There’s something more dangerous than the ‘Big Lie’

In a recent Jan. 6 hearing, Georgia election official Gabriel Sterling revealed the most important insight into our current democratic challenges. He was describing how he painstakingly went through each false election claim put forward by one of his family members. When the list was exhausted, the family member acknowledged the evidence presented but declared that it didn’t matter. He knew “in his heart” the election was stolen.

We need to understand and address this mindset to find our way forward as a democracy and a society. It’s not about the lie, but what lies beneath.

In winning hearts and minds, we cannot neglect hearts.

Many of us concerned about democracy fret endlessly about information integrity. We discuss regulations on social media and other channels to stop the flow of dis/mal/mis information. We invest in debunking false information. We worry about our inability to penetrate certain information bubbles with the truth. Many articles were written about Fox News not airing the first Jan. 6 hearing or Tucker Carlson’s show never cutting to commercial. All because we believe somehow if people could just see and hear the truth — if we reach their minds — it will be better.

But the facts are all around us. We do not live in Russia where we can go to jail for reporting on, or even acknowledging, the truth, or behind a great firewall like folks in China. And while for some, no doubt a different media diet could change behavior and attitudes, we need to acknowledge that for others it is not about information but something far deeper, more primal. What is in Sterling’s relative’s heart? Why is it simply inconceivable that Biden won?

Part of the challenge we know is that often facts don’t change minds. Fact-checking can sometimes backfire, ironically making people hold on more fervently to the corrected lie. But it’s also the case that people may understand or accept the facts but simply not care, as they are motivated by something else. Thus, all the logic and evidence — even from trusted messengers, as in Sterling’s case — doesn’t shake the ‘Big Lie,’ because the lie isn’t really the point.

The United States is not alone. In the Philippines, Bongbong Marcos campaigned on fantasies about the traditional, glorious past when his father ruled and on lies about his opponents. His supporters acknowledged his mendacity. It just had no influence on their support.

We like to believe that political opinions and voting behavior are fact-driven and informed by crisp policy arguments, political ideology, performance records, and — above all — informed choice. Sadly, we have never met this standard. Voter behavior is inconsistent, driven by emotions, and often uninformed. I’ve lived in many countries where voting is based on patron-client relations and historical family clan ties, with some vote-buying thrown in. Platforms and agendas do not even come up. And it is not unusual for political support to hold steadfast despite the transgressions or lies of our preferred leaders.

The dangerous inflection point we are at, however, is that loyalty to team has become not only more important than facts, but more important than democracy — and has justified harassment and violence.

Many have written about the deep polarization and partisan tribalism that has turned our opponents into mortal enemies and made contestations of power a zero-sum game. Some research makes the case that historical and cultural mythology, grievance, and fear (of change, of difference, of other) can drive people to vote against their own self-interest. Certainly the Trump campaign leaned into fear, whether caravans of immigrants coming to take your job and rape you or more explicit “great replacement” narratives that threaten traditional pecking orders of white power. Thus, for some Trump supporters, a Biden victory is inconceivable as it poses an existential threat challenging their assumed political power as well as their cultural dominance.

We must remain committed to building democracies’ defenses against disinformation and trust in accurate information sources (and this is part of my own organization’s mission). But we also need to address the underlying psychology that allows public indifference to truth.

This may require tackling those deeply held fears head-on and figuring out ways to “de-tribalize” our communities.

Dialogues and trust-building discourse may help de-polarize and build cohesion, particularly when bringing together people from across socio-economic, racial/religious, and geographic divides. Research on the desegregation of units in the Korean War, for example, has shown that men from desegregated units demonstrated more lifelong tolerance than segregated ones. Summer camps that have integrated Palestinian and Israeli kids have had a similar effect in building understanding and empathy. Connecting people from disparate backgrounds to work toward a common goal, such as mandatory civil service, is worth exploring.

Importantly, and perhaps impossibly, our political leaders need to stop feeding the fear and grievances and instead get behind bringing us together rather than tearing us apart.

The Jan. 6 hearings are critical for creating a historical record and advocating for the protection of our democracy going forward. This protection will require understanding people’s hearts as well as their minds to embrace values of democracy and truth.

Laura L. Thornton is director and senior fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund. Prior to joining ASD, she worked for 25 years in Asia and the former Soviet Union for democracy-promotion organizations.

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