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Good Morning! Can Democracy Survive?

Although the House Republican conference is filled with nuts who believe all kinds of the crackpot conspiracy theories that circulate widely in right-wing circles, I would say there are only 3 actual QAnon members: Marjorie Traitor Greene (GA), Lauren Boebert (CO) and Mary Miller (IL). The others, you might say, are just "fellow travelers."

Yesterday a team of Grid reporters found that there are dozens of QAnon candidates on the ballot in 26 states-- and they're drawing tens of millions of dollars in contributions. "Despite the movement’s penchant for lies and violence, key Republicans-- from influential megadonors (Steve Wynn, Roberta and Tatnall Hillman, Bernard Marcus and Charles Johnson) to prominent elected officials (Ted Cruz, Lindsey Graham and, of course, Señor T)-- are welcoming the QAnon movement into the party." Of the 78 running up and down the ballot, 72 are Republicans and most are running against fellow Republicans in primaries. Arizona has the most (13), followed by Florida (12), two states where strong hot sun has been known to irreparably damage peoples' brains.

While some Republican elites were circumspect about aligning themselves explicitly with the movement, their reluctance has ebbed as the popularity of QAnon’s theories have grown.
...In June 2021, one of the most popular QAnon influencers, “GhostEzra,” asked followers of his Telegram channel to run for political office in a post rife with offensive language.
“Folks listen up closely. We need some honest, non Zionist, non tranny’s [sic] running for Congress in 2022,” the post on the Telegram app stated. “The bar is low, you don’t even need to have all your teeth. You will win by large margins too.”
Few QAnon candidates examined by Grid had significant political accomplishments to their name. Several participated in the “Stop the Steal” rallies preceding the Jan. 6 insurrection or were near the Capitol during the insurrection itself. One, Arizona State Rep. Mark Finchem (R), has been subpoenaed by the House Jan. 6 committee.
Finchem has called the committee a “Kangaroo Court” and told the right-wing Gateway Pundit site that “the fact that Liz Cheney and Nancy Pelosi both are coming after me, tells me I’m right over the target.”
Predicting the electoral success of the QAnon candidates is difficult. Some are prodigious fundraisers and gifted communicators; many others struggle from meager budgets and minimal social media audiences. But history is clear: Losing once in politics does not make a candidate, or their cause, a loser.
Arizona State Sen. Wendy Rogers, a QAnon-affiliated Republican, is a case in point: Rogers ran and lost five times before winning the state legislative seat she now defends. Rogers did not respond to requests for comment.
Many of the candidates associated with QAnon come from large, populous states in the South and Sun Belt-- places that are also experiencing growth and demographic shifts from within and outside the United States. Natalie Jackson, research director for the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), said that the kind of culture-war issues that are so popular within QAnon may correlate to regions with fast-changing demographics.
“In general, what we’re seeing across lots of different topics, not just QAnon, is where the demographic movement is happening the most, we’re seeing the culture war-type issues get stirred up,” she said.
Several of the candidates had been suspended from Twitter. If as a group they are remarkable for something beyond the surprising influence of the movement to which they have affiliated themselves, it is the frequency with which they find themselves censured, rebuked, deplatformed or under investigation.
That’s no knock to them; it can be a badge of honor. After the Arizona State Senate censured Rogers in March for her violent speech before white nationalists, for example, she used that scorn as a basis for a fundraising appeal. Rogers, the four-time loser, has raised nearly $2.5 million this cycle, more than virtually any other statewide Arizona candidate.
QAnon-linked political candidacies in 2022 range from well-funded, high-profile operations like Rogers’-- with at least five (including Rogers’) endorsed by Trump-- to low-budget efforts that attract little attention. Indeed, many QAnon candidates look like long shots. But the history of QAnon is one of consistently surprising mainstream experts.
Consider Edward Durr, a New Jersey State Senate candidate who attracted little notice during the state’s 2021 elections. A commercial truck driver, he tweeted in 2020 using the QAnon acronym WWG1WGA. In other posts, Durr called the Prophet Muhammad and Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) pedophiles, and compared vaccination mandates to the Holocaust, reported.
Durr spent just $2,300 on his campaign to unseat Democratic State Sen. Steve Sweeney, who was both the president of the Senate and its longest-serving member. Against expectations, Durr won. Durr did not return requests for comment.
In fact, Q himself may be on the ballot this year. Ron Watkins, a computer programmer who administers the 8kun imageboard website where QAnon originated, is running a long-shot bid for Congress in Arizona’s 2nd Congressional District.
...Other candidates linked to QAnon range from Massachusetts gubernatorial candidate Shiva Ayyadurai, who has four degrees from MIT and a website defending his status as the inventor of email, to Ryan Dark White, a U.S. Senate candidate in Maryland who goes by Dr. Jonathan Ambrose McGreevey and pleaded guilty to fraudulently obtaining more than 80,000 doses of opioids and illegally owning guns. Neither Ayyadurai nor White responded to Grid’s requests for comment.

The Grid team noted that "While Greene and Boebert top the list of QAnon candidates’ fundraising, the 28 other congressional candidates who have associated themselves with the movement have shown some fundraising ability this cycle, raising on average about $150,000, the Grid analysis shows." Tina Forte is the QAnon Republican running against AOC. You may recall that Bill Maher ran this clip of her eloquent campaign style last week. It's like watching a train wreck:

One candidate keeping pace with other congressional campaigns financially is Spalding, a Navy veteran and Jamaican-born candidate in the Republican primary in Florida vying for a chance to face off against incumbent Debbie Wasserman Schultz of south Florida, a senior figure among House Democrats. Spalding has raised $1 million-- some in the form of some big checks from major donors like Johnson and his wife, but much of it in small donations.
Spalding first connected with the movement in 2018 with a tweet, which included a popular QAnon hashtag. It has since been deleted.
Spalding repeatedly appeared on the YouTube show of QAnon influencer Cirsten Weldon, where they have referred to each other as friends. In one episode, Weldon asks Spalding how many QAnon accounts were removed from Twitter, who confirms a total of 150,000. Weldon, who was a prolific spreader of vaccine conspiracies, died earlier this year after contracting covid-19.
In an interview with Grid, Spalding said she didn’t believe in the core tenets of QAnon: An elite cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles runs the world, “a storm is coming” soon to remove elites in power and restore rightful leadership, and American patriots may need to resort to violence to save the country.
“I don’t really know much about that, other than what I’ve seen on Twitter,” said Spalding.
Much of QAnon’s fabulist narrative is cobbled together from older conspiracy theories and racist narratives that already claimed adherents, including antisemitic “blood libel” tropes that have been around for centuries.
In fact, there has long been a careful relationship between mainstream Republican politics and its outermost conspiratorial fringes, said David Hopkins, a political scientist at Boston College who researches American political parties and voting behavior.
“There’s an element of conservatism at its mass level that has often been attracted to conspiracy theories,” he said. “Conservative politicians, whether or not they personally believe in those theories, have often faced what they think of as a certain amount of pressure to at least accommodate or play to the conspiracy-minded popular right.”
Some experts believe the cultural relevance of this decentralized community stems in part from its ability to recycle older xenophobic conspiracy theories even as it spins new ones. But that shouldn’t distract from one of the QAnon movement’s greatest strengths: its uncanny knack for brewing up galvanizing, if ludicrous, narratives for today’s audiences.
Meanwhile, the Republican Party has lurched further to the extreme right, experts told Grid, where inspiration for many of these narratives emerges. The result is a broad overlap of familiarity and opportunity: a mainstream party accustomed to accommodating a conspiratorial fringe, and a fringe movement that’s gifted at delivering viral, right-friendly narratives into the mainstream.
“The party has, in many ways, moved beyond what we think of as traditional conservative policies,” said Will Sommer, a politics reporter who has written a forthcoming book about QAnon. “Certainly, I think people in Congress still want to cut taxes. But that doesn’t really seem to get a lot of the grassroots riled up.”
Experts also noted that the structure of American electoral politics incentivizes mainstream Republicans to entertain fringe beliefs. Many politicians are more at risk of losing their seat during a primary race against a fellow party member than in a general election, Hopkins explained, so often Republicans align themselves with a broad base of conservative voters to achieve their political ambitions.
“There’s often been a lot of worry about not wanting to distance yourself or disavow even conspiratorial thinking on the right, because it would somehow send a message to conservative voters that you’re not really a part of the conservative cause,” he said. “So often Republican candidates are vague about what they believe and how far their sympathies go.”
Last month, GOP senators echoed the Q theme of elite cadres of Democrats trafficking children during the recent Supreme Court justice confirmation hearings; in Florida, debate over the state’s so-called Don’t Say Gay law rang with Republican charges that the law’s opponents were trying to “groom” Florida’s children for sexual abuse. Fox News host Laura Ingraham suggested that public schools are becoming “what are essentially grooming centers for gender identity radicals.”
“There’s very little that differentiates what [QAnon believers] talk about from what just Republicans are talking about now,” said Mike Rothschild, an expert on conspiracy theory movements who has been following QAnon for years. “What we’re really seeing is the mainstreaming of Q’s mythology of an all-powerful ‘deep state’ and a secret war between good and evil.”
Polling on QAnon has been a fraught proposition because the movement is so decentralized and asking Americans whether they believe in “QAnon” directly might produce limited results. One poll by Yahoo News in 2020, for example, found that just 7 percent of Americans believe in the movement. Those figures rise when asking whether respondents’ latent beliefs align with the movement’s core tenets, however.
One such approach, by the nonprofit PRRI, asked survey respondents in four polls last year whether they agreed with three statements associated with the movement: whether “the government, media, and financial worlds in the U.S. are controlled by a group of Satan-worshiping pedophiles”; whether they believe there’s a “storm coming” to “sweep away elites in power”; or whether “patriots may have to resort to violence” to “save our country.”
By that measure, the results show that about 15 percent of Americans either completely or mostly agree with those core tenets, suggesting there’s a broad appetite for Q-related conspiracies, said Jackson, the institute’s research director.
“Everyone who falls into our label of ‘QAnon’ believer is not going to say, ‘Oh, yes, I’m a QAnon believer.’ They may not even know what it is. But they are willing to buy into the things that QAnon is putting out there. That makes them, whether they realize it or not, a QAnon believer,” she said.
PRRI found Americans who trust far-right news outlets such as One America News Network and Newsmax were nearly five times as likely to be QAnon believers as those who trust mainstream news. Roughly 25 percent of Republicans agreed with the questions asked by the institute, while only 9 percent of Democrats agreed.
The political implications of this group-- some 50 million people, a size that Jackson said was equivalent in size to the U.S. white evangelical population-- continue to be felt, as evidenced by the increased chatter among some in Washington about child exploitation during the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Ketanji Brown Jackson.
Just last week, Greene tweeted that anyone voting for Jackson is “pro-pedophile.”
“We’re seeing these themes burst even more onto the Republican mainstream,” PRRI’s Jackson said. “From a very practical standpoint, you can see the imprint it’s having on politics.”

How disappointing that they didn't correlate QAnon belief with Putin-worship since the mentality that predicts one is pretty much identical to the mentality that predicts the other. On Monday, The Atlantic published a long essay by Jonathan Haidt about how the U.S. began disintegrating over the past decade. "Something went terribly wrong, very suddenly. We are disoriented, unable to speak the same language or recognize the same truth. We are cut off from one another and from the past. It’s been clear for quite a while now that red America and blue America are becoming like two different countries claiming the same territory, with two different versions of the Constitution, economics, and American history." The country is beyond tribalism; it is shattered and fragmented... falling apart at the seams. "Social scientists," he wrote, "have identified at least three major forces that collectively bind together successful democracies: social capital (extensive social networks with high levels of trust), strong institutions, and shared stories. Social media has weakened all three."

In their early incarnations, platforms such as Myspace and Facebook were relatively harmless. They allowed users to create pages on which to post photos, family updates, and links to the mostly static pages of their friends and favorite bands. In this way, early social media can be seen as just another step in the long progression of technological improvements-- from the Postal Service through the telephone to email and texting-- that helped people achieve the eternal goal of maintaining their social ties.
But gradually, social-media users became more comfortable sharing intimate details of their lives with strangers and corporations... activities that might impress others but that do not deepen friendships in the way that a private phone conversation will.
...By 2013, social media had become a new game, with dynamics unlike those in 2008. If you were skillful or lucky, you might create a post that would “go viral” and make you “internet famous” for a few days. If you blundered, you could find yourself buried in hateful comments. Your posts rode to fame or ignominy based on the clicks of thousands of strangers, and you in turn contributed thousands of clicks to the game.
This new game encouraged dishonestyand mob dynamics: Users were guided not just by their true preferences but by their past experiences of reward and punishment, and their prediction of how others would react to each new action. One of the engineers at Twitter who had worked on the “Retweet” button later revealed that he regretted his contribution because it had made Twitter a nastier place. As he watched Twitter mobs forming through the use of the new tool, he thought to himself, “We might have just handed a 4-year-old a loaded weapon.”
...It was just this kind of twitchy and explosive spread of anger that James Madison had tried to protect us from as he was drafting the U.S. Constitution. The Framers of the Constitution were excellent social psychologists. They knew that democracy had an Achilles’ heel because it depended on the collective judgment of the people, and democratic communities are subject to “the turbulency and weakness of unruly passions.” The key to designing a sustainable republic, therefore, was to build in mechanisms to slow things down, cool passions, require compromise, and give leaders some insulation from the mania of the moment while still holding them accountable to the people periodically, on Election Day.
The tech companies that enhanced virality from 2009 to 2012 brought us deep into Madison’s nightmare. Many authors quote his comments in “Federalist No. 10” on the innate human proclivity toward “faction,” by which he meant our tendency to divide ourselves into teams or parties that are so inflamed with “mutual animosity” that they are “much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to cooperate for their common good.”
But that essay continues on to a less quoted yet equally important insight, about democracy’s vulnerability to triviality. Madison notes that people are so prone to factionalism that “where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts.”
Social media has both magnified and weaponized the frivolous. Is our democracy any healthier now that we’ve had Twitter brawls over Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Tax the Richdress at the annual Met Gala, and Melania Trump’s dress at a 9/11 memorial event, which had stitching that kind of looked like a skyscraper? How about Senator Ted Cruz’s tweet criticizing Big Bird for tweeting about getting his COVID vaccine?
It’s not just the waste of time and scarce attention that matters; it’s the continual chipping-away of trust. An autocracy can deploy propaganda or use fear to motivate the behaviors it desires, but a democracy depends on widely internalized acceptance of the legitimacy of rules, norms, and institutions. Blind and irrevocable trust in any particular individual or organization is never warranted. But when citizens lose trust in elected leaders, health authorities, the courts, the police, universities, and the integrity of elections, then every decision becomes contested; every election becomes a life-and-death struggle to save the country from the other side. The most recent Edelman Trust Barometer (an international measure of citizens’ trust in government, business, media, and nongovernmental organizations) showed stable and competent autocracies (China and the United Arab Emirates) at the top of the list, while contentious democracies such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Spain, and South Korea scored near the bottom (albeit above Russia).
Recent academic studies suggest that social media is indeed corrosive to trust in governments, news media, and people and institutions in general. A working paper that offers the most comprehensive review of the research, led by the social scientists Philipp Lorenz-Spreen and Lisa Oswald, concludes that “the large majority of reported associations between digital media use and trust appear to be detrimental for democracy.” The literature is complex-- some studies show benefits, particularly in less developed democracies-- but the review found that, on balance, social media amplifies political polarization; foments populism, especially right-wing populism; and is associated with the spread of misinformation.
When people lose trust in institutions, they lose trust in the stories told by those institutions. That’s particularly true of the institutions entrusted with the education of children. History curricula have often caused political controversy, but Facebook and Twitter make it possible for parents to become outraged every day over a new snippet from their children’s history lessons-- and math lessons and literature selections, and any new pedagogical shifts anywhere in the country. The motives of teachers and administrators come into question, and overreaching laws or curricular reforms sometimes follow, dumbing down education and reducing trust in it further. One result is that young people educated in the post-Babel era are less likely to arrive at a coherent story of who we are as a people, and less likely to share any such story with those who attended different schools or who were educated in a different decade.
...Only within the devoted conservatives’ narratives do Donald Trump’s speeches make sense, from his campaign’s ominous opening diatribe about Mexican “rapists” to his warning on January 6, 2021: “If you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.”
The traditional punishment for treason is death, hence the battle cry on January 6: “Hang Mike Pence.” Right-wing death threats, many delivered by anonymous accounts, are proving effective in cowing traditional conservatives, for example in driving out local election officials who failed to “stop the steal.” The wave of threats delivered to dissenting Republican members of Congress has similarly pushed many of the remaining moderates to quit or go silent, giving us a party ever more divorced from the conservative tradition, constitutional responsibility, and reality. We now have a Republican Party that describes a violent assault on the U.S. Capitol as “legitimate political discourse,” supported-- or at least not contradicted-- by an array of right-wing think tanks and media organizations.
The stupidity on the right is most visible in the many conspiracy theories spreading across right-wing media and now into Congress. “Pizzagate,” QAnon, the belief that vaccines contain microchips, the conviction that Donald Trump won reelection-- it’s hard to imagine any of these ideas or belief systems reaching the levels that they have without Facebook and Twitter.
...In a 2018 interview, Steve Bannon, the former adviser to Donald Trump, said that the way to deal with the media is “to flood the zone with shit.” He was describing the “firehose of falsehood” tactic pioneered by Russian disinformation programs to keep Americans confused, disoriented, and angry. But back then, in 2018, there was an upper limit to the amount of shit available, because all of it had to be created by a person (other than some low-quality stuff produced by bots).
Now, however, artificial intelligence is close to enabling the limitless spread of highly believable disinformation. The AI program GPT-3 is already so good that you can give it a topic and a tone and it will spit out as many essays as you like, typically with perfect grammar and a surprising level of coherence. In a year or two, when the program is upgraded to GPT-4, it will become far more capable. In a 2020 essay titled “The Supply of Disinformation Will Soon Be Infinite,” Renée DiResta, the research manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory, explained that spreading falsehoods-- whether through text, images, or deep-fake videos-- will quickly become inconceivably easy. (She co-wrote the essay with GPT-3.)
American factions won’t be the only ones using AI and social media to generate attack content; our adversaries will too. In a haunting 2018 essay titled “The Digital Maginot Line,” DiResta described the state of affairs bluntly. “We are immersed in an evolving, ongoing conflict: an Information World War in which state actors, terrorists, and ideological extremists leverage the social infrastructure underpinning everyday life to sow discord and erode shared reality,” she wrote. The Soviets used to have to send over agents or cultivate Americans willing to do their bidding. But social media made it cheap and easy for Russia’s Internet Research Agency to invent fake events or distort real ones to stoke rage on both the left and the right, often over race. Later research showed that an intensive campaign began on Twitter in 2013 but soon spread to Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube, among other platforms. One of the major goals was to polarize the American public and spread distrust-- to split us apart at the exact weak point that Madison had identified.

There's a lot more to Haidt's essay-- including suggestions for societal and technological reform-- and I suggest you read it all. I will just leave you this morning with one more ominous thought: "If we do not make major changes soon, then our institutions, our political system, and our society may collapse."

1 Comment

Apr 13, 2022

Jonathan Haidt's essay is, indeed, a must-read. But who will ever do anything toward remedies? democraps? tragically laughable. if americans want ANYTHING fixed, the democrap party must be replaced with a truly left movement. after 54 years of total inaction when action is called for, this cannot be debated. Any belief that the party can ever be useful is delusion on exactly the same level as Q... and christianity.

What nobody seems willing to do is stand up a mirror for america to look at. none of this can be surprising to an objective observer. We are on the precipice of a nazi reich and the end of whatever remnants of quasi-democracy we have left today BECAUSE americans have be…

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