Almost half of Americans tell pollsters that they don’t believe President Joe Biden legitimately won the 2020 election. This is the “Big Lie” that inspired rioters to attempt to block the certification of the presidential election last January and remains at the center of the democratic emergency in the United States.
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Behind this false belief is a concerted disinformation campaign funded by allies of former president Donald Trump. The campaign and high-profile supporters orchestrated rallies around the country that popped up days after the election took place. But even a year after Biden took office, the Big Lie continues to have a strong pull on the Republican Party.
The belief that U.S. elections are vulnerable to corruption threatens to undermine voters’ faith in democracy itself — and that faith, experts say, is part of what maintains the system.
“Historically, this is a pretty severe crisis,” said Robert Lieberman, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins University, who co-authored the book “Four Threats: The Recurring Crises of American Democracy.” “We are in a real … inflection point now. It compares with some of the darkest periods we’ve seen in our history.”
The Big Lie looms large over the political system. According to the Washington Post, “at least 163 Republicans who have embraced Trump’s false claims are running for statewide positions that would give them authority over the administration of elections.” Few Republicans go out of their way to disavow it.
When Americans head back to the polls this fall, the electoral system itself will be on the ballot.
Flashback to 2020
Trump did something no modern president had done before: He refused to concede. Instead, he and his allies mounted a disinformation campaign to discredit the outcome, spreading false claims about the election that is often dubbed the “Big Lie.”
Trump’s campaign mounted more than 60 legal challenges in battleground states, all but one of which were withdrawn or dismissed, and called for recounts in Georgia (twice) and part of Wisconsin. Trump traveled the country promoting conspiracy theories about his loss.
Trump allies, meanwhile, coordinated “Stop the Steal” rallies across the nation. That phrase was first seeded in 2016 by Trump’s longtime adviser Roger Stone, in preparation for a presumed loss to Hillary Clinton. In 2020, that movement was funded by a dark-money group that has backed other right-wing causes, including the pro-Trump student organization Turning Point USA.
Trump supporters attended those rallies and turned up at recount sites to try to observe the fraud they were convinced had hijacked Trump’s victory. And they communicated online, where their rage fomented.
All of this culminated in a violent breach of the Capitol. But the dramatic events of Jan. 6 were not the end of the Big Lie’s influence. It is also reshaping how elections are administered nationwide. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, 19 states have enacted at least 33 new laws since January 2021 that will restrict voting access.
Efforts are also underway in nearly a dozen states to give partisan bodies, such as state legislatures, more power over election administration.
Long after Biden was sworn in as president, Arizona Republicans even conducted an elaborate audit of their state’s results. That monthslong process only affirmed Biden’s victory in the state and found no evidence of voter fraud. But the mere existence of such a review can give more oxygen to distrust in the election’s results.
“We’ve built a pretty remarkable system in this country of professional, nonpartisan election administration,” said Lieberman. “And the Republicans now see that as a vulnerability or as an opportunity for them to capture that apparatus and use it in their favor.”
How did we get here?
According to Julia Azari, a political scientist at Marquette University who focuses on the American presidency and political change, historians argue among themselves about how old American democracy truly is. On one side is the idea that democracy is as old as the nation itself. But others argue that American democracy only truly began after women’s suffrage, at the turn of the 20th century, and the civil rights movement of the 1960s, which protected the right to vote for Black Americans.
Azari argues that, for decades, presidents crafted narratives about their victories that have helped to shape an “age of mandate politics.” It’s a way to justify the enormous power of the executive office, she argues, but has built in the American public a “tolerance for election fiction.”
“It kind of opened the door to lots of fictions about elections,” she said. “Elections are really about whatever symbolic story you can tell and you can sell and get people to believe.”
Azari also argues that it contributes to the intense polarization of modern politics. Clean narratives love a stark contrast. “It’s easier to credibly claim that the election was a referendum on a particular set of ideas when the parties are distinct,” Azari recently wrote.
Another key context for the Big Lie, experts say, is race-based political identity construction. Despite recent gains made among some voters of color, particularly Latino voters, the Republican base is still whiter and more rural, while Democrats rely on a multicultural and urban base. As the country becomes more racially diverse and cities grow denser, those divisions would, in theory, shift power toward the Democratic Party.
“The party division is overlapping with the racial division in a way that hasn’t happened in the United States in a very, very long time,” said Lieberman.
The election of Barack Obama proved what could happen when a multicultural coalition organizes. But after the U.S. elected its first Black president, an incredible backlash awakened.
The most visible face of that backlash was Trump, an elected leader with authoritarian tendencies.
The polling looks bad
Most Americans say they will trust elections even if their preferred candidate loses in 2024 — but it’s not an overwhelming majority, and that trust breaks down significantly by party, according to a November poll conducted by NPR, PBS NewsHour and Marist.
That survey found that 62 percent of Americans say they’ll trust the 2024 election. That breaks down to 82 percent of Democrats compared with only 33 percent of Republicans. Only 58 percent of Americans reported trusting that elections are fair.
This crisis of confidence represents a significant shift from previous years, said John Carey, a social scientist at Dartmouth College and co-founder of Bright Line Watch, which monitors threats to democracy in the United States.
While there has always been a small partisan gap when it comes to confidence in the fairness of elections, Carey said, it’s usually of just a few points — not 50.
“Democracy is a multidimensional thing,” he said. “But at its core, it’s about choosing who governs through elections, and if the confidence in elections is not there — if what we call ‘losers’ consent’ is not there — then all the rest of it is in a precarious state.”
That polarization is bad news. Hyperpolarization is one of the warning signs that a democracy is in decline, and it can sow the seeds of violence. As people’s identities become wrapped up in what they believe, challenges to those beliefs become existential threats.
The polling data bears out that threat, too. In February 2021, the American Enterprise Institute’s Survey Center on American Life found that about two-fifths of Republicans support the statement that, “if elected leaders will not protect America, the people must do it themselves, even if it requires violent actions.”
Of course, polling is imperfect. People don’t always share their true feelings with pollsters, and there’s a difference between believing and direct action. (The overwhelming sentiment in recent polling is that Republicans are ready to “move on” from Jan. 6.) And without clearer data on how many people self-identify as Republicans, Azari questions the real-world impact of those sentiments.
“Some percentage of Republicans believe all of these … anti-democratic things, but what actual percentage of that is that of our society?” she said. “And how many people need to believe these types of things to really erode democracy?”
That’s part of why small shifts in election administration are worrisome, said Risa Brooks, a political scientist specializing in comparative civil-military relations at Marquette University.
“It’s these mundane, boring, but kind of demobilizing or difficult-to-mobilize-around attenuations of democracy that I think we really need to be paying attention to,” she said. “The upshot of all of this happening together is that, one way or another, we potentially end up with outcomes and elections that are very inconsistent with what actual voters wanted.”
A few key actors in positions of authority could subvert a legitimate election in favor of their preferred candidate.
That may be why Trump himself continues to spread the Big Lie as he reemerges into public. In an online video posted before a political rally on Jan. 15, Trump alluded to efforts to change how voting is done in the U.S.
“Sometimes the vote-counter is more important than the candidate,” he said.
The Big Lie heard around the world
Other democracies are facing similar pressure, and what is happening in the U.S. is part of a pattern of “backsliding” around the world.
“Leaders who are elected via a fairly free and fair election then go on to use the tools of democracy, use its institutions, use its laws, to actually undermine the spirit or the quality of democracy itself,” Brooks said.
“In countries that have democratized or are considered democracies — there’s a recession there, they’re moving backward,” she said, citing changes in Hungary, Poland, Turkey, Brazil and elsewhere.
According to the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Research Project, a Sweden-based institute that studies and ranks democracies according to hundreds of indicators, only 14 percent of the world’s population now lives in a state that can be defined as a liberal democracy. Meanwhile, an “accelerating wave of autocratization” is sweeping countries and affecting billions of people, including the populations of the United States and India, where democracy languishes.
Worldwide, that wave looks different from the violent and extrajudicial coups that were once associated with the overthrow of democracies, Brooks said.
In the same way, she said, a dramatic event like Jan. 6 is not the start or end of that process in the U.S. The question is not whether the U.S. will devolve into another bloody civil war. Rather, she said, democratic institutions are being eroded from the inside.
“I see that violence captures a lot of attention, it captures our imagination. But in reality, when we look at the U.S. case, I see it much more as ongoing,” she said. “Democracy is not going to end; democracy is ending right now,” through its own democratic institutions.
The consequence of this occurring in the United States can be seen in its ratings on global measures of democracy. The United States was long considered the oldest continuous democracy in the world, according to the Center for Systemic Peace, another researcher of democracies.
But the country’s rating was downgraded in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 insurrection; now Switzerland holds that distinction.
The annual Edelman Trust Barometer, released Jan. 18, indicates that global faith in democratic institutions, including government and the press, is at an all-time low.
About half of that survey’s 36,000 respondents said they believe media and government are divisive, and two-thirds believe that government “purposely” misleads people. Most people also believe that the press is too commercial and sensationalized.
And the biggest decreases in public trust occurred in democracies often considered some of the world’s strongest: Germany, Australia, the Netherlands and South Korea.
This is part of a pattern of democratic expansion and contraction, said Lieberman.
“There have been numerous times in American history when we’ve been at real risk of moving … away from a more complete and robust democracy and toward something constrained or autocratic,” he said. “Americans like to tell ourselves a story of the progressive realization of democratic ideals. But it’s been much more back and forth than that.”
That doesn’t mean there’s nothing to worry about. To the contrary, Lieberman defines four conditions that lead to democratic breakdown:
- A politics of “us versus them”;
- Conflict over who belongs as a full member of society;
- Economic inequality;
- And excessive concentration of power in the executive branch
“Every crisis of democracy the United States has had over the course of its history has involved one or some combination of these threats,” he said. “This is the first time that we’ve ever had all four present at once.”