Catastrophizing an Election
“This is probably the most important election of our lives.”
The phrase that’s paraded around every election cycle. The 17th of August, 2020 marked the beginning of the Democratic National Committee’s Convention, one look on Twitter shows the phrase (in every variation imaginable) being thrown around quite liberally. It’s become hard to hear the phrase without wanting to roll our eyes a little, but we’ll keep hearing it. Not just from the Democrats, this is truly a bipartisan issue, and it is without a doubt an issue.
Some could say it’s just a bit of political showmanship, something which politicians hope we’ll say so that we go to the polls (or mail in our vote) come the 3rd of November. But in recent times it’s been tied to a more complicated, more insidious narrative. Something that had never happened in the United States: the open questioning of the validity of the elections. Sure, people have cried fraud before, but since 2016, the longstanding tradition of American Presidential candidates recognizing the legitimacy of our electoral process has been broken.
During the 2016 Presidential campaign, Republican candidate Donald Trump made several public comments about the elections being rigged in his opponent’s favor. He was pressed on this matter by journalists who rightly called this out as being a dangerous and consequential claim. Towards the end of the campaign, Trump was asked if he would recognize the results of the election if Hillary Clinton, the Democrat's candidate, came out the victor, Trump refused to answer these questions. The campaign truly set the ground and expectations for what would come to be a rather unusual (by US standards) presidency.
There were several smart plays made by Trump before the 2020 election. He started forming a solid narrative, one that would be hard to disagree with. Trump painted the Democrats as extremists, he pointed to Bernie Sanders and a group of congresswomen made up by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib as examples that following the 2016 defeat the Democrats had turned hard left.
He started making the claim that they were socialists. This is a strategy employed by every politician ever and has a name. It’s called a strawman. A strawman is a type of fallacy whereby someone deliberately misrepresents an opponent’s argument or position in order to make it easier to attack. The strawman is only as hard as you make it for yourself, and Trump had it real easy. Thanks to the prominence of people like Bernie Sanders and AOC, Trump found it incredibly simple to claim that the Democrats were becoming more and more socialist. So the American people were going to have to decide, either vote for socialism, or vote for democracy.
The President went beyond that, he painted them as socialists who were under the control of an establishment that did not care for the far-left leanings of many new party members. During the Democratic Presidential Primaries in 2019, Trump continued to make claims that the elections would be rigged, there would be some form of fraud employed by the Democrats to win back the White House. He accused them of being corrupt, as they had countless times accused him. In what was probably an intelligent tactic, he claimed that the Democrats would “betray” Senator Sanders in the nomination race, and would instead opt for an “establishment” candidate. He was right, one by one the Democrat’s candidates for nomination began dropping out and endorsing former Vice-President Joe Biden.
Now that Biden has officially been nominated by the Democratic Party as their candidate for President, Trump and the GOP have doubled down on their previous rhetoric.
Trump found a way to make his claims about rigged elections more believable. As the COVID-19 pandemic claimed lives well over 100,000 by late May, the Democrats saw an opportunity to look like they cared about public health more than the President, and started to push for universal mail-in-voting across the United States. Trump saw this as the chance he was looking for, and began making claims about possible fraud committed through mail-in-voting.
As more and more states began accepting fear of COVID-19 as a valid reason to receive an absentee ballot to vote by mail, some states decided to mail out ballots to every registered voter, regardless of whether they had asked for them or not. The President took to Twitter (as he does) in order to slam the system, proclaiming its fraudulence. Thus the US Postal Service found itself at the heart of the culture wars, you either loved the USPS or you wanted it gone. The two parties that make up the corrupt duopoly central to our political process both claimed to be pro-USPS and that the other was trying to sabotage it. Conspiracy theories popped up everywhere, whether it was a picture of mailboxes piled one on top of the other used as evidence that Trump was manipulating the electoral system or the Dems’ questioning of the Postmaster General taken as irrefutable proof that they were trying to rig the elections.
With just a few weeks to go and with early vote-by-mail already having started in some states, both sides have become entrenched in their previous slogans and talking points. During his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, Trump called Biden a “Trojan horse” for the far-left. He said Biden’s too weak to stand up to the more socialist-leaning members of the party and that he’ll be nothing more than their puppet if he wins the White House.
The Democrats have played straight into this narrative. On the day of the first night of the DNC Convention, DNC Chair Tom Perez found himself speaking to The Washington Post, where he stated that Bernie Sander’s input had been “invaluable” to the drafting of the party’s 2020 platform. It wasn’t hard for the Republicans to use this to claim that Biden was being used by the progressive wing of the party in order to get into power.
But by far the one thing that has divided the nation more than anything these past few months and that will have the strongest influence on the election are the protests and riots that have sprung up all across America following the death of George Floyd. The Democrats have tried sticking by the protests, replicating the same narrative that America is a racist country erected atop a system of oppression. They’ve tried including groups like Black Lives Matter and commentators like Ibram X. Kendi into their base, and with them they’ve had to adopt increasingly more radical claims made from the fringes of each movement. Even as the protests devolved into riots that have consumed American cities for over three months now the Dems vacillated in condemning them, calling open riots “mostly peaceful protests” and resorting to generic condemnations of violence “on all sides”. While true that little by little Democratic politicians have begun to speak out against the violence, they refuse to call out the specific ideology that feeds it.
This refusal to denounce the rioting and looting and their embrace of a dangerous new orthodoxy when it comes to race in the United States will only further complicate electoral discourse. The GOP now points to this as evidence that the Democratic Party is dead and is just a shell for Marxist ideologies, and the Dems point at the heightened fear-mongering from the RNC’s Convention as proof that the Republicans have given in to fascism.
Recently, after the shooting by police of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Joe Biden had a chance to attempt to heal the divide, to stand up to extremists and let everyone know that he would fight for a united America, a rational America where we put civility first and violence as far last as possible when it comes to discussing complex issues. Instead, Biden went to Pennsylvania and talked about something else, handing the momentum to Trump who did head to Kenosha. Did Trump take advantage of Biden’s absence and make a plea for unity? No, he continued his own personal brand of inflammatory rhetoric and even seemed to fake a photo-op.
The 2020 election has now become an all-in affair, pundits and politicians claim that you must vote for their side or watch the Republic crumble. If the Democrats continue to voice support for a movement that claims the other side is racist beyond repair and fascist at heart then people will continue to believe it. If the Republicans continue to claim that the Democrats will destroy the country if they come into power then their followers will continue to believe it. What people believe matters, if everyone genuinely believes that the opposition will destroy the country if allowed to come into power then they might take actions on their own in order to “protect” the nation.
Just imagine if the rhetoric continues the way it’s been going, imagine the reactions on election night after the results are announced and imagine the extremes to which some people may go in order to “right” what they see is wrong with the system. Who wins has become irrelevant, both parties claim the electoral system is weak and the other side will commit fraud. If the parties don’t believe in our elections, why would the people?
We’ve come to the point where the greatest real danger isn’t who wins but by how much they win. If either candidate wins in a landslide then things will probably calm down, if the margins are tight (or if things were to swing in the opposite direction while everyone’s asleep) the next day will be incredibly unstable. After all, we know from 2016 that Trump might not be willing to concede a close race, recently Hillary Clinton told Biden not to concede under any circumstance. It seems we’re just running full speed at a wall.
It is impossible not to think of self-fulfilling prophecies when we talk about our elections. The more our politicians claim we’re on the edge of absolute destruction, the more radicalized people will become, and the less they’ll believe in the system. The dangers of the narrative are two-fold: first, the more we cry wolf the harder it’ll be to spot it when it actually shows up and; second, the more we claim that our opponents will destroy democracy then the closer we’ll get to destroying it ourselves in the name of saving it.
We’re just a few weeks out from the elections, and if anything has become clear it’s that we can’t trust on politicians to right the discourse for us. It’s our responsibility to make sure we can step back from the cliff’s edge.
Luis Gonzalez is a lawyer from Caracas, Venezuela currently working in private practice and is founder and co-editor of The Explorer. You can find him on Twitter at @lagm96.