Crazed Conspiracy Theories Contribute to Gridlock

The internet is a wonderful thing. It brings the world of knowledge to our fingertips. But it also requires that we be able to sift through what we read/see in order to determine what is actual knowledge and what is merely a hoax designed to manipulate us.

Do you have friends on Facebook that post those kinds of hoaxes? I keep at least one in my timeline to stay in touch with the latest nonsense. Right in line with my last post, the most recent one I saw was the lie about Valerie Jarrett (a senior advisor to President Obama) being an Iranian Muslim. The truth – for anyone who took the time to check – is that Jarrett was born to American parents in the 1950’s who were living in Iran because her father was a doctor in a medical facility for children there. They left Iran when she was five years old.

It would be one thing if this kind of lie was merely something circulated among a fringe group of people. But as Ryan Lizza documents, it has become much more than that. Here’s what he heard from Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA):

Nunes, who is the chairman of the House Committee on Intelligence, told me that the biggest change he’s seen since he arrived in Congress, in 2002, is the rise of online media outlets and for-profit groups that spread what he views as bad, sometimes false information, which House members then feel obliged to address. The change has transformed Nunes from one of the most conservative members of Congress to one of the biggest critics of the Freedom Caucus and its tactics.

“I used to spend ninety per cent of my constituent response time on people who call, e-mail, or send a letter, such as, ‘I really like this bill, H.R. 123,’ and they really believe in it because they heard about it through one of the groups that they belong to, but their view was based on actual legislation,” Nunes said. “Ten per cent were about ‘Chemtrails from airplanes are poisoning me’ to every other conspiracy theory that’s out there. And that has essentially flipped on its head.” The overwhelming majority of his constituent mail is now about the far-out ideas, and only a small portion is “based on something that is mostly true.” He added, “It’s dramatically changed politics and politicians, and what they’re doing.”

That is basically the same story Kevin Kosar told in his article in the Washington Monthly titled: Why I Quit the Congressional Research Service.

If there’s one event that epitomizes why I quit my job last October as a researcher at the Congressional Research Service, Congress’s in-house think tank, it’s a phone call I got some weeks before making my decision to leave. The call was from a smart congressional staffer with a law degree. Confessing some embarrassment, he asked if, as the CRS’s resident expert on the U.S. Postal Service, I could help him and his congressman boss respond to a constituent. The constituent wanted to know why the USPS was “stockpiling ammunition.” The staffer forwarded the constituent’s email, which had links to various blogs warning that the USPS was arming itself to the teeth, perhaps preparing for an assault on America…

Calls like that didn’t bother me, exactly; I didn’t mind doing my bit for the promotion of sanity. But in the previous year, I’d answered that kind of phone calls repeatedly, and much of my workday was now taken up by requests that had little if anything to do with public policy.

In other words, Republican gridlock isn’t simply fueled by lawmakers who embrace a strategy of total obstruction. It is also happening because both legislators and staff find themselves consumed with debunking crazed conspiracy theories that their constituents hear online.

I really have no idea what to do about this. If you have answers, post them in the comments. My only thought is that if someone could find a way to monetize Snopes.com – there is a fortune to be made.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.