With the midterm elections in the rearview mirror, we can now Monday (Wednesday?) morning quarterback both Democrats’ and Republicans’ strategies going into the election. Republicans doubled down on Trumpism, with many vocal election deniers on the ballot for key state offices, and others who at the very least would not refute the Big Lie publicly. For their part, Democrats framed the election as something far bigger than policy choices: A choice on the survival of democracy itself. Heading into the election, the consensus seemed to be that the Republican strategy would give them a “red wave,” and that Democrats were making a mistake by not focusing on practical things, like legislative victories and priorities. So how did pundits and the media get it so wrong? I’m not a polling expert, but from a psychological standpoint, one was a winning cognitive strategy and the other one wasn’t.
Let’s start with the Republicans. A defining feature of the Trump administration has been conspiracy theories. From Pizzagate – this was the theory that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring in the basement of a Washington, D.C. pizza parlor – to the far more pervasive (and deadly) belief that COVID-19 was a hoax, Trump’s base has been especially susceptible to believing in conspiracies. There’s a reason for this: Trump’s base is psychologically primed for them. Research shows that certain underlying emotions, like anxiety and a sense of disenfranchisement, can make people more conspiratorially-inclined. Anxiety and disenfranchisement-related emotions are precisely what GOP messaging delivers: Politicians and the right-wing media ecosystem work the MAGA base into a frenzy about everything from the sartorial choices of the green M&M to being “replaced” in the electorate by immigrants. When it comes to the Big Lie, Professor Jennifer Mercieca has detailed, step by step, how Tucker Carlson manipulates his viewers’ fight-or-flight response – what she calls an “amygdala hijack” – to convince them that January 6 was actually a false flag operation by the FBI.
It might seem that getting people scared and outraged about, well, everything, would mobilize voter turnout – that certainly seemed to be the idea. But people who are exposed to and believe in conspiracy theories share another important feature, as well. Professor Daniel Jolly at the University of Nottingham has researched the psychology of conspiracy theories and discovered an important connection: Exposure to conspiracy theories makes people less likely to engage in politics. Specifically, Jolly found that people who were exposed to conspiracy theories – like the circumstances surrounding the death of Princess Diana or the existence of climate change – were less likely to vote. Oops!