These firebrand Evangelical media made clear that anything with a whiff of leftism—from science to higher education to the news and entertainment media—was aligned with a nefarious them out to destroy the white Christian us. Not everyone took these conspiracy theories to the same Pat Robertson–level extremes. But the underlying beliefs were ubiquitous, particularly on far-right radio networks, which became the primary source of information for many rural Americans as local news began to collapse in the 1990s.
When Fox News entered the scene in 1996, it built a band around white Christian conspiratorial grievance. This has been visible in everything from the network’s racist fear mongering about the “great replacement” to its hand wringing about a nonexistent “war on Christmas” to, of course, its more recent false claims about voter fraud. But Fox didn’t create these beliefs wholesale. It harnessed what was already there. And the pervasiveness and sheer normalness of anti-liberal conspiracy theorizing in mainstream conservative circles later helped QAnon and Deep State theories grow as they did—including, unsurprisingly, within Evangelical communities. Existing conspiracy theories provided narrative templates; existing far-right media networks provided favorable ecological conditions.
Of course, full-blown, diehard QAnon support has been and likely will remain on the fringe, especially after Q’s long-promised storm flopped so spectacularly. Similarly, most Republicans didn’t wander around shouting about the Deep State when Trump was president, and have even less reason to do so now that Biden has been sworn in. But large numbers aren’t what made the lions and tigers and bears of the Capitol insurrection dangerous. What made them dangerous is what made them possible. So long as what made them possible persists, so too does the threat.
And so the question we must continue to ask is: How do we change the ecological conditions to cultivate a healthier landscape for all Americans? This isn’t merely a question of preventing the next violent attack, though that’s the clearest and most present danger. Evaluating these conditions is the only way to begin cultivating unity. We can’t hope to heal our divides until we identify what’s been causing them.
The first and most critical step is to double down on media literacy, and not merely as a toolkit for navigating falsehood. As I explained in an interview with Edweek, it’s not enough to respond to false information as it arises, as if falsehood were an unfortunate but natural byproduct of the information environment. Educators must help students understand why lower strata of the biomass pyramid are so amenable to falsehood. That means interrogating the outsized, decades-long role far-right media have played in shaping the environment, which as a recent Berkman Klein Center report shows, reached a zenith during the 2020 election.
Similarly, researchers and journalists must foreground the political and historical causes of information disorder, not merely its symptoms. Framing the problem in terms of symptoms, namely, bad information on platforms, will restrict proposed solutions to the platforms themselves: content moderation, deplatforming, and demonetization. These things are important. But the issues we face are ecological. Our solutions must be too.
These efforts will, without doubt, yield accusations of anticonservative bias. But that’s a trap. It’s not the conservatism that’s the problem. It’s the lies, and the economic forces that have incentivized them.
But telling the story of how we got here won’t be enough. Conservatives who sincerely care about unity—who see the dangers in the apex predators and who occupy a much calmer section of the biomass pyramid—need to reflect on how they fit within this history, and do their part to prevent it from repeating. To that end, I would ask conservative and center-right readers to do something unexpected: Reflect on the kinds of media you’ve engaged with, what you’ve learned, and what kinds of narratives—particularly about liberals—have stuck with you. After you’ve thought about it, talk to your liberal friends and family members about your experiences, and listen when they talk about theirs. Better yet, talk to your more conservative friends and family who are resistant to unity. The expectation isn’t that suddenly everyone will be in agreement; beliefs, especially those grown over decades, don’t yield so easily. But we can’t cultivate new foundations until we explore what’s thriving at the bottom of the pyramid. Sharing stories is a way to start.
For unity to mean anything, we have to have honest conversations. That means assessing the ecological conditions that have fostered insurrectionist violence. It also means evaluating where we personally fit within the landscape, and asking ourselves: What have I nourished? Reflecting there, and making changes there, is the only way to start breaking the cycle.
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