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A Troubled American Moment

As conspiracy theories abound, voters are uncertain about what to believe

“How do you feel about the federal government buying tons of ammunition for the post office in order to raise the price of ammo for gun owners?” was the first question I got at a town meeting in Shreveport, La. Kevin and Lois Martello, a dentist and speech therapist, respectively, had put together a group of 15 friends and neighbors to talk politics, and it was pretty intense from the start. I asked Lee Foshee, who had raised the post-office question, where he’d heard that. He told me he had several sources. One of them may have been the right-wing Breitbart website, I later learned, which has been tracking ammo sales to federal agencies. Breitbart didn’t mention the price-raising strategy, but Bill Kostelka, a certified public accountant, confirmed that he’d had to stand in line to buy .22-caliber rounds recently. (For the record: the U.S. Postal Inspection Service is armed and needs ammo from time to time.)

It’s hard to know what to believe,” said Lois Martello, the host, who seemed as nonplussed by the post-office-ammo conspiracy as I was. She and her husband were a bit more moderate than some of their friends. “Especially in the election season,” she continued, “when all the ads are on the air. But even on the news, it’s hard to tell what’s real.” I was tempted to defend my profession, but we seemed to be in a full-fledged American Moment, and I didn’t want to kill the buzz. Anyway, Kevin Martello, Lois’ husband, tried to take the conversation “in a different direction,” he said. “I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty concerned that the top 1% of the population controls 40% of the wealth in this country.”

There were a couple of head nods but not much commentary. There was more concern about government waste than about unseen wealth. Indeed, another chorus of consternation ensued, this time about food stamps. Waylon Bates, the principal of the local middle school, said he’d seen people “buying T-bone steaks and giant bottles of orange soda” with government scrip. Others said they’d seen the very same thing. And Foshee said he’d seen long lines at a combination liquor store and check-cashing place–a fine establishment, no doubt–on the day the Social Security disability checks came out each month.

I have heard the T-bone steak and orange-soda riff a number of times on road trips in recent years. It is always T-bone steaks. Sometimes it’s dog food too. Is it true? Maybe so; there are food-stamp abuses, no doubt. Or maybe it happened once, someone saw it, and the story spread, sprayed into the atmosphere by talk radio. It is now an urban (and rural) legend. The food-stamp stories mix with more purposeful fantasies spread by interest groups, like the National Rifle Association’s constant spew that the government wants to “take away” your guns rather than merely regulate their use. And then there are the immigrant stories: Kostelka heard about a carload of Mexicans stopped by the local police without driver’s licenses or proof of residency. “And they were given a fine and set free,” he said. True, no doubt, but incomplete: fewer would-be immigrants have been crossing the border in recent years, and the Obama Administration has been sending record numbers back home.

Democrats are swimming against the prevailing cynicism as they attempt to retain the Senate this year. Across the South, their candidates are placing a heavy bet on women’s issues, especially equal pay, and education. In some places, like North Carolina, where a traditional emphasis on education spending has been violated by the Republican state legislature, they have a chance to win. In Louisiana, where Senator Mary Landrieu is facing a virtual candidate named Bill Cassidy–local reporters claim they can’t find the guy, and I couldn’t either–the incumbent is facing a real hurdle. The hurdle is Barack Obama, about whom the crazy rumors are–still!–thick, and the ads are constant: each of the incumbent Democratic Senators running in the Southern states I visited has voted with the President more than 90% of the time. That is one thing every voter who enters the polls will know next month.

There is also an undercurrent of fear–about ISIS and Ebola–that does not help the Democrats. Most of the people I talked with don’t think this federal government is competent to handle anything. And there is an undercurrent of exhaustion, especially among Democrats who have talked themselves silly trying to dispel the rumor fog that has engulfed political discourse. These are stories that stick in the mind and rot the body politic. They are a dominant political currency, and not just in the South.

TO READ JOE’S BLOG POSTS, GO TO time.com/politics

This appears in the October 20, 2014 issue of TIME.
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