January 6 and the Problem of Political Ignorance

Attack on the Capitol. January 6, 2021


There were many factors that led to the attack on Capitol Square one year ago. However, the rioters were ignorant of one thing: They believed Donald Trump was the winner of 2020 and Joe Biden had “stolen it” through fraud. This belief was despite all the evidence, which included numerous court decisions that rejected GOP fraud claims, most of which were written by Republican-appointed conservative judges.

Unfortunately, the delusion extends beyond the tiny group of extremists that participated in the Jan 6 attacks. A majority of Republicans continue to believe that Biden didn’t win the 2020 elections legally, according to consistent polls. The evidence to the contrary is more strong today than it ever was last year. An investigation into the Michigan GOP state legislative has bolstered it. Arizona’s “Cyber Ninjas”, a group of consultants paid by pro-Trump Republicans to uncover evidence of fraud, concluded that Biden had won with a greater margin than what the official count indicates.

Persistence of Trumpist “Big Lies” concerning the election presents obvious dangers. This increases the possibility that violent incidents like those witnessed in Trump’s election could occur again, should Trump or another GOP candidate lose. People who think that their opponent “took” the election may find violence justifiable. Partisans might also believe that the opposition party is trying to steal the election. This could encourage them to support their own party’s efforts, like Trump’s pressure on state officials to verify his vote. For future elections, some Republicans plan to make more of these kinds of systematic efforts.

So why do Republicans believe such blatantly falsehoods regarding the 2020 election. It is all due to political ignorance. Most people don’t know enough about politics or government policy to make any difference in the election outcome. People spend very little time searching for relevant information and often don’t know basic facts such as names of three branches of government. This ignorance can make people susceptible to conspiracy theories and lies, especially those concerning the 2020 election.

These connections were summarized in my November 2020 post. In which I warned first about Trump’s lying about the election,

[my book] Democracy and Political Ignorance The belief in conspiracies is partially fuelled partly by the general ignorance of public policy and government. A majority of the population has very little knowledge of political and government institutions. The public is often unaware of the difficulties involved in covering up and planning large-scale conspiracy theories. People with low education levels and limited political knowledge are more likely to believe in birtherism, trutherism and Covid conspiracy theories. You will believe more about government the less you understand.

Partisan and ideological bias can also increase the appeal of conspiracy theories. Most people don’t view political information as truth-seekers. They see themselves as politically influenced and “political supporters”. This means that they tend to value claims that are consistent with their beliefs, downplaying or ignoring those that do not. Like sports fans who are biased against their team, but not against their rivals, so too is the bias of political supporters. They tend to favor their favorite party or ideology over its opposition.

It is therefore not surprising trutherism was popular among Democrats, many of whom loathe George W. Bush. Birtherism appealed mostly to Republicans, and Trump’s conspiracy theories about the election appeal almost exclusively his supporters. In an age of extreme polarization, voters are more likely to believe absurd claims than they would otherwise.

Many voters don’t have the incentive to find the right information. Many voters indulge in ideological, political, or other biases, something Bryan Caplan called “rational irresponsibility.” When it comes to beliefs regarding the 2020 election, these dynamics are very evident.

In my November 2020 post, and many other posts, I stressed that ignorance and bias are not only a problem for Trump supporters. I have already mentioned the widespread acceptance of 9/11 “truthermism” in my previous post. Both liberals and conservatives are affected by partisan bias when evaluating political information. Neither side is better or worse. This evidence comes from social science. For liberals and anyone else, it would be mistaken to think ignorance or bias is a problem that only exists on one side of the political spectrum. Their side is immune to them. Politicians across the political spectrum routinely exploit voter ignorance and partisan bias –  a problem that long predates Trump. Barack Obama used a flagrant lie to market the Affordable Care Act.

The persistent Big Lie concerning the 2020 elections is a worrying example of this larger phenomenon. It could result in actions that seriously undermine liberal democracy’s basic structure – ironically, to save it. It is more risky than lying that allows for the implementation of an unsound policy.

It is difficult to find a quick and easy solution. There are some ways to prevent future election fraud. These include legal and institutional reforms like the closing of loopholes within the Electoral Count Act. It also helps that a large majority of Americans reject the Trumpist take on the election and hold Trump at least in large part responsible for  the events of January 6, even as a majority of Republicans continue to believe in the Big Lie. My argument elsewhere is that the best antidote for political ignorance long-term is to reduce and decentralize power and increase opportunities for citizens to “vote as their feet.”

There are still risks of more violence and attempted to undermine elections, as long as one or both of the main parties’ base continues to believe this type of delusion. Once it is established widely, breaking that delusion can be difficult.

Trump lies can be debunked by the “mainstream” media, as well as public policy specialists. For a number of good reasons, Trump supporters don’t trust these sources. Most voters don’t seem to pay enough attention to media details and expert opinions on election issues.

Some empirical research and common sense both show people accept less-palatable truths about politics if presented by individuals they consider to be “their” side. Republicans are more inclined to believe that the 2020 election was “rigged” when they hear from conservative Republicans themselves. However, most GOP lawmakers are cautious about angering Trump or the Party’s base. Wyoming Rep. Lynne Cayne is one example of someone who has spoken up and been criticized by the Party.

Karl Rove (a big-name Republican politician and pundit) published an important-looking article. Wall Street JournalThis article condemns both the January 6 attack on the elections and the lying about their outcome. Rove calls on fellow Republicans to speak out. We will see if they listen to his appeal.

It will be difficult to solve this problem. It is important to recognize the root cause of the problem, which is not only Trumpist Republicans but also the wider dynamics of bias and political ignorance. Even if we don’t reach a complete solution immediately, incremental improvements can be made through institutional reforms and other means. We should work long-term to reform the political system so that there is less influence from public ignorance and people are able to take decisions where they have better opportunities to find and utilize information.