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Conspiracy theories are not a partisan phenomenon

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On a trip to Marietta, Ohio last week for a speaking engagement, I found myself practicing the lowest form of journalism: interviewing voters in a restaurant. It was an IHOP, to be precise.

It’s not the kind of work I normally do, and I had no intention of interrupting a couple of older, bearded, burly men who were just trying to get their cafe refilled. But they sat next to me and threw insanely hot shots of how diesel prices have quintupled over the past two years (that’s not true) and how President Joe Biden’s efforts to moderating the price of oil with the releases of the Strategic Oil reserves left the US vulnerable in the coming war with China (not really verifiable, but unlikely). They also compared the FBI to the Gestapo (fact check: mostly wrong).

So I had to get their opinions on the mid-terms. The short answer is that voters are complicated, with some crazy opinions and some rational ones. The somewhat longer conclusion is that politicians, especially Democrats, should try to appeal to their not-so-crazy side.

A comforting version for progressives of this story is that these Midwestern Republicans are drowning in a sea of ​​right-wing misinformation and conspiracy theories. The less comforting version is that they are also former Democrats who almost certainly believed in crazy conspiracy theories when they voted for John Kerry in 2004 – and Barack Obama in 2008.

And while they hate Biden (who is senile and manipulated behind the scenes by a cabal of leftists led by Kamala Harris), their central conspiratorial view sees “something deeper going on here.” As one of the guests told me: “My father told me it had been happening for a long time. Since they killed Kennedy. Eisenhower, he warned against the military complex. And three years later, they kill a president.

This is of course a classic left-wing conspiracy theory popularized in Oliver Stone’s 1991 movie JFK. I said my grandfather told me the same thing and told them about it. idea (evoked in Stone Nixon’s follow-up film) that it was no coincidence that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated only after he too had turned against war.

It was this bonding moment that led to our discussion of their voting history for Democratic candidates in the 2000s. And it led me to ask why they turned against the party, voting first tentatively for Mitt Romney, then enthusiastically for Donald Trump.

They had a lot of conspiratorial, misinformed, or downright false things to say about it. They clearly had average levels of engagement (at best) with the news. Most of their information came from unlearned right-wing sources who fed them exaggerated stories about the radicalism of the Democratic Party, failed to describe the contents of the Inflation Reduction Act and misinterpreted the specifics issues such as the strategic petroleum reserve.

But beneath layers of nonsense lurked a consistent thesis: Democrats had become more hostile to fossil fuel extraction at a time when fracking was a boon to the economy of southeast Ohio and western Pennsylvania. At the same time, Republicans became less supportive of free trade policies that had hurt the Rust Belt economy.

They weren’t off limits to Democrats — I wanted to ask them about Tim Ryan’s Democratic Senate campaign, but they were in town from Pennsylvania, just a few hours away. They had generally positive things to say about Democratic Senate nominee John Fetterman, though they were also concerned that he “isn’t right in his head.”

Many of the specific things they had to say about politics were wrong or exaggerated, but in general conceptual terms they were right. In 2004, for example, Kerry ran on a platform that expressed aspirations for “energy independence” and criticized George W. Bush for lacking “a plan to end energy dependence.” ‘America vis-à-vis Middle Eastern oil’.

To one environmentalist, Kerry’s denunciation of Bush’s policies that left the United States “chained to foreign oil” sounded like a commitment to progressive priorities such as electric vehicles, renewable energy and public transit. But what Kerry said was also consistent with the idea that a huge increase in domestic oil and gas production was desirable.

If you were the kind of semi-informed conspiratorial Democrat who believed that the military-industrial complex assassinated JFK to keep the Vietnam War going, you’d be likely to read Kerry’s ambiguous statements through a generous lens. In 2020, America’s oil and gas renaissance was real, and the only thing the Democratic platform had to say about it was, “We support banning new oil and gas permits on public lands and waters, changing charges to reflect climate costs, and establishing targeted programs to enhance reforestation and expand renewable energy on federal lands and waters.

It’s easy to see why this platform pivot might have caused voters in places where oil and gas extraction fueled growth to rethink their political commitments.

This is not to excuse the views of right-wing conspiracy theorists. But it’s easy to cast voters as poisoned by misinformation when the truth is that most voters on both sides aren’t particularly knowledgeable and never have been.

My two restaurant companions were conspiratorial xenophobes back when they voted for Kerry and Obama. And while they absolutely have backward cultural views, 15 years ago they might have suited the secular coalition of Democrats. In the years that followed, Republicans got them by changing their stance on trade, while Democrats lost them by changing their stance on fossil fuels.

Almost everything else, including media regime shifts and the bizarre conceptualization of Trump as the heir to Eisenhower’s skepticism of the military-industrial complex, stems from a pivot based on real shifts in positions. party.

It’s fair to say that you don’t have to romanticize the electorate or pretend that ordinary voters carefully weigh the nuances of each candidate’s political platform to realize that a party’s vision makes a real difference. Democrats have tended to do worse with less educated voters over the past 10 years, so they risk falling into a trap: They think they’ve lost those voters because they’re less informed. But what matters is what voters do with the information they have.

People tend to be better informed about the things that matter most to them – so real changes in these areas are more likely to change voting behavior. Even though people claim to believe all sorts of other nonsensical things too.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Matthew Yglesias is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. Co-founder and former columnist of Vox, he writes the Slow Boring blog and newsletter. He is the author, most recently, of “One Billion Americans”.

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