78 QAnon candidates are on state and federal ballots. The conspiracy theory is threatening U.S. democratic norms.

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QAnon has risen above being a fringe conspiracy theory to become one of the most influential movements in conservative politics. An analysis of QAnon-aligned candidates found that there were 78 candidates on state and federal ballots who adhered to the conspiracy theory. Those candidates are clustered in states like Florida, Arizona, and even California, and have collectively raised more than $20 million in the current election cycle.

QAnon proponents generally believe that former President Trump is secretly fighting against an organized cabal of Satanists and pedophiles in government, media, and corporate circles. The movement is also generally associated with white supremacist and far-right groups. That these conspiratorial beliefs are baseless and frankly bizarre hasn’t stopped QAnon from becoming incredibly influential. Facebook found that QAnon groups have millions of members. QAnon symbols and proponents have become ubiquitous at conservative protests from the January 6th insurrection to the trucker protests in Canada and Washington, D.C

When misinformation fractures a country’s shared reality, it can cause democracy to break down.

When does a conspiracy theory go from being quirky to dangerous? A report from the Polarization & Extremism Research & Innovation Lab (PERIL) found that QAnon’s misinformation spreads rapidly and presents a danger to democracy. “QAnon is a phenomenon worthy of serious analysis, global tracking, and large-scale intervention,” said Cynthia Miller-Idriss, director of PERIL. “It is vital to draw attention to QAnon’s truly frightening potential for destabilization and permanent damage to our democratic system.”

Democratic systems are based on deliberation and careful consideration of the facts surrounding events. Voters are supposed to listen to the policies of various candidates and choose prospective representatives based on these reasoned debates. But when misinformation fractures a country’s shared reality, it can cause democracy to break down. In high misinformation environments, trust in institutions can fall and the allure of authoritarian politics can become stronger. Misinformation can also pull citizens further apart and increase polarization in the broader electorate. 

This is why the growth of the QAnon conspiracy theory is so dangerous. It could act as an accelerant, speeding up democratic erosion within the United States and pushing conservative politicians into more extreme stances. QAnon also presents the threat of increased political violence. The FBI has warned that as QAnon predictions fail to materialize, the movement’s adherents may turn to violent attacks in order to achieve their political goals. Rising political violence is often associated with increased authoritarian politics. If Americans cannot find a way to return to a shared reality, democracy in the United States may be in long-term jeopardy. 

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Marcus Johnson

Marcus Johnson is a political commentator and a political science Ph.D. candidate at American University. His primary research focus is the impact of political institutions on the racial wealth gap.