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How The 2020 Election Has Changed Trust In U.S. Democracy


It is a perilous moment. Joe Biden is president-elect. Legal challenges by the Trump campaign have largely failed because there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud, but the formal process of the transition has not yet begun. The loser of the election, President Trump, so far has refused to concede. Here in Washington this weekend, thousands gathered to protest the election results - among them, far-right groups and militias. Here is Tammy Summers from Missouri.


TAMMY SUMMERS: Well, we're here to tell President Trump that we totally support him, that we are - we don't, you know, stand for what this election has been taken to, the disgrace of it, and that he should never give up the fight and never give in.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But never giving up and never giving in is a dangerous position to take in America with its long tradition of peaceful transfers of power. We begin this hour with Brendan Nyhan, who teaches government at Dartmouth College.

Good morning.

BRENDAN NYHAN: Hello. Good to be with you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: A Politico poll shows 70% of Republicans believe the election wasn't free and fair. Reuters has it at about 40% of Republicans. Either way, it's a pretty shocking number. You know, the president's legal team has provided little evidence of voting irregularities. They keep losing legal battles. And yet, because President Trump repeats these lies, they're amplified by right-wing media and social media. And the result is that many people don't trust the election results or the process. Why are people, in your view, so ready to accept a false reality now?

NYHAN: Well, I worry that people have heard a drumbeat of stories going back to the beginning of this administration about how the institutions of government and, really, the institutions that produce knowledge for us in our society are lying to them. And if you hear that enough times, some people will come to believe that. I think it's a minority of Americans, to be sure, but it's a substantial number, particularly in President Trump's party. And that's really worrisome because we do need everyone on both sides of the aisle to accept these common bases of knowledge that we use to organize our society, like who won an election.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. I mean, there is this obsession in the media with sort of the palace intrigue of the Trump administration. What is the president thinking? Will he concede, or won't he? Why is he doing this? Is this a soft coup? And what I'm hearing you say is that this misses the larger picture of what's happening to democracy itself.

NYHAN: That's right. I think coup is the wrong way to think about this. We're not seeing an attempted military takeover. What we're seeing instead is a violation of the norms of democracy that we depend on to make the peaceful transfer of power possible. And as those norms get called into question, we start to see more of what political scientists call democratic erosion, where a system of government remains a democracy, but the norms and values that make democracy work start to be called into question.

Now, Joe Biden will almost certainly be sworn in on January 20, but a lot of damage could still be done in the meantime. And I think people should avoid thinking that the question is just, will Trump leave, or won't he? He will leave, but the damage he could leave us is really significant.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. We've seen this happen in other countries. As you say, democracy is fragile. There's always been this sense that the U.S. is exceptional immune somehow. You are most worried in particular about how Republican leaders are promoting and supporting the president's actions. Why?

NYHAN: Well, we've seen throughout the Trump administration that too many Republicans are willing to acquiesce to his false claims. What we're seeing now, though, is different. What the president is doing challenges the very basis for democracy.

And we're not just seeing Republicans stand idly by on the sidelines. We're seeing many leading Republicans endorsing or at least suggesting there's something to these attacks on our electoral system. And that's very dangerous because the party system is the engine of democracy. What happens to the Republican Party will shape our politics long after Donald Trump leaves. And if his worst norm violations aren't just something Republicans pretend not to hear but are instead something that they emulate and amplify, we're in really big trouble.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The conceit among the president's supporters, though, is that the Republican Party can't afford to alienate President Trump because he has a lock on the base. If they want power, they must indulge him. So doesn't that lead back to the problem of how you bring a substantial group of people who identify with Trump personally, who believe him at the expense of everything else, back into the fact-based fold?

NYHAN: Absolutely. I think one problem we've faced over the last four years is the realization that factual contradiction is not enough to move people off of the beliefs they hold. And even challenging the norms of democracy often isn't enough to change people's minds. That's not really how people make up their minds, especially when the parties are as polarized as they are right now, and people's identities are often so closely aligned with which of the two major parties they support. We need facts to constrain and limit our leaders, and we need the public to care about them. We need the public to punish political leaders who will say things that are false and will attack the institutions of our democracy.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And it just occurs to me, if you're a Trump supporter, you may hear this and suppose it sounds partisan, right? It reminds me a lot of Argentina when it was highly polarized. There was a hard-left government there. Everyone was sorted sort of into pro-government and anti-government camps. And the anti-government-designated people were economists, for example, who disputed the government's invented economic numbers. Has that happened here where simply stating facts that contradict a political narrative makes people believe that you're biased?

NYHAN: That's what I worry about, and I don't know what to say to that point. And facts are facts. The death toll from the coronavirus pandemic - that's just a fact. You know, the result of the election - that's just a fact. You know, saying those truths should not be and cannot be a kind of partisan statement if we're to function. You know, I worry that we're kind of seeing this kind of spreading contamination take place where every knowledge-parsing (ph) institution that challenges people in power becomes attacked. And that's a pattern we have to figure out how to break, although I'm not sure anyone knows how.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: If there isn't a sort of remedy, I guess the question then becomes, is the United States sort of irretrievably broken, as some people contend?

NYHAN: I wouldn't go that far. You know, polarization is a reality. It's not going to go away. We need to figure out how to have institutions that work and how to find some underlying factual basis for us to have those very difficult debates. It's normal to disagree. It's normal for parties to fight. It's not normal to reject the facts in front of us, and it's especially not normal to reject the outcome of an election in a democracy.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Brendan Nyhan from Dartmouth.

Thank you very much.

NYHAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.