Election fraud is the GOP’s new fundamentalism


“Vote for us in this election because we lost the last election” may sound like an odd campaign call, but it’s a theme many Republican candidates have embraced for the 2022 midterm.

They wouldn’t phrase it quite that way, of course. In their account, the problem is the pursuit of “electoral integrity” to prevent a repeat of last year’s “stolen” presidential race. In this, they have the backing of former President Donald Trump, who recently warned GOP officials that they would be “promptly removed from office” if they failed to provide “a full forensic investigation” on the 2020 vote. The “electoral integrity” contingent also has strength in numbers: in The Washington PostAccording to the tally, “at least a third” of the nearly 700 GOP candidates who filed documents with the Federal Election Commission to run for Congress next year called President Biden’s victory fraudulent. Of that third, 136 are members of Congress, and historical trends suggest that about nine in ten of them will win their seats again.

The de facto leader of the GOP, much of his lieutenants and (polls show) most of the party base believe in the story of voter fraud. It has become the substance of a new republican fundamentalism, a fundamentalism that presents an arguably unique challenge in American politics because of its public nature and its large membership.

When I say “fundamentalism” here, I mean no religious movement. Rather, I am thinking of an intellectual style that can be found in any context. As Jonathan Rauch wrote in Benevolent Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought Almost three decades ago, this type of fundamentalism was “the strong reluctance to take seriously the idea that you might be wrong”. The distinguishing characteristic of fundamentalists, explained Rauch, is “not the rightness or the fallacy of their beliefs, or even that they firmly believe. It is that they show no interest in verifying.”

This “check” is not a fact check in our current sense, where appointed reporters assess claims and pass judgment on their validity. Rauch has in mind the organic and decentralized process by which widely accepted knowledge is established in a free society, a process that he condenses into two short rules that I will quote in full:

1. No one has the last word: You can claim that a statement is made as [public] knowledge only if it can be demystified, in principle, and only to the extent that it resists attempts at demystification.

2. No one has personal authority: You can only claim that a statement has been made as knowledge insofar as the method used to verify it gives the same result regardless of the identity of the verifier and regardless of the source of the statement.

It is the verification that fundamentalism rejects. To believe something in a fundamentalist style – and again, it can be anything, and in fact there are plenty of progressive fundamentalists – is to take it as “necessarily true, and [therefore something which] cannot and does not need to be verified, ”argued Rauch. all believe some things that way. The problem arises when we believe too many things this way, especially relatively unimportant things or matters of public importance where fundamentalism may incline us to authoritarian suppression of inquiry and dissent.

While some of the fiercest supporters in fraud history have openly based their belief on personal sentiment alone, other Republicans who believe the election was stolen may wish to oppose it. “But we do want to verify, “might they protest.” What is Trump’s “full forensic investigation” if not the very “verification” you demand? “

The problem is that accepting this pushback requires ignoring or denying the reality that the verification has already taken place – that the fraud claim has not stood up to attempts at debunking. Dozens of lawsuits by the Trump campaign and its allies have failed, and some of the harshest rejections have come from judges appointed by Trump (an excellent illustration of the verification method giving “the same result regardless of the identity of the verifier ”). Recounts in disputed states like Wisconsin and Georgia confirmed Biden’s victories. The “stolen election” theory has been applied by our normal processes. It has been widely verified, including by people sympathetic to Trump’s cause. It was wrong.

As a society, we can deal with fundamentalism, including in politics. “A society run on liberal intellectual rules takes advantage of its dogmas and true believers by making them argue,” observed Rauch: “You can put fundamentalist raisins in the liberal pie.

But what if you have a parcel raisins? Can the cake hold together? (My colleague Damon Linker has serious doubts.) Rauch’s advice for dealing with “people who have stupid or offensive opinions and who haven’t bothered to submit to the rigors of public scrutiny” was simple: never censor their opinions with state power, but “[i]ignore them ”, because the world will always be“ full of people who have stupid or obnoxious opinions and who have the means to disseminate them ”, and“ the best strategy is to marginalize them unless and until they get out of hand. subject to appropriate control. Ignored, they lose their microphone. “

Do they do so, however, when they reach critical mass? A former president, hundreds of viable candidates for federal office (not to mention state races, where considerable control over electoral process resides) and tens of millions of voters are not easily marginalized. The fraud claim is false and fundamentalist, but it is not marginal. I’m not convinced that giving this fundamentalism the silent treatment would silence it – especially not in the age of social media, which Rauch’s book preceded. I’m not sure which strategy is best here, but I’m inclined to say that we should continue to explain, in good faith, how many checks have already happened to anyone who genuinely seems to ignore it.

At the same time, however, this strategic issue remains somewhat abstract. Most Republicans, including those who believe in the fraud story, don’t want their party to prioritize “support.[ing] allegations of electoral fraud of 2020. ”The stolen election claim could become a partisan mythology (and a fundraising tic) more than a political platform, which would make it no less fundamentalist but certainly less public. At this point, it might be safe to ignore.

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