Essential Politics: Conspiracy theories and fear of immigrants — a toxic mix

Of interest:

Long before Donald Trump descended the escalator to the Trump Tower lobby, where he launched his presidential campaign while labelling Mexican immigrants as “rapists,” immigration was playing a powerful role in motivating voters on the right. 

Along with opposition to the Affordable Care Act, the effort to stop immigration reform played a key role in mobilizing conservatives during President Obama‘s two terms in office. Trump’s candidacy further ramped up the political focus on immigration. It also allowed the spread of toxic falsehoods that had been largely relegated to the fringe. 

One of the most pernicious is “replacement theory” — the belief that elites (big business, Democratic politicians, major cultural figures and so on) have conspired to bring large numbers of immigrants to the U.S. in a deliberate effort to replace the native-born population with more subservient people who will work for less and vote for whom they’re told. 

The conspiracy theory, which gained traction on the far right in Europe before being popularized in the U.S., has become a staple of some prominent cable television figures, like the Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who said last year that President Biden wanted to increase immigration “to reduce the political power of people whose ancestors lived here and dramatically increase the proportion of Americans newly arrived from the Third World.” 

Nearly 1 in 5 American adults believe at least a couple of major tenets of that theory, according to a new study by the National Opinion Research Center and the Associated Press.

Conspiracy theories shape debate

Overall, the American public remains largely supportive of immigration, the new AP-NORC study found. Almost 40% of Americans say that the number of immigrants to the U.S. should remain at about its current level, while 25% think the number of immigrants should be larger.

On the opposite side, 36% say the number of immigrants should be reduced, with 19% saying the number should be cut “a lot.”

Support for immigration restriction continues as a major rallying cry for the Republican base. A lot of the rhetorical ire is aimed at illegal border crossing, but proposals to dramatically reduce legal immigration became official White House policy under Trump and remain important to a large segment of his core supporters.

The AP-NORC study asked a number of questions about immigration, including two aimed specifically at gauging how many Americans believe key parts of the replacement theory.

One question asked whether “there is a group of people in this country who are trying to replace native-born Americans with immigrants who agree with their political views.” About 1 in 7 Americans said they “strongly agree” with that. A similar share said they were “very concerned” that “native-born Americans are losing economic, political, and cultural influence in this country because of the growing population of immigrants.”

About 1 in 5 Americans agreed with both of those tenets of replacement theory to at least some extent.

That finding was “the primary thing that got our attention” when analyzing the study results, said Jennifer Benz of NORC. The researchers were struck by “how widespread the belief in these core arguments of replacement theory are,” Benz said. “It’s a larger segment of the population than we may have expected going into this who have this fairly extreme view.”

Viewers of right-wing media especially shared those ideas: Among people who said they most often watch OANN or Newsmax, 45% agreed with both of the replacement theory statements. So did 31% of Fox viewers, compared with 13% of CNN viewers. 

That reflects the partisan nature of America’s immigration debate, but something else as well: The most widespread support for ideas central to replacement theory came from Americans who believe generally in conspiracy theories. 

The AP-NORC study used a four-question scale to measure a person’s belief in conspiracies. The questions ask if people believe that major events are the result of plots executed in secret, whether events are directed by a small group of powerful people, whether those people are unknown to voters and whether that group controls the outcome of elections, wars, economic recessions and other major developments. 

People who scored high on the conspiracy scale were, in most respects, very similar to the general population. Comparing the 25% who scored highest on the conspiracy scale with the rest of America, the researchers found no significant difference by education, for example — people who believe events are controlled by a small, secret cabal are as likely to have graduated from college as people who don’t hold that view, Benz noted. There’s no gap by income either.

There is a partisan gap — people who score high on the conspiracy scale tend more often to be Republicans and also tend to identify as evangelical Christians. That’s especially true of white conspiracy thinkers, who are heavily Republican and voted for Trump in 2020.

By contrast, people of color who scored high on the conspiracy scale were more likely to identify as Democrats. They were as likely to have not voted as to have cast a ballot for Biden.

Conspiratorial thinkers also are more likely to believe they have been discriminated against, the study found. That’s especially notable among white conspiracy thinkers: On a series of questions about whether people believe they have been discriminated against because of their race in seeking jobs, getting a house, obtaining healthcare or applying for a loan, about 30% of white conspiracy thinkers said yes, compared with about 10% of whites who aren’t conspiracy thinkers.

That reflects a basic fact about people who believe in conspiracies, said political science professor Joe Uscinski of the University of Miami, who for the past decade has studied conspiracy theories and who developed the scale the AP-NORC study used to measure conspiratorial thinking.

A certain set of personality traits seems to lead some people to believe in conspiracies, and belief that they belong to an oppressed group is a part of that, Uscinski said.

The fact that belief in conspiracy grows out of personality types helps explain “why we find so much stability” in the share of the population that’s conspiracy minded, he said. A decade of work has produced no evidence for the widespread belief that conspiracy theories are on the rise, he noted.

“A lot of people worry that people see these ideas on cable TV or on the internet and start believing in conspiracies, but that’s not really how this works,” Uscinski said. “People are either disposed to those particular kinds of ideas or they’re not.” 

The problem for American democracy is not so much the share of Americans who believe in conspiracies, but the political system’s weakened ability to keep those ideas at bay.

Through most of U.S. history, “we’ve generally counted on our elites” not to exploit conspiratorial thinking among their followers, Uscinski noted. Some presidents “would dabble in conspiracy theories now and then,” but mostly, they steered clear of them. Trump changed all that.

“The way that Trump used it was at a level and volume we haven’t seen,” he said. And other ambitious political figures have taken note. “They’ve seen the prototype,” he said. “It works.” 

Source: Essential Politics: Conspiracy theories and fear of immigrants — a toxic mix


About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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