From Democracy to Demagoguery

In American politics today an extraordinarily large percentage of the population believe not only ideas that disagree with mainstream science, but also conspiracy theories.

• 55% of Republicans reject evolution.

• 45% of Republicans reject the view that humans play a major role in climate change.

• 60% of Republicans (as of July) thought the coronavirus outbreak was exaggerated.

• 70% of Republicans believe there was election fraud in the 2020 election despite a lack of any good evidence.

What this shows is that large segments of the US simply reject evidence-based reasoning. Their views thus are increasingly untethered from reality. And this is a serious threat for our democracy, as a democratic political order in which large segments of the population reject evidence-based reasoning establishes defacto the conditions for demagoguery. This creates a context in which it will prove very difficult to effectively confront the coronavirus, deal with climate issues, and even preserve our democracy.

One basic characteristic of the hard-core conspiracy theorists that are on the ascendency is that they accept no evidence that would show they are wrong. In the language of philosophy of science, their views are not falsifiable. Trump is a conspiracy theorist, and he has been key in helping convince millions of Americans to buy into spurious conspiracy theories. He launched his career in politics with the birtherism conspiracy. In 2017 1/3 of Americans still believed it was possible that Barack Obama was born outside of the United States. This is despite that in 2008, Obama acquiesced to the pressure and decided to show his birth certificate, hoping it would end what had by then become a political distraction. As the persistence of the spurious views nine years later shows, this didn’t work.

Trump’s most recent conspiracy is of course that there was massive voter fraud in the 2020 election. In fact, about two weeks after he lost the election by more than 5 million votes, he tweeted “I WON THE ELECTION” (his caps not mine). The reporting from earlier in the week of this quote is, as noted above, that 70% of Republicans believe there was serious voter fraud in the 2020 election. Despite the lack of evidence for the claim, a good many of them will continue to believe it.

The Trump administration’s reaction to the election has  not been to follow the evidence but to construct it. That is, it has not found evidence of voter fraud and on the basis of evidence maintained that the fraud exists. Instead it has maintained the fraud exists and then set out to manufacture the evidence.  The results are the kinds of farces that are to be expected. In fact, this week team Trump has upped the ante and transferred responsibilities of entire information security squads to evidence creation. So far they have proven as unsuccessful as the initial attempts of the Trump campaign.

Nonetheless, the sad fact is, like the views of so many Americans about birtherism, on this issue too there is no evidence that could shake many of its adherents from their views. Their views are held dogmatically. They of course would and will vehemently deny this and present loads of discredited “evidence” to support their position.

But let’s consider what evidence might possibly dissuade them. How about a proclamation from the government’s own election security team that this election was “the most secure in history”? That document exists but hasn’t dissuaded the conspiracy theorists. How about statements from the governing boards of elections in the states in question and from the governors in the states where there have been allegations of voter fraud? What if those in the positions who made these statements were even Republicans? Hmmm, we have many such statements already and these haven’t moved the hearts and minds of that 70 percent. What if the courts rejected all of the lawsuits filed by the administration about fraud because of lacking any evidence of widespread fraud? What if Trump’s own lawyers in various court depositions indicated that in fact they weren’t maintaining there was fraud at all but that there just may have been some honest mistakes in the counting of ballots? Well, those things apparently have not dissuaded the conspiracy theorists either. All these things have happened.

Yet right now around 30 million Americans still believe that there was serious voter fraud in the 2020 election. Millions of them will continue to believe this regardless of the evidence just as millions of them believe that Obama may have been born outside the country. The Party of the President has become fertile ground for conspiracy theories. And that is one and the same as fertile ground for demagoguery. In Trump they have found their conspiracy theorist and demagogue. The reality we face is that a Party comprised of millions of these conspiracy theorists has lost an election. But tens of millions of them are still convinced that this just can’t be true—the evidence be damned.

This unfortunately leaves us in a dangerous place. A good portion of the Republican Party who subscribe to the voter fraud conspiracy theory appears in fact to be OK with overthrowing a legitimate election based on their evidence-free beliefs. Some are indeed calling for arms. They won’t succeed. But what about next election? And what about ruling in the meantime and addressing this issue over the long term? For now, it means that Joe Biden and the Democrats can put aside any plans that they had of reaching across the aisle to work with reasonable Republicans on issues of mutual interest. Trump will be deposed from office, but he will remain a social force with at least influence on the level of Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh that he will use to continue to propagate the types of conspiracy theories he has spread as president and to leverage his power. It’s not unlikely that many Republicans will for a time thus continue to tow the Trumpian line, as they see their own political fates as tied to a certain kind of obedience to the Trumpian base. And though Trump will eventually fade from social dominance, this doesn’t mean that the base that is so susceptible to conspiracy theories will go away. In this context, there will be no easy fixes. But over the long run something must give way — for democracy and demagoguery of this magnitude will not long co-exist.


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