Election fraud is the GOP's new fundamentalism
False, but not fringe.
"Vote for us in this election because we lost the last election" might seem a strange campaign appeal, but it's a theme many Republican candidates have embraced for the 2022 midterms.
They wouldn't phrase it quite that way, of course. In their telling, the issue is pursuit of "election integrity" to prevent a repetition of last year's "stolen" presidential race. In this they have the backing of former President Donald Trump, who recently warned GOP officials they'd be "quickly run out of office" should they fail to provide "a full forensic investigation" of the 2020 vote. The "election integrity" contingent also has strength in numbers: By The Washington Post's tally, "at least a third" of nearly 700 GOP candidates who have filed paperwork with the Federal Election Commission to run for Congress next year have dubbed President Biden's victory fraudulent. Of that third, 136 are sitting members of Congress, and historical trends suggest about nine in 10 of them will win their seats again.
The GOP's de facto leader, a large portion of his lieutenants, and (polling shows) most of the party's base believe the election fraud story. 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 sheer number of adherents.
When I say "fundamentalism" here I don't mean any religious movement. Rather, I'm thinking of an intellectual style which can be found in any context. As Jonathan Rauch wrote in Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought nearly three decades ago, this sort of fundamentalism is "the strong disinclination to take seriously the notion that you might be wrong." Fundamentalists' distinguishing feature, Rauch explained, is "not the rightness or wrongness of their beliefs, or even that they believe strongly. It is that they show no interest in checking."
That "checking" isn't fact checking in our present sense, where designated journalists evaluate assertions and issue judgment on their validity. Rauch has in mind the organic, decentralized process by which widely accepted knowledge is established in a free society, a process he condenses into two short rules I'll quote in full:
1. No one gets the final say: You may claim that a statement is established as [public] knowledge only if it can be debunked, in principle, and only insofar as it withstands attempts to debunk it.
2. No one has personal authority: You may claim that a statement has been established as knowledge only insofar as the method used to check it gives the same result regardless of the identity of the checker, and regardless of the source of the statement.
This is the checking that fundamentalism rejects. To believe something in a fundamentalist style—and again, it can be anything, and indeed there are progressive fundamentalists galore—is to regard it as "necessarily true, and [therefore something which] cannot and need not be checked," Rauch argued. We all believe some things this way. The trouble arises when we believe too many things this way, especially relatively inconsequential things or matters of public import where fundamentalism can incline us to authoritarian suppression of inquiry and dissent.
Though some of the fraud story's fiercest advocates have openly grounded their belief in personal feeling alone, other Republicans convinced the election was stolen might here wish to object. "But we do want to check," they could protest. "What is Trump's 'full forensic investigation' if not the very 'checking' you demand?"
The trouble is that accepting this pushback requires ignorance or denial of the reality that checking already happened — that the fraud claim didn't withstand attempts to debunk it. Dozens of lawsuits brought by the Trump campaign and its allies failed, and some of the harshest rejections came from Trump-appointed judges (an excellent illustration of the checking method giving "the same result regardless of the identity of the checker"). Recounts in contested states like Wisconsin and Georgia confirmed Biden's wins. The "stolen election" theory was run through our normal processes. It was checked, extensively, including by people sympathetic to Trump's cause. It was wrong.
As a society, we can handle fundamentalism, including in politics. "A society run on liberal intellectual rules benefits from its dogmatists and true believers by making them argue with each other," Rauch observed: "You can put fundamentalist raisins in the liberal cake."
But what if you have a lot of raisins? Can the cake hold together? (My colleague Damon Linker has serious doubts.) Rauch's advice for dealing with "people who have silly or offensive opinions and who haven't bothered to submit to the rigors of public checking" was simple: Never censor their views with state power, but "[i]gnore them," for the world will always be "full of people who hold silly or obnoxious opinions and who have the means to broadcast them," and "the best strategy is to marginalize them unless and until they submit to proper checking. Ignored, they lose their microphone."
Do they, though, when they hit critical mass? An ex-president, hundreds of viable candidates for federal office (to say nothing of state races, where considerable control over election procedure resides), and tens of millions of voters aren't easily marginalized. The fraud claim is false and fundamentalist, but it's not fringe. I'm not convinced that giving this fundamentalism the silent treatment would silence it — particularly not in the social media age, which Rauch's book predated. I don't know what strategy is best here, but I'm inclined to say we should keep explaining, in good faith, how much checking has already happened to anyone who seems sincerely unaware.
At the same time, however, that strategy question remains somewhat abstract. Most Republicans, including many who believe the fraud story, don't want their party to prioritize "support[ing] claims of 2020 election fraud." The stolen election claim may develop into a partisan mythology (and fundraising tic) more than a policy agenda, which would make it no less fundamentalist but certainly less public. At that point, maybe it would be safe to ignore.