Howe: Conspiracy Thinking Has Gone Mainstream In America

05/19/20 02:07PM EDT

Below is a complimentary Demography Unplugged research note written by Hedgeye Demography analyst Neil Howe. Click here to learn more and subscribe.

Howe: Conspiracy Thinking Has Gone Mainstream In America - 5 19 2020 2 03 56 PM

Conspiracy thinking has gone mainstream in America—and nothing illustrates this more clearly than the rise of QAnon. A new article in The Atlantic delves into the conspiracy theory and the belief system it reflects, which is rooted in the broader disintegration of institutional trust among Americans across ideological lines. (The Atlantic)

    NH: Trust the plan. Enjoy the show. Nothing can stop what is coming. If these phrases resonate with you, it's likely you follow QAnon (or just "Q"), an unidentified agent with high-level security clearance who spies on the Deep State on behalf of ordinary Americans. Who is Q? Don't ask. He (or she) is as anonymous as Satoshi Nakamoto.

      What else? Well, you probably believe that everything you hear from mainstream or official sources is a sham, a coverup for a New World Order conspiracy hatched by a secretive cabal of tycoons, experts, and pedophiles who seek to corrupt and enslave the world. You may have an evangelical background and look forward to either a "Great Awakening" or the "End of Days." You like to decode obscure clues. You know, for example, that "castle" means White House, "crums" means clues, and Trump wearing a yellow tie means "all clear" with the pandemic. (You know, even if others don't, that yellow is the maritime flag code for no-infections-on-board.)

        As for Trump, you probably voted for him and will vote for him again. Q posted his first message in October 2017, but his influence has grown so rapidly that President Trump now regularly echoes Q phrases and retweets Q-linked sites. The number of Q's followers is of course unknowable. But dozens of commentators on Q have attracted massive youtube and twitter audiences. Q books, cups, and trinkets are a big business on amazon. And, by one estimate, some 40 candidates running in primary races for Congress in 2020 (mostly, but not all, Republicans) use Q slogans in their social media campaigns.

        Gender? You're probably male. Q attracts both men and women, but the balance probably tips toward men. Age? You're probably anywhere from early 30s to early 60s. Generation X is the sweet spot for Q. From early childhood, Xers were raised to be wary and skeptical of anything "the establishment" tells them. They've matured into free-agent individualists, a generation of low social trust. While devoutly loyal to their families and tribes, most Gen-Xers have limited connection to national civic life. Most of the time, they want nothing more from the government than to keep off its radar screen.

        Conspiracy theories, therefore, come easily to Xers. They were raised on antihero cartoons. They have watched endless shows like Men in Black and "The X-Files" about hoaxes, treacheries, and mysteries that never get solved. So when it comes to the assassination of JFK or MLK, Karen Silkwood, Waco, 9/11, vaccinations, or the "Plandemic," well, who really knows? And for that matter, what about the Apollo moon landings or Roswell or the curvature of the earth? You say you're the expert, but why should I defer to your version of the truth?

        Older Americans (early-wave Boomers and Silent) are too firmly rooted in what trusted institutions have taught them to go for far-out conspiracies. Even ultra-conservative Republicans over age 65 or 70 tend to shy away from the flat-earthers. Millennials, on the other hand, do share the Xers' low social trust--but their massive tilt to the Democratic Party makes it hard for most of them to sign on to Q. What's more, most Millennials want to bolster social trust by supporting stronger, not weaker, national institutions. So, in effect, many would choose to join the conspiracy--or "join the Borg," as many Xers would contemptuously put it.

        For nearly a century, progressives on the left have been saying that conspiracy thinking is a perennial feature of the American right. The historian Richard Hofstadter wrote a famous essay in 1964 to this effect ("The Paranoid Style in American Politics") with lots of references to Joe McCarthy, Communism, international Jewry, and the Freemasons.

        But this isn't fair. The radical left also has a long history of conspiracy theorizing. Decades before young Millennials felt the "Bern," leftists have been telling us that late capitalism or white imperialism or "Amerika" or multinational plutocrats had a plan to corrupt and enslave the world. (Indeed, what is Marxism if not a conspiracy theory of history?) Qanon may have its secret networks and sympathizers. But so do the Guy Fawkes anarchists and antifas. Indeed, to judge by the flourishing of spiritualism, witchcraft, and the occult among today's progressives, it's hard to know which side is more deranged. (See "Millennials Aren't the Only Ones Breaking Out the Sage and Tarot Cards.")

        What's more important, IMO, is that the populism of the right and the left is beginning to demonize the same people. After all, aren't both sides going after globalist billionaires? Are Steve Jobs and Bill Gates any less reviled by the far left than the far right? As I have pointed out before, a surprising share of leftwing Democrats who supported Sanders in 2016 later voted for Trump (not Clinton) in the general election. (See "Did Berniacs Push Donald Trump Over the Top?") And I would suspect, though I don't have the age-bracket crosstabs, that most of these switchers were Xers.

        Both sides also use the same born-again (gnostic) metaphors of being liberated through a higher level of awareness. The left may talk about being or staying "woke," for example. Yet the right similarly talks about an "Awakening" or about a red pill (that wakes you) versus a blue pill (that puts you back to sleep). See also "Conservatives Turn on Big Tech."

        Over the last decade, it is true, the most striking new trend in conspiracy thinking has been its rise on the political right--in particular, its huge influence among populist conservatives who back Trump. 

        But in other eras, the dominance has gone the other way. During the 1960s and '70s, for example, it was the left that touched off an explosion of conspiracy thinking in America. That's when we all learned that conventional pieties about the American way of life were pathetic coverups for rampant oppression by race, ethnicity, class, nationality, religion, ableism, whatever. Not only that, but such Enlightenment notions as reason and objectivity were themselves shackles foisted on us by dead white males. Professors used "deconstruction" to show how these biases corrupted every text in the so-called "western canon." Conspiracy!

        Once schools and colleges had absorbed this new "critical" perspective, the next generation of Americans--Generation X--was taught that objectivity is the tool of tyrants and that truth should instead be subjective and personal. You don't have to believe anything unless it fits you. Truth has to feel right. It has to possess "truthiness" (a brilliant word coined by Steven Colbert). Who cares if it works for everyone? As any Xer would say, it works for me.

        Before young Boomers launched the Awakening of the 1960s and '70s, America was a modern nation. After that era ended, America was a postmodern nation, liberated--for better or for worse--from narrow conventionality. Our minds became more open to new good ideas, but also vastly more susceptible to idiocy and nonsense. BTW, there's a wonderful recent book on this topic by Kurt Andersen, Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire.

        Postmodernism is usually associated with leftwing academia. But ironically, Donald Trump has become America's first postmodern president. He is superbly adept at refashioning the truth to fit the wishes and dreams of his supporters. Nothing has to make sense... and yet somehow it all makes sense. And Trump's postmodern critics find it hard to argue back. After all, didn't they always say that everyone is entitled to their own standard of right and wrong? Aren't the testimonies of the oppressed--including those of decent Americans victimized by the Deep State--always to be believed?

        The problem facing Trump is this. His approach may work tolerably well for many Boomers and Xers. But it is hitting a brick wall with Millennials. While voters under age 30 overwhelmingly want to overhaul the system, their populism doesn't point in Trump's direction: Only 30% say they are likely to vote for him. I repeat: Millennials don't want to disable the system. They want a stronger system that actually works. And as they grow older, I expect that Millennials will empower institutions to place tighter boundaries on public discourse--so that anything not positive, approved, credentialed, or "nice" will tend to get suppressed. Social media giants are already engaging in this sort of censorship. By the year 2030, the government will likely be doing it directly.

        Now that we're facing a pandemic, Q fans are applauding Trump for standing up to the planners, regulators, and so-called experts. But Millennials are asking a different question: Hey, where the hell is our oppressive Deep State when we need it?

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        ABOUT NEIL HOWE

        Neil Howe is a renowned authority on generations and social change in America. An acclaimed bestselling author and speaker, he is the nation's leading thinker on today's generations—who they are, what motivates them, and how they will shape America's future.

        A historian, economist, and demographer, Howe is also a recognized authority on global aging, long-term fiscal policy, and migration. He is a senior associate to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C., where he helps direct the CSIS Global Aging Initiative.

        Howe has written over a dozen books on generations, demographic change, and fiscal policy, many of them with William Strauss. Howe and Strauss' first book, Generations is a history of America told as a sequence of generational biographies. Vice President Al Gore called it "the most stimulating book on American history that I have ever read" and sent a copy to every member of Congress. Newt Gingrich called it "an intellectual tour de force." Of their book, The Fourth Turning, The Boston Globe wrote, "If Howe and Strauss are right, they will take their place among the great American prophets."

        Howe and Strauss originally coined the term "Millennial Generation" in 1991, and wrote the pioneering book on this generation, Millennials Rising. His work has been featured frequently in the media, including USA Today, CNN, the New York Times, and CBS' 60 Minutes.

        Previously, with Peter G. Peterson, Howe co-authored On Borrowed Time, a pioneering call for budgetary reform and The Graying of the Great Powers with Richard Jackson.

        Howe received his B.A. at U.C. Berkeley and later earned graduate degrees in economics and history from Yale University.

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