Members Only | May 10, 2022 | Reading Time: 5 minutes

Can a democracy survive when awash in conspiracy theories?

Republicans trust neither common nor specialized knowledge.

US Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene.
US Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene.

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The title of a recent NBC News story reads “Michigan GOP endorses Trump-backed election denier in secretary of state race.” Kristina Karamo, an instructor at a community college, is vying to be that state’s top voting official. She has no experience in government but rose to notoriety by claiming voter fraud. 

Karamo claims that she saw fraud as an observer in Detroit during the 2020 absentee ballot count. She has appeared on Fox as a “whistleblower” recounting her experiences. She was eventually endorsed by Donald Trump.

The press seems focused on two aspects of the Karamo story. 

We need a polity and a legislature that is willing to listen to scholars, academics and health professionals, and not get their reality constructed about this important issue from Fox and Alex Jones. 

One is the power of Trump to be a kingmaker. In Michigan, two of Trump’s endorsements were eventually nominated by the GOP. The aforementioned Karamo for secretary of state and another election denier, Matthew Deperno, for attorney general. 

Two is a conflict within the Republican Party between Trumpist and mainstream conservatives. This is a common theme in a post-Trump world where The Donald is still the most prominent Republican and new entrants onto the political landscape vie to be the most Trumpish.   

But there is something else going on here that I find much more interesting. 

Karamo and Deperno are seen as electable. A public official believing the modern-day equivalent of Bigfoot is seen as a legitimate candidate. 

They are not seen as legitimate in spite of these beliefs, but because of them

We have become inured to the inanity of it all. We take it as a given that a significant portion of people believe the election was stolen, that there is a systematic attempt to replace white people in this country (The Great Replacement Theory), something called critical race theory is being taught in our schools, that educators are trying to “groom” their students by teaching them about gender and sexuality, or that a group of satanic pedophiles was working against Trump during this presidency (QAnon). 

They don’t just entertain these claims, as one would do if they speculated on the existence of intelligent life in another galaxy, but they strongly believe these wild claims and will orient their voting around leaders who also believe these conspiracies. 

I say a significant portion of people. I mean conservatives. 

But why them?

First, let me explain how our reality is constructed. 

The social construction of reality
You’ve probably heard the phrase “race is a social construction.” 

The basic idea is that no matter what information our senses take in – touch, taste, hearing, smell and sight – it is the meanings we attribute to that sensory information that we act on. 

These meanings are influenced by society – our communication with significant others, what authority figures in our institutions put out into the world and how the media frames events.

When an American in, say, 1945 saw a picture of what looked like a Japanese person, what meanings did they attribute to that image? 

I suspect they were negative given the war at the time. 

During World War II, the United States government sanctioned a series of “Why We Fight” propaganda films, one of which explains to our soldiers and the population who the Japanese were. 

But these meanings are fluid. 

What people know of Japan and Japanese people through the media today is a lot different – and more positive. As such, an American who sees a picture of what looks like a Japanese person will think of that image, and Japanese people, quite differently today. 

It is important to realize that the meanings most Americans associate with the work or visual image of a person of Japanese descent has nothing to do with what they are actually doing in their lives. 

Most Americans simply have no experience with Japanese Americans, and as such, their reality is constructed through social influences like the media. 

OK, so what does all this have to do with Republicans, QAnon and election denial?

The construction of Republican reality
Conservative Americans are more likely to believe conspiracy theories for two simple reasons. 

First, while all Americans have begun to mistrust our institutions, conservatives are the most mistrusting. 

Decades of GOP critiques of mainstream institutions have led to many conservatives rejecting all of the institutions that have contributed to the success of our country. This is a consistent finding, to wit:

They simply don’t allow authority figures in institutions to help them construct a reality that is closer to the truth. 

College academics are seen as too liberal. Their claims about the world can be dismissed. School teachers are interested in indoctrination, not teaching. Anthony Fauci, a five-decade public servant who has advised presidents since Ronald Reagan, is “the most destructive bureaucrat in US history.” 

Nothing he says matters. 

But they have to get information from somewhere. Who is helping conservatives who have rejected our institutions make sense of their world? How do they understand a pandemic, the growing visibility of people of color in positions of authority, of changes in how we teach our children, and so on? 

And so the second reason why conservatives are more likely to believe conspiracy theories is because they rely heavily on political actors and outlets that will pander to them. I am talking about the Alex Joneses and Chris Rufos of the world who peddle in conspiracy theories.  

As much influence as the Jones and Rufo types have, they pale in comparison to the hegemony of Fox. Fox has been the most-watched basic cable news network for quite some time. 

I don’t think Fox’s “success” is because they are producing a product of appreciably higher quality than other channels. In my view, the channel has done well because it decided early in its existence to eschew a focus on truth and instead decided to construct a reality about the world that appeals to conservatives – even if that construction is not consonant with reality. 

Roe v. Wade conspiracy theories?
The rise of Jones, Rufo and especially Fox has had many repercussions. But for our purposes here, it is that they have replaced legitimate institutions in the construction of reality for many conservatives. 

A recent poll from the Public Religion Research Institute found that nearly 25 percent of Republicans believe in QAnon conspiracy theories. 

To be sure, other Americans in that poll also believe in those wild theories, a sign that Americans across the board have rejected our institutions and are turning to alternative sources. 

But the wave of anti-CRT, anti-grooming and Voter ID legislation powered by these false constructions of reality is coming from the Republican legislators. As such, our concern should be there. 

A leaked draft of an opinion suggesting the Supreme Court will overturn Roe has made headlines. This decision has momentous consequences for women. There will be national discussions about the impact of overturning Roe. 

We need a polity and a legislature that is willing to listen to scholars, academics and health professionals, and not get their reality constructed about this important issue from Fox and Alex Jones. 

One can imagine what type of wild conspiracy theory will emerge over the next few months about why women want the right to choose. 

Rod Graham is the Editorial Board's neighborhood sociologist. A professor at Virginia's Old Dominion University, he researches and teaches courses in the areas of cyber-crime and racial inequality. His work can be found at Follow him @roderickgraham.

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