We are over a month removed from the presidential election, and the official narrative that no widespread voter fraud occurred has yet to win over a good portion of the electorate. A Quinnipiac University poll conducted on December 10th found that 77% of Republican voters believe there was widespread voter fraud during the presidential election. Of voters overall, only 60% believe the election to be legitimate. Similarly, a survey by Politico found that 79% of Trump voters believe the election to be stolen through illegal voting and fraud.
[T]he callous lack of transparency on the part of government officials has delegitimized the electoral process.
The distrust of the official election narrative is only exacerbated by the inconsistencies and lack of transparency by government officials. Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger has still not called for a statewide audit of voter signatures. Michigan has certified its vote total despite mismatching poll books, and Governor Gretchen Whitmer has prevented any closer examination of election results by ordering the deletion of election data. This is in the face of the results of an audit of the Dominion voting machines in Antrim County, MI, which suggest software errors that “intentionally generate an enormously high number of ballot errors.” In the judiciary, the Supreme Court of Arizona has denied the Arizona GOP the right to additional inspection of election ballots, despite a random sample that demonstrated a percent of inconclusive ballots ten times higher than the statewide average.
For the purposes of legitimacy, one would think it important to address the concerns of the millions of voters who believe widespread voter fraud occurred. Even if there were no fraud, relatively simple actions, such as auditing voter signatures, examining ballots, or investigating mismatching poll books, would go a long way in legitimizing the election.
Instead, the callous lack of transparency on the part of government officials has delegitimized the electoral process.
The perceived illegitimacy of the 2020 election is not an isolated event. It is symptomatic of a larger, ongoing legitimacy crisis that plagues the American democracy. There is a fundamental, and worsening, epistemic divide between right and left, in which authoritative sources of information are disputed, and there is disagreement over basic facts. Regardless of whether or not widespread voter fraud occurred, the fact that there is no consensus one way or the other indicates a crisis of legitimacy not just in the 2020 election, but in the political system as a whole.
THE WIDENING EPISTEMIC DIVIDE
Traditionally, Americans have looked to the media to determine what is and what isn’t true. And yet, the corporate press has been unsuccessful in convincing Trump voters that the election was legitimate. Mainstream outlets have refused to investigate, or even cover, the vast majority of election fraud claims. Signed affidavits, statistical analyses, and video evidence have been hand-waved away with a perfunctory debunking. Needless to say, this has not had the desired effect, and the lack of trust in the corporate press’s election narrative is emblematic of a lack of trust in the corporate press itself. This distrust, especially from the right, is nothing new.
Media outlets have styled themselves as unassailable and official sources of information, employing the “fact-check” in a comically biased and selective manner.
Over the last twenty years, trust in the media to be fair and factually accurate has increasingly diverged by political affiliation. According to a Gallup poll conducted in September of this year, only 10% of Republicans claimed to have a “great deal/fair amount” of trust in the media, down from 52% in 2000, and as compared to 73% of Democrats, for whom trust went up from 59% in 2000. Most notably, this gulf between the two parties has widened most significantly during the Trump presidency: in 2015, 32% of Republicans and 55% of Democrats claimed to trust the media.
This trend can be partially attributed to the media’s histrionic and hostile coverage of President Trump. According to a study by Pew Research Center, approval of Trump correlates with a strong distrust of media and journalism. Conversely, those most disapproving of Trump’s job performance are those with the most trust in the news media. Assuming a highly correlative relationship, this would suggest that the media’s legitimacy is partially contingent on its coverage of President Trump. While this coverage has garnered trust in the mainstream media among Democrats, it has delegitimized that media in the eyes of Republicans.
Furthermore, the corporate press’s attempts to regain trust seem to have had the opposite effect. Media outlets have styled themselves as unassailable and official sources of information, employing the “fact-check” in a comically biased and selective manner. Starting from the premise that the corporate media should decide what are and what are not “facts,” these outlets have used the authority of the fact-check to advance particular political agendas. In one instance, USA Today fact-checked the demonstrably false claim that the Trump campaign was selling merchandise with Nazi symbols. USA Today initially rated the claim as “true,” before backtracking and rating it as “inconclusive.”
When the media’s authoritative claims to objective truth are juxtaposed with their own blatant inaccuracies, as was the case with the Hunter Biden investigation, it’s hard to take their fact-checks seriously. Evidently, most voters agree: according to a Rasmussen poll, only 29% of all voters believe corporate media “fact-checks” to be accurate, hardly a ringing endorsement.
Meanwhile, tech companies have usurped the epistemic authority traditionally designated to the fourth estate by curating the information available to the general public,—deciding what is and what is not “misinformation,” and who is and who is not an “expert.” Twitter’s refusal to link to the New York Post’s Hunter Biden story, its long and well-documented history of politically-motivated bans and censorship, and its labeling of all election fraud claims as “disputed” coincided with Facebook’s targeted removal of conservative pages and YouTube’s banning of all videos alleging widespread voter fraud.
These actions have been largely cheered on by the media as necessary measures to restore faith in public institutions. “Tech platforms’ responsibility in the 2020 election process has only grown,” writes The Guardian, arguing that “misinformation is among the greatest threats to American democracy.” CNN, for its part, has urged Twitter, Youtube, and Facebook to take action in combating dangerous “misinformation” that seeks to “jeopardize faith in the democratic process.” Among the right, however, such measures have not succeeded in earning trust, let alone legitimizing the election.
THE CONSEQUENCES OF ILLEGITIMACY
That one side of the political spectrum does not view the results of the 2020 election as legitimate, and rejects the institutions that are ostensibly in place to legitimize it, is obviously a serious problem. All sides can agree on that. After all, a functioning democracy is predicated on free and fair elections. So it’s unsurprising to see media outlets and government officials wringing their hands over the supposed dangers presented by a crisis of legitimacy.
[T]he question both the corporate press and public officials have failed to ask is whether or not they deserve to be trusted.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, for example, characterized election fraud claims as “nonsense” that is “dangerous to our democracy,” while Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi referred to Trump’s legal effort as an attempt to “subvert the Constitution and “undermine public trust in our sacred democratic institutions.”
Yet, the question both the corporate press and public officials have failed to ask is whether or not they deserve to be trusted. They appear not to have considered the possibility that the legitimacy crisis is, in fact, a crisis of their own making. Instead, they simply demand to be trusted unconditionally, despite their inadequacies, inconsistencies, and blatant falsehoods. The legitimacy crisis has long preceded the 2020 election, and a shattering of faith in the democratic process seems to be the natural conclusion of alienating one side of the political spectrum.
These institutions have taken no responsibility for their actions. Members of the corporate press have predictably attributed the legitimacy crisis to President Trump and his “baseless” assertions, while simultaneously refusing to investigate any allegations of voter fraud. The Washington Post, in typical vituperative fashion, has claimed that “the toxicity of Trump’s baseless, repeated charges has leached into the body politic.” Meanwhile, The New York Times, with tactical hyperbole, worryingly asks, “has Mr. Trump stretched democratic institutions beyond recognition?” When you compare this to the media’s treatment of Russiagate, the agenda becomes obvious.
As for elected officials, they too have characterized Trump’s accusations and legal challenges as meritless, even dangerous. Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger has gone as far as saying Trump is “undermining democracy.” Yet Raffensberger has failed to take the actions that would easily prove such claims as false. And among elected officials, he is not alone in his inaction. Fighting to prevent closer examination of ballots and voting machines isn’t exactly a strong argument in favor of the election’s legitimacy.
Seeing as these institutions have done nothing to earn the trust of the public, is it any wonder half the public doesn’t trust them? To put it bluntly, they do not deserve the public’s trust. They have not earned the legitimacy they demand; they are reaping what they have sown.
In this sense, a legitimacy crisis is a good thing. The public should be demanding transparency and fairness in their elections. They should be demanding a disinterested and objective press, and they should not legitimize an opaque electoral process, nor a media class with opposing interests. This point is true regardless of whether or not widespread voting fraud occurred; transparency and honesty is the prerequisite for legitimacy in a democracy.
Seeing as they haven’t already, it’s unlikely that state governments will ever follow through on the aforementioned measures toward election transparency and accountability. It’s similarly naive to expect the mainstream media to suddenly start reporting objectively and without an agenda. Democratic institutions will continue to demand the trust of the right while doing nothing to earn it, and instead actively working to alienate right-wing voters. And the right, for its part, will continue to feel, as it should: that it is not being treated fairly.
Our legitimacy crisis will therefore continue, unabated.
Obviously, this does not bode well for the future of democracy in America. The solutions required to legitimize the electoral process, let alone legitimize the media as arbiters of truth, seem to be beyond the capabilities of the very institutions that require legitimacy. It’s too early to tell exactly what this will mean, but it’s clear that the trend of the right’s declining faith in democratic institutions shows no signs of leveling off.