The Volokh Conspiracy

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Political Ignorance

Can the January 6 Committee Hearings Break Through the Barriers of Political Ignorance and Bias Underpinning the Big Lie?

Most of those open to evidence already know that Trump tried to reverse the outcome of an election he legitimately lost. Reaching the rest is likely to be extremely difficult, at best.


January 6 Committee hearings.


Many have analogized the currently ongoing January 6 Committee congressional hearings to the 1973 Watergate hearings. There are indeed some obvious parallels, such as the fact that both cases involve investigations into an incumbent president's efforts to subvert the electoral process. But there is also a key difference. Richard Nixon was smarter and less brazen than Donald Trump. He therefore tried to cover up his nefarious activities. Thus, the Watergate hearing exposed inside information about Nixon's involvement that was previously unavailable to the public.

By contrast, Trump's efforts to reverse the result of the 2020 election and illegally retain power were largely out in the open. And most of the evidence against him has also long been known. To the extent that many people still deny it, it isn't because the truth is unavailable, but because they are ignoring it or actively rejecting it. Jeff Greenfield nicely brings out this contrast in an article in Politico:

The core premise of this hearing was that the images from that day, accompanied by the comments and testimony of key players in Donald Trump's orbit, would galvanize a national audience.

It's too easy — and more importantly, unfair — to dismiss the presentation as "political theater." The interviews with insurrectionists, the blunt comments from former Attorney General William Barr that Trump's beliefs were "bullshit" — were effective tools in trying to communicate what happened on Jan. 6 and in the days and weeks before. Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), in her role as chief prosecutor, skillfully summarized the evidence to come, which promised to paint a damning portrait of a president and a coterie of aides and acolytes, determined to retain power "by any means necessary," including the wholesale abandonment of constitutional norms….

But looming over Thursday's event, and the hearings to follow, is one key fact: In the broadest sense, we know what happened. We may learn compelling details, and we may see a clear, coherent picture of what happened, but we know the sitting president of the United States oversaw an attempt to overturn an election and seize power the voters denied him. We know he embraced the sentiments of the rioters who stormed the Capitol. And it is this fact that so contrasts this proceeding with what happened almost half a century ago.

If you think back (inevitably) to the Senate Watergate hearings in 1973, every dramatic moment in those proceedings came in words spoken by witnesses, unadorned by visuals and made-for-TV moments….

The old-fashioned, methodical parade of witnesses during the Watergate hearings was powerful not because of what we saw, but because of what we heard: We were learning facts we did not know, and that was, over time, causing minds to change….

Now consider what we heard Thursday. Smoking guns? Enough to arm a platoon; but essentially the same smoking guns we have seen and heard for a year and a half. We saw and heard the president and his accomplices openly call for the election to be overturned. We saw and heard demands that legitimate votes be discarded, that state legislatures seize control of electoral votes. We saw key advisers and allies of Trump urge — at meetings in the White House — that the military seize ballot boxes, that rogue electors be certified. We've known since the days after the election that there was no voter fraud of any consequence…..

But the people who refuse to accept this reality — or (in the case of many GOP officials) pretend to refuse — are locked into this alternate reality by conviction or political necessity. Nothing that has happened in the year and a half since has shaken this stance; indeed, the percentage of Republicans who believe the election was stolen remains undiminished, since Trump left office.

Part of the problem here is a matter of simple ignorance. For mostly rational reasons, many people devote little or no time to seeking out political information, and thus are often ignorant of even very basic political information, such as the names of the three branches of government. No doubt, some people remain ignorant of the truth about the 2020 election, for such reasons. But the biggest problem in this case isn't just simple ignorance, but the combination of ignorance with bias in the evaluation of political information.

Many voters—particularly committed partisans—evaluate political information in a highly biased way, overvaluing anything that supports their preferred party or ideology, and discounting or rejecting anything that cuts the other way. When the leader of the Republican Party claims the election was "stolen" from him, such people tend to believe him, even if those claims have no basis in reality. I have written about this problem in previous posts about January 6 and Trump's Big Lie about the 2020 election, such as here and here:

Why do so many Republicans believe blatant falsehoods about the 2020 election? The answer is rooted the broader problem of political ignorance. Because there is so little chance that any one vote will make a difference to the outcome of an election, most people are "rationally ignorant" about politics and government policy. They spend little time seeking out relevant information, and are often ignorant of even basic facts about the political system, such as the names of the three branches of government. Such ignorance makes people more susceptible to lies and conspiracy theories, including those about the 2020 election….

In [my book] Democracy and Political Ignorance, I described how belief in conspiracy theories is partly fueled by general public ignorance about government and public policy. Most of the public has little understanding of government and political institutions. They thus underestimate the extreme difficulty of planning, coordinating, and covering up large-scale conspiracies. Birtherism, trutherism, and Covid conspiracy theories are all more prevalent among people with relatively low levels of education and political knowledge. The less you know about government, the easier it is to believe that events are controlled by a shadowy cabal of ultra-competent evil-doers who can skillfully cover up their misdeeds.

But the popularity of conspiracy theories is also boosted by partisan and ideological bias. In assessing political information, most people act not as objective truth-seekers, but as "political fans" who tend to overvalue any claims that cohere with their preexisting views, and downplay or ignore any that cut against them. Much like sports fans, who tend to be biased in favor of their preferred team and against its rivals, political fans are highly biased in favor of their preferred party and ideology, and against its opponents.

Thus, it is not surprising that trutherism was especially popular among Democrats (many of whom hated George W. Bush), birtherism appealed primarily to Republicans (many of whom hated Obama), and Trump's election conspiracy theories appeal almost exclusively to his own supporters. Particularly in an era of severe polarization, partisan bias has a big impact on voters, leading many to believe ludicrous claims they might otherwise reject.

As I have also emphasized in previous writings about 2020 and January 6, such ignorance and bias is far from unique to Trump voters, Republicans, and right-wingers. There are lots of parallel examples on the left.  Social science evidence indicates that bias in evaluation of political information is widespread among both liberals and conservatives, with neither being significantly better or worse than the other, on average.

But the persistence of the Big Lie about the 2020 election may be more dangerous than most otherwise similar examples. The risk is that it could lead to actions that gravely undermine the basic structure of liberal democracy. If you believe that the 2020 election was "stolen" from Trump, you are probably predisposed to believe similar claims about future elections, and to support the use of illegal and violent means to forestall such injustice. Ironically, in the name of preventing an electoral "steal," Big Lie believers could end up facilitating the very evil they think they are preventing. That risk makes Trump's Big Lie more dangerous than a deception that "merely" facilitates the enactment of a specific dubious policy, such as the lies that Barack Obama used to help push through the Affordable Care Act.

Overcoming this bias is likely to be extremely difficult. Even the best-designed hearing may not dent strong partisan biases, especially if many of the partisans are inclined to just dismiss the hearings out of hand, or not even bother to watch. The problem is exacerbated by the reality that those who still believe in the Big Lie have now gone on doing so for some 18 months. It's often psychologically more difficult to give up a long-held belief than one you arrived at just recently.

The January 6 hearings might still have some beneficial impact on public understanding. Some number of voters are merely ignorant of the facts rather than biased. That may be especially true of swing voters, who generally know less about politics and pay far less attention than committed partisans. Of course, people who have paid little or no attention to these issues so far are also unusually likely to ignore the hearings.

The hearings—and accompanying investigation—can also shed new light on the role of various less significant figures than Trump. For example, it has uncovered evidence indicating that legal scholar John Eastman—who promoted various ridiculous legal theories intended to help Trump overturn the election—may have been even more reprehensible than previously thought. But, just as Nixon was the central figure in the Watergate investigation, so too with Trump and the effort to overturn the 2020 election. For obvious reasons, wrongdoing by the president is a far bigger deal than the misdeeds of lawyers and other underlings, though the latter also deserve their share of opprobrium.

There is some evidence that GOP voters' commitment to the Big Lie may be receding. For example, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger -both of whom famously resisted Trump's efforts to pressure them into manipulating the vote count in their state—recently easily staved off Trumpist challengers in their respective primary elections. But Big Lie advocates have won some other key GOP primaries.

There is a long way to go before the Big Lie is stripped of its potency. One possible way to speed the process may be for more prominent conservatives and Republicans to condemn it, as Kemp, Raffensperger, and former Attorney General Barr have done, among others. People are more likely to reconsider a political commitment if urged to do so by leaders on "their" side of the political spectrum. But, for obvious reasons, most GOP leaders don't want to alienate a former president who remains popular with the party's base, and could potentially win the party's 2024 nomination.

We can also erect safeguards against future 2020-like efforts to tamper with elections, most notably by reforming the Electoral Count Act, an idea that enjoys substantial cross-ideological and bipartisan support among election experts. In the long run, we should also work towards restructuring the political system in ways that reduce the influence of public ignorance, diminish the stakes of partisan conflict, and empower people to make decisions in settings where there are much better incentives to  become informed and minimize bias.

In the meantime, however, I fear that the Committee hearings are likely to have only a modest impact on the prevalence of the Big Lie. We will likely have to cope with its menace for some time to come.