Ever since the election in 2020, one of the common themes throughout conservative media is the “fact” that the election was stolen, and Donald Trump is the rightful president of our country. Even after being struck down time and time again, the same claims continue. This idea that the election was stolen has seeded mistrust in the minds of many Americans, casting doubt on all future elections, and endangering the democratic process of electing officials as a whole.
In a poll done by CBS this summer, 33% of those polled, 69% of Republicans, and 74% of Trump voters believe that there was wide-spread election fraud in 2020. Of those people, 72% believe that most of the fraud came from cities, 39% percent believe that the source of the fraud is the black community, and 77% believe the source of the fraud is mail-in ballots. (See the full report from CBS)
This belief, along with many other snippets of false information has fueled a divide in our nation, leading to incidents like the insurrection and desecration of our nation’s capital on January 6th of this year. Even then Trump was making false claims, stating that no one that had looked into the election has said that Biden won the election legally, and at that point Republican’s had blatantly lost 61 of 62 election lawsuits largely by grounds of lack of standing or lack of merits to the allegations, heard before both democratic and republican judges.
The mistrust in elections created by these claims can be seen across the country, and especially here in Georgia. In an NPR interview with Bartow Country Board of Elections Director, Joseph Kirk, Kirk talks about the mistrust amongst his constituents following the baseless claims of election fraud: “A lot of my voters, a lot of my citizens, do not trust the voting system after November, after a lot of misinformation went out about this specific system… The paradox is that we have these tools that we’ve never had before so that we can have a fair count and be confident with the tabulation and the results,” he said. “But the public has the least amount of confidence.”
This building mistrust in elections is actually hurting republicans too. Some people are choosing not to vote with the belief that it won’t matter, or that it the system is broken and therefore the election is just for people to think they have a choice. This lack of turnout among republicans has paved the way for Democrats to win the seats in the midterm elections, and therefore take control of the Senate. You even saw Democrats weaponizing Trumps twitter activity against Republicans in the state, seeing billboards dawning a retweet from Trump stating “why bother voting for Republicans if what you get is Ducey and Kemp?”
A Blast from the Past
In an in an interview with Politico, David Blight, a legendary Yale historian whose studying the Civil War and Reconstruction Era won him a Pulitzer Prize, talks about the comparison between the state of politics following the insurrection at the Capitol on Jan X, and that of the election of 1860:
I’ve been asked many times in the past two weeks which other election, which other inauguration we can compare it to. And really the only one is 1861. Lincoln faced seven seceded states and the formal inauguration of Jefferson Davis [as president of the Confederacy]. So, you know, a pretty horrible situation.
Biden is inheriting something different, but comparable. We really have arrived at, it appears, two irreconcilable Americas with their own information systems, their own facts, their own story, their own narrative. And we — whatever “we” is — on the other side keep wondering: How can this be?
There are blaring similarities between the two cases. The losing sides unwillingness to accept a lost election is blaringly similar to the election of Lincoln, leading to a series of events we now know as the Civil war and Reconstruction. With events such as the attack on the capitol, it makes you contemplate exactly how far these people will go. The relentlessness that Biden is not our President after hundred of court cases have proven otherwise at this point put a great threat on our democracy, and also the faith and accepted validity of elections. In 1860, the events eventually led to succession, the Civil war, and then reconstruction. After a group of people storm one of the most sacred places to our democracy, it places fear in the minds of many Americans, wondering how far this will go before something catastrophic happens.
So, Why Do They Still Believe?
It is dumbfounding to me that people, to this day, still believe that Biden didn’t win the election fairly. But why? Even when they have been presented with multitudes of evidence to the contrary? Asheley Landrum, a media psychologist at Texas Tech University, studies conspiracy theories talks with KQED about what makes people susceptible to believe this conspiracy theory:
Although believing conspiracies is often talked about as a pathological behavior, anyone might believe one under the right circumstances. When people are exposed to information that seems to contradict their own beliefs or their values or their experiences — or maybe what they’ve been seeing consistently cultivated on their social media news feeds — they face what we call cognitive dissonance, which they need to resolve.
One way of doing that is to conspiracy theorize, which allows people to dismiss disagreeable information by questioning the credibility and the motivation of the expert communicators relaying that information. People will question the credibility of the press, politicians, doctors, for example. Because Trump supporters tend to assume the worst of Democrats, the press, and in some cases even other politicians they see as “deep state,” it seems very easy for them to believe those people would undermine the electoral process, that it’s a normative behavior.
This cognitive dissonance amongst Republicans makes them even more susceptible of the anger invoking norms of conservative media, and constant misinformation. A culture of hate, opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement, against all people of color and the LGBTQ+ community fuel the people that could never accept that someone who supports these things is the leader of our country, and most likely the most powerful leader in the world. Only time will tell how far this will go, and how long people will keep up this facade of a stolen election.
Hi Daniel! I greatly enjoyed your article. I believe that many of us have been puzzled by the growth in government-based conspiracy theories, specifically those targeted towards free and fair elections. You did an excellent job analyzing the relationship between past and present, and I completely agree that the perverseness of these beliefs poses a very real threat to our democracy. You could consider looking to the Nixon era to further explore how distrust in the government has boomed in the modern era, and why Nixon’s betrayal of the American people could be linked closely with modern democratic backsliding. Great job!
Hi Daniel, I really appreciate your clear-cut analysis of the utter insanity surrounding the 2020 presidential election. It would seem unfathomable thirty years ago that substantial portions of the American populace could simply not accept the results of a free and fair election, choosing instead to live in their own alternate political reality. Let alone, the violent effects of that alternate reality which culminated in the January 6th Insurrection. I say thirty years ago, because I believe the 2000 election almost set the stage for this. The courts subverted the will of the American people by giving the election to George Bush; despite voting irregularities in key swing states. This subversion of democratic choice laid the groundwork for a decaying trust in the legitimacy of American elections. These instances are obviously quite different, in 2000 the fault lies with the Supreme Court and a packed judiciary and in 2020 the blame is with the executive and the enablers of his misinformation.
I also enjoyed you bringing cognitive dissonance into your argument. Too often the discussion around the coup and the insurrectionists leaves out psychology in favor of talking about broader political demagoguery. I think it’s important to delve more into their rationale. While discussing and preventing demagoguery is of the utmost importance, it’s still helpful to understand the reasoning and psychology around following a demagogue to such violent ends.
I really enjoyed your analysis of the reaction to the 2020 election and that notion’s effect on the future integrity of not only elections but also the United States’ democracy as a whole.
However, as to your point that this has fueled divide in our nation, I would have to say that divide already existed and this is just a consequence of that divide. The country became divided the moment the 2016 election campaigns began, and honestly far before that. The 2020 election just brought to the forefront how broken the country’s democratic infrastructure is, it didn’t divide it itself.
I also have thought of the parallels of modern political society to that of the Civil War times. I rigorously believe that if we continue on the trend we are currently treading, Civil War will break out. The only question I must beg is, what the heck would a civil war do? What would they be fighting for? There is no promise of any better American if a civil war ensues. There was a reason to fight in Lincoln’s time, now… it’s just politics.
I did really enjoy your discussion on the relation of cognitive dissonance. Psychology plays a large role in politics and political acts and it is far overlooked in the political science community. You bring up some interesting points and take a unique perspective that I really enjoyed being introduced to. Great post overall.
I think your blog post does a really good job and capturing the utter disbelief we all feel regarding the recent presidential election and baseless claims Trump and his supporters have made regarding a stolen election. I can still remember what I felt like in 2016 when Trump won the election. I was still in high school and had yet to take any upper-level political science or international affairs classes. Yet, I had recognized the populist traits we have learned he has. I think Trump was a consequential and unique candidate not because of his lack of a political background, but the way he advertised himself. He didn’t campaign politically, he campaigned like he was launching a new product. People go crazy over products they really like. The way his supporters obsess over him and this “stolen election” is visible in the amount of merchandise they buy and brandish. Trump’s supporters act like teenage fan girls of a boy band or die-hard sports fans. He didn’t win the big “award” so they launched a crusade that was childish. They were treating the election like a big sporting event and the referee’s made a call they didn’t like so they started heckling the refs—or in this case launched an insurrection. I don’t know if my analogy makes sense, but I think the reason why Trump supporters can’t grasp that he lost an election is because of the way he advertised himself to them. Trump blurred the line between politician and public figure by advertising himself as the savior of their plight. I think that’s really dangerous. Politicians aren’t celebrities, and they sure as heck aren’t individuals we should idolize. Politicians are supposed to guide us and help solve issues through political compromise and debate, not create bigger issues or be the sole answer. Free and fair elections are a central part of democracy. When you have a politician like Trump, who already has a support base than could mirror that of religious fanatics who worship some deity, come in making claims trying to discredit the election system, it could do really harmful things for our democracy. The Biden Administration has a lot of work to do in rectifying the long-lasting effects of a Trump presidency and candidacy. People mistrust democracy more than ever and have come to idolize a person who is the very antithesis of a democratic leader. I think the ability of the Biden Administration to restore faith in government will set the trajectory of the nation for generations. If Biden can distant the perception of government away from a demagogue like Trump, we can survive this attack on democracy. If Biden loses in 2024 to Trump, or a candidate a lot like Trump, I don’t know if democracy in America as we know it will ever be the same. This might have been more of a rant, but your blog post stimulated all these thoughts of mine that I feel like are important to discuss.