more popular over time. And other polling houses, as well as Adam and I have been asking questions just more directly, “Are you a believer in QAnon? Do you support QAnon?” And when we asked straight up questions like that, we get between five and 8%, and we haven’t found any increase over the last few years. So when you just get into support for or belief in QAnon, it’s a very small fringe movement.
Now, the reason why some polls will show bigger numbers for QAnon support is that pollsters often conflate belief in or support for QAnon with belief in conspiracy theories that pre-existed or exist outside of QAnon. So for example, if you ask, “Do you think there’s widespread elite sex trafficking or the government’s run by satanic sex traffickers?” You’re going to get between 20 and 35%, but those beliefs have been around for a long, long time. Those attitudes have always been there, it’s just over the last year many people have conflated them and confuse them for a much smaller group of believers in QAnon.
Matt Grossmann: So Adam, you both tend to measure these conspiracy theories in surveys, but there’s a whole huge burgeoning literature on the spread of misinformation that mostly uses social media data, so talk a little bit about the relationship between those research agendas and what the conclusions are and why they might differ. Just from an outsider, it seems like they tend to find more concentrated spread of misinformation and maybe more directly related to political events on the right.
Adam Enders: Yeah, I think the difference in conclusions is actually sort of unclear. I suppose, that it regards the sort of scope of the social problem of conspiracy theories and misinformation. The work using social media data has historically found fairly widespread sharing of misinformation. Although some more recent work by people like Brendan Nyhan and Andy Guess are tempering those initial conclusions. We don’t fail using our approach to find widespread belief in using our approach to find widespread belief in some conspiracy theories and some misinformation. It sort of depends on what exactly we’re talking about. As Joe was hinting at, not many people really believe in Qanon, but lots of people think that Jeffrey Epstein was murdered. Right? So there is quite a bit of variability depending on what exact conspiracy theory or a bit of misinformation we’re talking about. But I think this sort of gets us to a major difference in the emphasis between our survey based approach and the social media data based approach, which is that the social media approach can only really tell us about sharing, which provides some clues about the spread or the scope of conspiracy theorizing. Whereas, we’re interested in beliefs specifically. But you know, beliefs are tricky to measure, but surveys are about the most direct way to capture them.
Whereas I think it’s difficult to infer belief from shares and social media data. And in fact, some recent research in the misinformation correction tradition has been finding that oftentimes people share dubious information, even when they don’t completely believe it. Maybe they just believe a sentiment that it’s getting at, or maybe just the headline or something along those lines. So I think that’s a big difference. We’re making a little bit less of an inferential leap in a sense than maybe some of the conclusions that are made using social media data. I think the other thing to think about is that with social media data, there is a question of unique users. So we know that coordinated disinformation campaigns tend to involve a small number of individuals with large numbers of accounts, spreading conspiracy theories and misinformation via posts and memes and links to dubious sources, et cetera. And in fact, we saw that happen when there was the big push after the Capitol riot to scrub various platforms of Qanon content. So there were a lot less unique users than there were accounts that ended up being removed.
Matt Grossmann: Is there also a sort of behavior belief divide that might cut in the other direction that the social media people might say they’re looking at what people actually do rather than what they say or how would you react to that?
Joseph Uscinski: I was going to say that oftentimes these questions about social media influence always assume some media effect. So they say, what about the spread of misinformation? So it sort of assumes that you can only believe it if someone shared it with you. And then once they shared it with you, you automatically adopted it. So you do have these two sets of research. Research like ours, looking at what do people believe and then research of what’s traversing the internet. And those are two very different things. So just because something’s spreading online doesn’t mean that people are adopting it or that they didn’t already believe it before they accessed it and shared it.
I mean, I’ll give one example of this. Like, there’s a good amount of people that believe Trump was sent by God, but no one says, why is that idea spreading? How is that idea spreading? Because it’s just sort of assumed that people believe this because of their religious identities and their personal worldviews. Right? But when it’s other types of things that probably aren’t true, we assume this language of spread.
Matt Grossmann: What about the distinction, if any, between misinformation in that literature and conspiracy theories? Is there misinformation that isn’t conspiracy theories? Is there a difference in belief in misinformation versus belief in conspiracy theories?
Adam Enders: You know, in some sense, I think the sort of individual level attitudinal ingredients, political and social and psychological, tend to be shared, right? Between conspiracy beliefs and beliefs in a lot of misinformation, though there they’re different constructs, right? I mean, so conspiracy theories do involve a usually small clandestine, nefarious group that is sort of working against the rest of us, where that the us is sort of ambiguous and can be interpreted lots of different ways. Whereas misinformation is simply a dubious idea or a piece of information that sort of cuts against expert knowledge or authoritative accounts.
Matt Grossmann: And I guess, sorry to push this too far. So do you think that there’s… So I guess one interpretation is that there are there two different processes as we’ve said, but there really are different determinants as well. That misinformation is about sort of people just supporting their political side with whatever stories they come across to share. Whereas this is about sort of a deeper belief system, which would you buy that? Or do you think we’re just getting different findings just because the research design is different?
Adam Enders: Yeah, I think misinformation is maybe on average more likely going to be adopted out of ignorance, perhaps. Whereas conspiracy theories, adoption of conspiracy beliefs is going to be a lot more intentional. And based on this predisposition to naturally interpret major events and circumstances as the product of conspiracies.
Matt Grossmann: So Joe, how much should we know about changes over time in conspiracy beliefs? Adam said this literature is sort of only 10 years old. So how do we go about kind of comparing to things like JFK assassination beliefs at their peak? How do we think about the evolution of these beliefs over time given changes in the available evidence?
Joseph Uscinski: So one problem we have is there isn’t a lot of polling on conspiracy theories going back prior to 10 years ago. In fact, if you go through the Roper or Gallup archives, you find almost nothing before 2010. In fact, the only things that I’ve ever been asked on prior to that were JFK conspiracy theories, MLK, Bobby Kennedy, moon landing, but just sort of sprinkled throughout the last 50 or 60 years and not asked systematically over time.
Matt Grossmann: Is that the same for the conspiratorial thinking kinds of broader questions as well?
Joseph Uscinski: So our conspiracy thinking scale, we’ve been asking for almost 10 years now in national surveys and we found no increases in it. So that’s been completely flat for a decade. If you look at something like birtherism, that’s been largely stable for 12 or 13 years now. And the only time we’ve haven’t found stability is when you have somebody like Trump make a big issue out of it in the media, in which case you’ll get some spikes from time to time, but overall it’s around 22% and it’s been there for more than a decade. So all these claims about beliefs and conspiracy theories increasing, we just don’t find evidence for it. We’re going to test this more thoroughly in the coming weeks, but there isn’t any evidence to say people believe these more now than they have in the past.
Matt Grossmann: So is there any way to compare back historically, I guess from either historical accounts or interviews or anything? Would you expect to find that the determinants were pretty much the same, the ideation was pretty much the same, and the kinds of people who believe them were the same?
Joseph Uscinski: I mean, I would expect to find that, yes. I mean, I’ve made one effort in my book, American Conspiracy Theories, to go back in time and look at rhetoric in letters to the editor of the New York Times. And the way that people express conspiracy theories a hundred years ago was very much the same as they do it now. And people tend to conspiracy theorize about the same things in the same ways, over long periods of time. That can’t really get us to overtime levels the way surveys could. But given that we have 10 years worth of polling data now, I don’t see any reason to say, well, it was different in the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s. Instead, what I think is that this is a fairly stable long-term disposition. So our measurements tend to be fairly stable over long periods of time.
Matt Grossmann: Another thing that comes up in the misinformation literature is that maybe this is kind of expressive responding, that people just want to say any negative thing about Obama or Trump. So you give it to them and they’ll say it. To what extent, sort of an alternative view, I guess that says that that people really don’t know, and they just believe bad things about people they dislike. So connect that to the conspiracy literature? Is this about ignorance? Is it about just expressing your dislike for certain people or institutions? Or do we know that it’s a belief system that people hold internally?
Adam Enders: I don’t think that beliefs in dubious ideas like conspiracy theories are best thought of as a product of ignorance. In many ways, they’re really no different than any other belief. Public opinion researchers have long explained beliefs as the product of both these individual level ingredients, like political identities and ideologies and values. And social orientations, like group identity and racial prejudice. And also top down factors, right? Like the political system in which the beliefs are being constructed and how that constrains choices and how elites are talking about things. So I think people believe things for a reason.
That said, it could be that there is some level of expressive responding on surveys, but conspiracy theories have historically, or the label conspiracy theorist has historically been a pejorative. So we don’t suspect that people are chomping at the bit to get themselves labeled as crazy or conspiratorial or something along those lines. We certainly do find that partisan motivated reasoning is behind lots of different beliefs and specific conspiracy theories that involve partisan figures. And it seems that those are real beliefs rather than expressive responding. And Adam Berinsky has some work on that, that also sort of confirmed that conclusion.
Matt Grossmann: So the January 6th Capitol storming has brought this back to the fore a bit. The media has focused some on Qanon symbolism in the crowds. How much should we read into that? Should there be an association between conspiracy thinking and potential for political violence? And how much do we know about the specific role of Qanon or conspiracy thinking in what happened?
Joseph Uscinski: So my view is that we’re getting off track once we start blaming Qanon for the Capitol riot. I mean, were there some Qanon followers there? Yes, but there was a lot of non Qanon people there too, as far as we can tell. I mean, January 6th happened because you had the president of the United States along with his supporters in Congress and the Senate and his supporters in the conservative media saying for months on end that the election would be rigged and then was rigged. And you had the president’s campaign infrastructure, his lawyers, they gave talks and they were encouraging people to go and do this. So blaming anyone but Trump and his supporters in government and the media for this completely misses the point. I mean, a good comparison is between January 6th and March 4th. March 4th was QAnon’s day, supposedly for when they were going to go and do another riot and take back the government for Trump. Well, without Trump and senators and representatives and the mainstream media to support that date, nobody showed up. So what makes January 6th unique is that you had leaders in government telling their followers to go to this place on this date and do this thing. And we shouldn’t be blaming anyone, but them at this point.
Adam Enders: One reading of the Capitol riot is, that’s who we should concentrate on. You guys are looking at these broad respondents, but it’s really the people that we need to understand who might take matters into their own hands. Are the people who show up and do the shootings or the people who organized them to militias where these belief systems have real political and violent consequences. Another reading is that, what was important in January 6th was that a whole bunch of people in the crowd who didn’t go there intending to enact a violent episode were caught up in the moment. And that maybe some of these more diffused sentiments that you have been tracking might matter to people’s willingness to take those actions. Do you side with either part of that story?
Joseph Uscinski: Well, they didn’t slip on a banana peel and show up in Washington, DC. They were told to be there at this date and this time to do this thing. By high profile politicians and by their allies in the media. So you can think of conspiracy theorists in this way. It’s like herding cats. They’re not really going to get into a straight line and go to one particular place unless you have somebody really directing them pretty strongly. And we had that. I’ve had conversations with agents in DHS over the last few months, and they’re living in this fantasy world and doing theater. I mean, they have task forces who are charged with figuring out who’s spreading all these conspiracy theories about election fraud and COVID. And I’m like, “Well, it’s your boss, it’s the President of the United States who’s doing it.”
And they say, “Well, let’s say hypothetically that a politician was spreading these conspiracy theories.” Well, it’s not hypothetic. This is real, this is what’s happening. And everyone’s trying to pretend as if it wasn’t the government, members of the government doing this. So once you get away from affixing blame to Trump, you’re finding factors that are at best ancillary to this. I mean, that’s not to say that we shouldn’t be concerned about militia members or whatnot. I mean, clearly they were activated. But Trump’s spent the last five years building a coalition of people who are conspiracy minded. And this is the end result, is he built a coalition of these folks with these views. Views that are often on our surveys, correlated with the acceptance of violence against government. He got them to a particular place at a particular time, got them all riled up and set them free.
Matt Grossmann: So Adam, one way to see that is that you all are doing a bunch of debunking and it should cause us to think that this is less important than we than we thought of before. That is, there’s always been this current out there. It doesn’t really cause people to decide between the two political sides. It only matters when it’s activated by political officials. So is that all a reason to think this kind of thinking in the public is overemphasized? Or is there some other reason we should be paying a lot of attention?
Adam Enders: I think it probably is on average overemphasized. That’s not to say that there can’t be political consequences for conspiracy theories. I think the more that politicians and media give airtime to conspiracy theories, the more important they’re going to become. Conspiracy theories that become mainstream vis-a-vis elite attention, probably exacerbate polarization, and negative effect toward out groups. So that’s a negative social consequence.
I think it’s still generally a bad thing, a problematic thing normatively, that people are detached from politics. So it’s one thing to productively critique facets of the establishment. It’s another thing to think that a large contingent of political elites are Satan worshiping pedophiles. So the more people opt out of politics, the less they’ll be represented. So there are still consequences to this. But I guess, the way that Joe and I think about it is that, people do have this belief system, these deep seated predispositions. And this isn’t just a question of scrubbing Twitter of weird ideas, or getting in there and so-called correcting misinformation or beliefs in dubious ideas.
We need to think more carefully about why people have these deep seated orientations and whether there’s something to do about that. Or whether it’s just something to be more managed than corrected.
Matt Grossmann: And anything positive? I mean, some people would say we do have large levels of political inequality. We do have a large surveillance state. We do have increasing ways to be watched and tracked. And maybe people are realizing that over time. Any comment on that?
Adam Enders: Well, I think we conceive of conspiracy thinking as a predisposition, as a continuum, as we do with lots of other things. So I think we tend to focus on the high end, but I would argue that it would also be problematic if people were really low in conspiratorial thinking or extra supportive of the political establishment. So we don’t want people to uncritically accept things that politicians say. We still want them to be discerning and hold elected leaders accountable.
So, it’s not all necessarily doom and gloom. I think there’s a fine line between skepticism, which is to say, this discernment and a willingness to overturn beliefs, once some even handed burden of proof has been met. And conspiracy theorizing, which is believing in inherently unfalsifiable and unscientific ideas that could never be disproven and end up ultimately being unproductive.
Matt Grossmann: Joe, where do we go from here? What are you going to be looking for in the years ahead? And anything you want to tout about the next steps?
Joseph Uscinski: Well, we’ll be continuing our efforts at polling. I think there are a few things that have to be done. Is one, we have to figure out ways to track these across multiple countries, across different political contexts and discover ways for doing that better. I mean, right now, it’s really hard to compare conspiracy theorizing across different countries because they mean different things in different places. And maybe there’s something that we can find that would give us measurements across different contexts. Another thing too is, just tracking these beliefs over time more and seeing how they evolve over longer periods of time. We’ve only been on this for a decade, and I think it’s going to take maybe a few more decades to really understand the time trends a little bit more than we do now.
Matt Grossmann: There’s a lot more to learn. The Science of Politics is available biweekly from the Niskanen Center and part of the Democracy Group network. I’m your host, Matt Grossman. Thanks to Joseph Uscinski and Adam Enders for joining me. Please check out their articles and then listen in next time.
Photo Credit: Chad Davis via CC BY-SA 2.0