Why Voter Narratives Are So Powerful
By Isaac Willour
“It’s easier to claim a rigged game than admit we’re bad players.”
Can We Move On?
While former vice president Mike Pence often seems like a beleaguered grandfather thrown into the middle of a Real Housewives episode, one thing he doesn’t seem very keen on doing is criticizing his former boss. Last Friday saw Pence make an exception, however, telling an audience at the Federalist Society that he had “no right” to overturn the 2020 election results, despite former president Donald Trump’s urgings. Trump refused to back down over Pence’s words, but the broader point remains — while more than half of the country is indicating a willingness to move on from 2020 (although not nearly as much as one might think), voter fraud is still an active issue for many voters.
In a move that should surprise no one, election legitimacy is taking flack from the left side of the aisle too. From a historical point (because four years is now considered history), it’s worth pointing out the speculations that flew around after 2016 as to Russia’s role in Trump’s victory. After the Mueller report shredded these speculations, the narrative shifted. Recent Democratic hits don’t center on voting machines or ballot harvesting (or ballots being left in creeks, as discussed in a past Checkpoint piece), they instead theorize that pushes for voter ID and election legitimacy are part of an “ongoing strategy” to keep minority voters away from the polls. Biden has slammed these policies as “Jim Crow 2.0,” claiming they “disenfranchise” non-Republican voters. If narratives from either side are to be believed, American elections are in a bad, bad way.
The Power of Election Legitimacy
Are the criticisms from either side fully legitimate? Absolutely not. But despite the gaping holes in both parties’ rhetoric, theories about election legitimacy have a strangely enduring power. While there have always been problems with voter fraud narratives, that isn’t stopping former Republican candidates like David Perdue from capitalizing on support from those who still hold on to it. Joe Biden used the Tulsa Massacre to platform policy-related attacks on Republicans (and moderate Democrats), attacks welcomed by his supporters. These theories are compelling for large numbers of voters. It’s not just a Trumpian unwillingness to admit defeat — neither party is able to take the heat.
At their heart, the Republican and Democratic strategies are the same. If only people would stop embracing “The Big Lie,” we could make real progress. If only people would stop embracing supposedly-racist election integrity measures, we could make real progress. Both narratives posit the same hidden premise: if only those irritating people who disagree with us would get out of the way, all desired political progress would be achieved.
Convenient Cognitive Dissonance
This is a much more complex issue than mere political narrative. It’s no secret that politics is downstream of culture — this bipartisan political stubbornness belies deep-seated unwillingness to acknowledge our capability for losing. The right doesn’t have to admit it lost an election if people believe the election was stolen. The left doesn’t have to admit it struggles with attracting political moderates if people believe it’s all the fault of racist voter ID laws. It’s convenient cognitive dissonance — even within the minds of those who proclaim it. When Trump says he won the election and Biden likens election integrity to Jim Crow, I’m inclined to take them at their word: they believe their own nonsense.
It’s human nature to think this way to avoid the frustration and embarrassment of being wrong — it’s easier to claim a rigged game than admit we’re bad players. On the religious side, the argument becomes even more crystal clear: it’s easier to claim our shortcomings are the result of circumstances and environment than to take responsibility for what we’ve done wrong. The problem is, the cycle of mistakes and shifting narratives has no defined end. If either political party sticks with their current messaging, they will always have an explanation for their losses that conveniently avoids any meaningful change.
A Dangerous Narrative
If this doesn’t work on the individual level (and it doesn’t), it cannot work on any broader level. A December Axios/Momentive poll reported a majority of American adults are pessimistic for the coming year, on issues ranging from politics to the economy. When our two main political parties decide to parrot idiotic self-massaging narratives instead of honest evaluation of real problems, we should not be surprised at such collective pessimism.
It’s completely understandable why these narratives are compelling. But let’s not pretend for a moment they’re rational, excusable, or leading the country to a brighter future. It’s losing the plot — and Americans are increasingly wondering if the story can have a happy ending at all.
Isaac Willour is a journalist currently reporting for The College Fix, focusing on American politics and higher education. His work has been published by the Acton Institute, The Christian Post, National Review, and many other outlets. He can be found on Twitter @IsaacWillour.