By Andrew Hanauer
The Q Anon phenomenon is scary. (To summarize – it’s a conspiracy theory that holds that President Trump is battling “the deep state” (including Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Hollywood) which is trying to plot a coup and that the Robert Mueller investigation is actually being engineered by President Trump to secretly investigate the Democrats, who are running international child trafficking rings.)
This is part of the pattern of how polarization dynamics take hold in a society and how they become more and more dangerous. When we start to believe that the other side is being manipulated by “the deep state” or forces in society that are mysterious and powerful, trust completely erodes and violence becomes a more and more acceptable course of action. This is another form of dehumanization: “they aren’t humans, they are pawns of the deep state and they must be stopped.” It’s important to remember that the Nazis said Jews were part of a conspiracy to cost Germany WWI. Hutu Power groups in Rwanda used similar tactics against Tutsis in the early 1990’s. All of this is designed to pit people against each other in irreconcilable ways – and then allow the way our brains work (we hate who we fear and we hate who we believe hates us), mechanisms of social psychology (we harden our group identities when we believe they are under threat) etc. to take off and widen the gulf even further (and of course if people believe that their opponents are brainwashed by conspiracy theories, that pushes them to dehumanize those opponents as well – which fuels the cycle).
Q’s tactics also remove any requirement to argue with facts – all facts are subject to being ignored because the deep state is manipulating the media. If Trump came out and said “Q is insane. It’s not true.” Q believers would simply say “of course he said that, that’s the part he has to play.” So you can’t beat this stuff with facts, or by shaming or laughing at the participants. The only solution is to build a healthier public sphere, which means a sphere in which cross-cutting identities (being human, or being American, or being Floridian, or whatever it is) take precedence over narrow, “tribal” identities. In a healthy public sphere, people reject conspiracy theories like this because they have healthy, positive relationships with the people these divisive narratives paint as sub-human, which further promotes those cross-cutting identities and undercuts divisive narratives.
That’s why local politics are usually less divisive than national politics. People might disagree about local issues but they usually don’t believe their neighbors are pawns of the Deep State.
There is no shortcut. You cannot educate, shame, mock, legislate, litigate your way around this. The public sphere is diseased and the solution is holistic health, not a pill.
That holistic health does NOT mean merely “civility.” But it also doesn’t mean just beating your political opponents.
Because here’s the other key point. Q is not an outlier, or even the fringe version of other forms of polarization, it is the logical manifestation of our broken, divisive political system. This is where it leads – and it can lead worse places than this if we allow it. Every day, Americans are bombarded by divisive, dehumanizing messaging. On my way to an event the other day, I listened to talk radio for a while. Forget the conservative/liberal policy debates, this talk radio host’s focus was on making us hate each other. Pure and simple. This is the messaging that sells, that wins elections, that motivates people. And here is where the really important part comes in: obviously not all sides, actors, politicians, media companies are equally responsible for the problem. But the reality is that in terms of the solution, it doesn’t matter. You have to disarm the whole system, not just defeat the worst actors in it.
Understanding the dangers of polarization means shedding the false narratives that surround it – that fighting polarization is about being mushy or centrist, that it assumes that all sides are equally to blame or that it means finding common ground between Neo-Nazis and the rest of us, or that “civility” is more important than racism or poverty or parents being separated from their children or people dying of opioid overdoses. Or that you can’t care deeply about who wins elections (from either side’s perspective) and also care about this. Too many bridge-builders either promote these narratives or don’t do enough to quell them. But there are also people on the left and right who actively attack people who are trying to fight the divisiveness in our politics simply because they are invested (in any number of ways) in the status quo.
The solution is to invest in projects and programs that build cross-cutting identities, that can defuse and disarm this system, that address real pressing issues (racism, opioids, poverty) in ways that brings us together instead of scapegoating other groups/races/religions etc.
I recently took a tour of a synagogue and saw this Torah – taken back from the Nazis after WWII. The Nazis would burn synagogues and then keep these scrolls so that they could build a museum to the extinct Jewish race in the future.
Q Anon should be a wake-up call. We have a disease infecting our public sphere and it’s the same disease that has taken hold in countries that ended up massacring entire populations. We are not exceptional. It can happen here.
But it doesn’t have to. I continue to have faith in our future.
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