The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
Prominent Republican Rep. Dan Crenshaw (Texas) recently pointed out that Republican politicians who claimed that the 2020 election was somehow stolen from Donald Trump, were lying all along:
"People just need their last hurrah. They just need to feel like they fought one last time," he added. Other members told him, "'Trust me, it'll be fine.' And I was like, 'No, it won't! That's not what people believe and that's not what you're telling them…'"
This revelation is far from surprising. Informed observers knew all along that there was no evidence of the kind of massive fraud and skullduggery needed to shift the hundreds of thousands of votes across multiple states by which Biden prevailed in the election. Donald Trump's own advisers, including strongly conservative Attorney General William Barr, told him as much, early on. This obvious fact was further confirmed by the results of numerous lawsuits and post-election audits, including those conducted by Republicans in Michigan and Arizona.
But, as Crenshaw says, many GOP politicians continued to lie about the election because that's what a large part of their political base wanted to hear. They found it easier to exploit this ignorance and bias for political gain than to resist it. Unlike some other conservative critics of Trumpist election denialism, Crenshaw can't easily be dismissed as a "RINO" or a Never-Trumper. He backed Trump in the 2020 election, has few policy differences with him, and would likely back him again if Trump became the GOP nominee in 2024.
It's easy—and right—to condemn lying politicians. The fact that Democratic political leaders also often lie to the electorate (as in the case of the lies Barack Obama peddled to push through the Affordable Care Act) in no way justifies the actions of Trump-era Republicans. The latter are actually worse than most political lies because they could lead to actions that undermine the basic structure of liberal democracy, as opposed to "merely" the enactment of some specific harmful policy.
But even as we decry lying politicians, it's important to remember that the root of the problem is the ignorance and bias of voters, that make such lies effective—and incentivize political leaders to engage in them. Most politicians wouldn't use such tactics if they weren't effective, and especially not if voters punished their use instead of often rewarding it.
I summarized this dynamic in a previous post about Trump's Big Lie:
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….
There is no quick and simple solution to the challenge posed by widespread political ignorance and bias, of which GOP election denialism is just one particularly egregious manifestation. But the beginning of wisdom is to recognize the nature of the problem.
I assessed the pros and cons of several possible "top-down" and "bottom-up" solutions in a forthcoming article.