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Francis Wilkinson: Let's be honest about who's spreading election disinformation

Francis Wilkinson, Bloomberg Opinion on

Published in Op Eds

How do you conduct a nonpartisan discussion about the integrity of election administration when one party is waging war on democratic legitimacy and the other party seeks to uphold it?

If the event I attended in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, on Wednesday night is any indication, you do it by never uttering the words “Democrat” or “Republican,” and by refraining from pointing out exactly who is engaged in subversion of truth and public faith.

The event, held at a public television station studio in the shadow of the rusting hulk of Bethlehem Steel, was one of a series sponsored in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin by Keep Our Republic, a nonprofit seeking to combat the spread of misinformation and suspicion about elections. The group works with local officials and others to present factual information about local elections to increase voter confidence and counter falsehoods. Speakers in Bethlehem included a local political science professor, a retired federal judge, a representative of the Pennsylvania Secretary of State’s office, and the local county executive. Each seemed to be engaged in a good-faith effort to counter propaganda.

The task, of course, is difficult. Former President Donald Trump’s incessant lies about elections are now regularly echoed by a large Republican chorus. Just this week, mild-mannered South Carolina Senator and vice presidential aspirant Tim Scott joined the ranks of Republicans who refuse to commit to accepting the will of voters in November. Meanwhile, House Speaker Mike Johnson declared , “ We all know, intuitively, that a lot of illegals are voting in federal elections.” After years of baseless and increasingly hysterical claims of voter fraud, culminating in Trump’s metastasizing “Big Lie,” it seems Republican intuition will have to suffice in lieu of evidence.

Nonpartisan institutions, the news media very much included , continue to struggle with the reality that one of two major parties has mostly abandoned the democratic field. At the event in Bethlehem, before a live audience of just over 50, an uninformed observer would have had few means to discern which party was attacking the integrity of US elections for partisan gain.

Former federal judge and Dickinson College President John Jones III, a Republican appointed by President George W. Bush, spoke of “illusory truth.” It’s a concept,” he said, “where someone says something over and over and over again, and it takes on the cast of truth even though it’s demonstrably untrue. We’re dealing with a lot of illusory truths today, where you get this echo chamber, and things keep getting repeated and repeated and repeated,” Jones said. “I think that’s one of the problems with the narrative about elections — really starting in 2020.”

You understand exactly what he’s saying, right? But like the other speakers, Jones assiduously avoided proper nouns. Who out there is producing demonstrably untrue narratives about elections “starting in 2020,” and who is repeating those lies? Best not to say.

At another point, political scientist Christopher Borick of Muhlenberg College was discussing the state’s failure to process mail ballots before Election Day, which produces a backlog that extends vote counting beyond Election Day and opens the way to demagogic claims that something nefarious is taking place behind the scenes. (Since mail ballots skew Democratic, bad-faith actors pretend that a wave of Democratic votes has suddenly materialized from nowhere.) Pennsylvania Republicans resist allowing completed ballots to be processed early because they evidently prefer uncertainty and doubt. “It’s politics,” Borick said. Like Jones, however, Borick refrained from noting whose politics.

Would a frontal assault on Trump & Co. falsehoods serve the honest elections cause any better than the resort to euphemism and side-stepping? It’s hard to know. After all, the target audience for these events is a narrow tranche of the electorate that is neither fully wedded to MAGA lies nor fully repelled by them. Pointing out that efforts to undermine US elections are an exclusively Republican agenda might educate some but alienate others.

 

“The erosion of trust in our elections is widespread and occurring across the political spectrum,” Keep Our Republic Executive Director Ari Mittleman said. “More than ever, in today’s polarized environment, we believe a nonpartisan approach is essential for educating the public and rebuilding trust for the long term. This message can best be carried by leaders from both parties, and that is why Keep Our Republic takes that approach.”

Despite the night’s loaded topic, the Bethlehem event was civil, even tame. Audience questions, which were written down and passed to the event moderator, were grounded in reality. There were no displays of MAGA rebellion against the reign of fact.

Other events sponsored by Keep Our Republic have been more contentious. An event in Washington County, Wisconsin, included a resident who claimed he had witnessed “ illegal democracy ” in 2020 when he traveled to the state capital. It’s an unnerving phrase.

There is now a small, well-funded industry, including Keep Our Republic, engaged in efforts to rebuild trust in American democracy. All those efforts and more are necessary because there is an even better-funded campaign devoted to destroying it. And while pro-democracy groups are decentralized and diffuse, the anti-democratic forces have the advantage of rallying around a single demagogue who leads a major party and spearheads their authoritarian movement. Whatever his actual name might be.

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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Francis Wilkinson is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering US politics and policy. Previously, he was executive editor for the Week and a writer for Rolling Stone.


©2024 Bloomberg L.P. Visit bloomberg.com/opinion. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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