March 7, 2021

Political Divisions Fueled By Conspiracy Theories Can Lead to Violence

U.S. Capitol

I found myself considering a strange hypothetical scenario recently. If I genuinely believed that "the other side" had stolen a U.S. presidential election, what would I be prepared to do? I don't believe this, of course. The question is what I'd be prepared to do if I did. Would I have marched on the U.S. Capitol? I doubt it. I have zero interest in returning to Washington DC, and I am not convinced that the various marches on Washington accomplish much. Could I imagine attending rallies or protests closer to home? Sure. I can even imagine being so angry that I might do things I'd later regret.

It seems clear that the crowd descending on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, was made up of many different groups and that some were far worse than others. Aside from the White supremists, Christian nationalists, anti-government militias, and far-right agitators, I'm sure there were some people there who were just angry because they had uncritically accepted the conspiracy theories they had been hearing from their president and others. They were wrong about the election being stolen, but I think it is understandable that they showed up if they did really believe the election had been stolen. Of course, none of that excuses the behavior of those who actually entered the Capitol. But again, I'm sure there were people there that day who did not get swept up in the mob.

Going forward, I imagine Capitol security will be better for some time. What probably won't be getting any better any time soon are the deep divisions plaguing U.S. politics or the blatant lies and demonization of "the other" that fuels these divisions. I think that is unfortunate because our divisions prevent us from being the sort of nation we'd like to think we are. Besides that, we learned (or at least we should have learned) something important on January 6: when divisions get bad enough, they can lead to violence. Prior to January 6, it was not easy to imagine an attempted coup taking place in the U.S. It is now much easier to imagine something like that.

One of the primary sources of my pessimism these days is that it seems like relatively few people are interested in doing anything about the role they play in maintaining our divisions. We want "the other side" to make all the changes and are far too willing to overlook the many ways we or those who share our views contribute to the divisions. It is increasingly difficult to see a path forward, especially with some on "our side" loudly proclaiming that they welcome the divisions.