Why More Democrats Are Now Embracing Conspiracy Theories

Dennis Sanders

Dennis is the pastor of a small Protestant congregation outside St. Paul, MN and also a part-time communications consultant. A native of Michigan, you can check out his writings over on Medium and subscribe to his Substack newsletter on religion and politics called Polite Company.  Dennis lives in Minneapolis with his husband Daniel.

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35 Responses

  1. Mike Dwyer says:

    I thought the Bush years were peak conspiracy theory for the Left, but I’m positive the Trump years will be worse. With that said though, the scary thing is how many of those theories may prove to be true.Report

  2. Morat20 says:

    Let me know when it hits Pizzagate levels.Report

  3. dragonfrog says:

    Like the conspiracy where the Russian government, quite possibly with the knowledge of the current president, hacked a variety of American politicians’ email accounts, leaked the emails of those they wanted to keep out of power, and looked for blackmail material in the emails of those they wanted to usher into power?

    Yeah, that’s a pretty crazy conspiracy theory.Report

    • Damon in reply to dragonfrog says:

      Yeah…it’s not like any other large super power does that thing….Report

      • dragonfrog in reply to Damon says:

        I’m sure they do. That’s exactly what I’m getting at.

        There are conspiracy theories that are plain nutty (shapeshifting Jewish lizardmen are manipulating human fertility rates with birth control drugs in chemtrails), and conspiracy theories that are reasonably supported by critical thinking and the limited evidence we have (Russian intelligence agencies conspired with 45 or at the very least members of his inner circle to influence the US election).

        I don’t see the article as making much distinction between the two.Report

      • Don Zeko in reply to Damon says:

        So what? Yes, we have a history (in some cases, a very recent history) of tampering with the elections of other countries. How does that make it less concerning if somebody else does it to us?Report

        • Damon in reply to Don Zeko says:

          It doesn’t make it less concerning. It makes it expected. Live by the sword, die by it. Let’s assume that this speculation is true. I’d be curious to know if it’s happened in the past in the US, because we’ve been meddling for decades.Report

          • Troublesome Frog in reply to Damon says:

            I’m sure that Russia (and before that, the Soviet Union) has been trying to influence our elections for generations, especially if by “influence” you mean dropping propaganda into the public consciousness to produce voting behavior more friendly to their interests. It’s cheap, low risk, and it’s part of a good overall long-term strategy, not to mention the tail possibility of a jackpot like the 2016 elections.

            It’s just a lot easier for it to spread now that we have the Internet and social media. In the old days, if you wanted your propaganda to spread, it had to be true or at least be convincing enough to get one of the media gatekeepers to pick it up. Now it just has to flatter the preconceptions of enough people to make it go viral on Facebook. Pretty much every connected culture is going to become more and more vulnerable to this stuff.

            The DNC hack was a home run because it had just the right amount of truth to make all sorts of outlandish exaggerations of it sound truthy enough to share everywhere and enter the public consciousness. I’m sure it’s going to be lesson one in every spy school for a generation to come. It would be crazy if the CIA didn’t have PowerPoint slides discussing why it worked so well and how they could repeat it in other countries to support US interests.Report

          • Stillwater in reply to Damon says:

            I’d be curious to know if it’s happened in the past in the US, because we’ve been meddling for decades.

            Many decades. That’s the best we could do back in the day, but it was the best we could do!!

            I remember a discussion I had with J. Hanley not all that long ago in which he quoted a Putin speech describing the US’s role in geopolitics and the accompanying Russian reaction as evidence of how perfidious Putin actually is. I disagreed, mainly on the grounds that the actions Putin described the US as undertaking were in fact true. The US is a meddler, no doubt about it. Hell, if we define it narrowly enough, the “US” meddles domestically too. Ideology knows no bounds.Report

          • PD Shaw in reply to Damon says:

            “I’d be curious to know if it’s happened in the past in the US, because we’ve been meddling for decades.”

            In 1798, French agents were intriguing on American soil for the election of Thomas Jefferson and his supporters, who they thought would tear up the Jay Treaty and ally with revolutionary France in its war with Britain. This ranged from private strategic communications on elections, supporting pamphleteers, releasing private diplomatic documents and apparently some initial designs to raising an army on American soil. French history books if they deem to address the issue will say that the French were merely toying with the Americans, as the subsequent election of Jefferson confirmed that Americans by hereditary nature are a perfidious lot.

            The interesting thing to me is how these incidents moved views within the framework of partisan politics. The Federalist were by nature the pro-immigration faction, but when it appeared that foreign powers were conspiring to unseat them, they passed the various Alien and Sedition Acts, as well as the Logan Act.Report

    • To me, that’s mostly run of the mill conspiracy stuff. What I think the linked to piece (of which I’ve read only Dennis’s excerpt) is referring to are theories of the sort that “the Russians hacked the ballots and determined the outcome of the election that way.”Report

      • dragonfrog in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

        It doesn’t really specify to any conspiracy theory at all.

        The questions were:

        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.

        Those are pretty vague statements. I could agree with them because I believe in shapeshifting Jewish lizards. I could agree with them because I believe regulatory capture and nepotism of plutocrats are widespread and more significant than American Dream rhetoric would suggest. I could agree with them for reasons in between those two extremes…Report

    • Rufus F. in reply to dragonfrog says:

      Today’s conspiracy theory is tomorrow’s conspiracy fact.Report

  4. Chip Daniels says:

    Like how the Enron corporation artificially created a shortage to drive up the cost of electricity in California?

    I remember hearing that, and laughing at how implausibly absurd it was, like something out of a leftwing fever dream.
    But, it happened.

    Or the theory that governments deliberately manipulate fines and fees on poor people to enrich themselves, and avoid levying taxes on the rich?
    Until Ferguson, I wouldn’t have believed it.

    I try to remain skeptical about conspiracy theories, if only because they require so much more skill than most actors possess.

    But I also remember how wrong I was to dismiss them out of hand.Report

    • Morat20 in reply to Chip Daniels says:

      Somewhat relevant story: My father-in-law has worked in the energy sector his whole life, out of Houston. So when Enron started making bank, everyone in his line of business took notice.

      He was part of the task force inside his own company that was looking at what Enron was doing to make so much money, to figure out how to break into that profit stream and get a piece of it.

      They went back to their bosses with “We have no idea how they’re doing it legally. What they say they’re doing can’t generate those numbers — not even close, so either they’re breaking the law somewhere or they’re doing something we can’t even get a hint of”. Their unofficial conclusion, delivered to management verbally, was “We’d put money on it being illegal.”

      Upper management was unhappy with this answer and was in the process of assembling a second team when the Enron thing fell apart.

      According to my father-in-law, virtually every big energy firm was looking hard at Enron and coming to the same conclusions: Either they’re massively breaking the law, or whatever they’re doing is so incredibly smart and cutting edge that we can’t even get a hint of it, not even when we take our best and brightest and our most experienced and throw them into figuring it out 24/7.Report

      • Michael Cain in reply to Morat20 says:

        According to The Smartest Guys in the Room Enron HQ sent a team of auditors to California to look. Said team came back saying, “Do you know what those guys are doing? Do you know how illegal most of it is?”Report

        • Morat20 in reply to Michael Cain says:

          Well, I don’t know what Enron management said, but I’d hazard a guess somewhere between “Incredibly” and “Setting a world record”.

          I know people that worked for Enron. They pushed their own employees to be 100% Enron, encouraged them to invest in the company, to go 100% on Enron stock in their 401k.

          I personally know people that lost 20+ years worth of 401k when Enron went under.

          The fact that, as far as I know, no one has actually shot any of the people responsible for that mess is a testament to human civilization.Report

      • DensityDuck in reply to Morat20 says:

        “They went back to their bosses with “We have no idea how they’re doing it legally. What they say they’re doing can’t generate those numbers — not even close, so either they’re breaking the law somewhere or they’re doing something we can’t even get a hint of”. Their unofficial conclusion, delivered to management verbally, was “We’d put money on it being illegal.””

        So as with most modern business innovations, it turns out that the innovation was “ignore the laws that stop us doing the money-making thing”. See also: the “sharing economy”.Report

    • El Muneco in reply to Chip Daniels says:

      It’s important to distinguish between a conspiracy theory, which is entertainment, and where evidence is only party-pooping — from a conspiracy hypothesis, which is an early step in the scientific method, and evidence is a necessary follow-on.Report

  5. Stillwater says:

    Democrats have always embraced conspiracy theories. The distinction between them and conservatives perhaps a matter of scope. For example, back when the PUMA’s were obstinately rejecting Obama’s legitimacy (because he beat Hillary), the “conspiracy” of the day was the “grand bargain” Obama would engage in outa nefarious intent. The interesting thing is that what some lefties viewed as a “malevolent conspiracy” in that case was merely a description of reality consistent with the actor’s publicly stated intent.

    I’ll grant that the rollout being evidence of a “coup” constitutes a conspiracy theory in the legitimate sense (I also concede that I’ve never heard about it til reading the linky). But I won’t concede that, for example, the Trump admin being in cahoots with the alt-right is a conspiracy theory since … well … Bannon. There’s plenty of evidence to support the contention.

    Or shorter: some care needs to be given when labeling something “a conspiracy theory”. Something more than a “some people say” standard.Report

    • dragonfrog in reply to Stillwater says:

      “Your honour, I will demonstrate that the defendants engaged in a conspiracy to smuggle narcotics into the United Kingdom from Morocco, and to bribe customs officers in support of this smuggling.”

      “Objection! That’s a conspiracy theory!”

      “Sustained. Case dismissed.”Report

  6. Pinky says:

    Conspiracy theories have always been part of our history, both the US and the world. They become popular when people lose faith in the conventional sources of information. That’s part of the reason that you meet conspiracy nuts – people who believe nearly all of them. They’re normal people who’ve had their informational immune system fail them, and now they’re susceptible to anything.

    The Dems really didn’t expect the past few months to play out the way they did. It makes sense that they’ve lost confidence in their media.Report

    • Mike Schilling in reply to Pinky says:

      As Mr. Dwyer points out above, a lot of wild-sounding things are turning out to be true. That’s quite a different explanation, for it, and far less patronizing.Report

      • Pinky in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        It may seem less patronizing to describe it as rational, but we’re talking about something that is irrational. It’s a reaction to a shock. Republicans go through this when they lose, too, but Democrats care about the federal government a lot more, so it hits them harder. Grieving is a process, and conspiracy theories nicely blend denial and anger.Report

        • Mike Schilling in reply to Pinky says:

          Thinking, for instance, that a foreign government illicitly influenced the recent election? Yes, every bit as ridiculous as thinking that Bill Ayers ghostwrote Obama’s books.Report

          • Pinky in reply to Mike Schilling says:

            Do you want me to say that both sides do it? Of course, elements on both sides are irrational. Sizable elements. Just look at the two people our parties declared would be the best fit for the presidency. I hope that helps you accept the fact that what the Democrats are going through right now isn’t driven by rationality. You can only understand so much of an irrational behaviour making the assumption of rationality.

            Now, there is method to some of what’s happening. It’s not simply rage. They’re acting in ways to undermine the president (and the presidency if necessary). But the ways they’re choosing to do so reflect that there’s something messed up going on under the surface.Report

            • Pinky in reply to Pinky says:

              BTW, everyone should read the Medium article on 4chan. I recommend it to whomever posts the daily links. (I mention it here because that last paragraph of mine sounds similar to it, but applied to a different party.)Report

              • Mike Schilling in reply to Pinky says:

                Democrats care about the federal government a lot more, so it hits them harder.

                is a ridiculous comment, given that the GOP has been full batshit since at least 2008, and now has elected a president who believes everything he sees on cable news: nonexistent riots in Sweden, millions of nonexistent illegal voters in California, millions of unpaid paid protestors, etc.Report