Democrats Won the Election. So Why Does Only Half of the Country Believe It?
BY: TARA MCGOWAN
Depending on what news you consume- or what social media platforms you hang out on, you may not know that the historic 2020 presidential election is, in fact, over. President-elect Biden won by a margin of votes more than twice as wide as that of his predecessor, and will be sworn into office on January 21st. President Trump has very publicly refused to concede to reality, and only a handful of elected Republicans have publicly accepted the outcome. The collective delusion of elected Republicans is not representative of their constituents however, as more than half of all Republicans say that Biden won the race. But a more troubling trend is starting to gain traction.
According to a recent Morning Consult poll, a shocking seven in ten Republicans don’t believe the election was free and fair. This partisan divide of trust in our elections is no accident, but the result of a deliberate strategy. For months, Trump and his administration have been laying the groundwork with one clear goal: to protect their power at all costs, even if the cost is our Democracy.
While we knew this could happen, too many Democrats didn’t see it coming. Through hubris, denialism (or both) many prominent voices on the left believed that this election was an open and shut case against a flailing president, and that Joe Biden and Democrats up and down the ballot would deliver a resounding rebuke of Trump and all he stands for. It’s painful to admit but the numbers don’t lie: over 70 million Americans did cast their votes for a second term of Trump. That’s not enough to keep him in power, but it is enough for us to be struck by their power.
The power of this bloc shouldn’t have felt like a surprise. The dangerous myths that are still circulating that claim that “the election results aren’t true” are being spread by the same voices and through the same channels that helped deliver Trump 63 million votes in 2016 and another 72 million votes in 2020.
Fueled by powerful conservative voices like Ben Shapiro and outlets like The Daily Caller that reach tens of millions of followers online every day, right-wing media have been using misinformation to cultivate and reinforce voters’ support of Trump for years. By spreading conspiracy theories and outright lies, these digital-savvy channels work lockstep to surgically influence the opinions and behavior of millions of Americans, drawing them into an alternate reality where facts don’t matter and the only source you should trust is Trump himself. Those efforts have paid dramatic dividends — both financially and politically.
Pandemic misinformation started in the early spring of 2020, seeded directly by the President. Right-wing outlets — online and through talk radio and Fox News — amplified this misinformation at dramatic scale, resulting in large numbers of Republicans refusing to wear life-saving masks, putting millions of Americans at risk and slowing any hope of economic recovery. Baseless conspiracy theories about “liberal pedophile rings” and “radical socialist” coups jumped from Americans’ news feeds to their group text threads, dinner tables, and ultimately, ballot boxes. And, now, in the weeks following the election, the posts with the most engagement on Facebook scream election fraud — from the same usual suspects.
Though this election also saw Democrats step up their digital investment and tactics in ways that undoubtedly contributed to Biden’s victory, the harsh reality is that those efforts are not sufficient on their own. Paid advertising is not how the majority of misinformation is spread online, so when campaign media budgets dry up or political ads are arbitrarily banned by platforms like Facebook, as they are today, Democrats have no recourse or lever to counter the disinformation actively gaining traction online.
The always-on conservative media ecosystem not only ensured another too-close-for-comfort election at the top of the ticket, but effectively kept Democrats on the defensive in hundreds of Senate, House and down ballot races across the country. For Democrats to blame any one message or tactic for these losses would be reductive and destructive when the media ecosystem they are actually competing with exists to misinform and inflame Americans to vote against them — regardless of their agenda or the facts. Given their dramatic reach through social media, conspiracy theorists like Ben Shapiro are the new mainstream media that candidates and parties must contend with — and this new ecosystem is only going to get more volatile in the years to come.
The reason that Democrats still find themselves losing the information war after winning the presidential election is clear: we’re still not fighting on the same battlefield Trump and the Right are — and the field they’re fighting on is one where the vast majority of Americans are getting their information. As long as Democrats continue to over-rely on cyclical paid advertising to get their message to voters rather than building online communications infrastructure that can communicate to voters year-round, we will remain at the whim of narratives driven by the Right.
This is not an argument to stoop to Republicans’ level to win the information war, either. We can tell the truth. We can reveal and counter the lies. We can compete and win with the facts — and with the powerful stories of Americans impacted most by the decisions being made for them in Washington. What we can’t do is win real and sustainable political power if we show up to the wrong game.
As Trump continues to deny us the concession we all crave and buy time to plot his own pardon, raise his bailout money, or build his own media empire, Democrats need to think hard about how we move forward. Winning the election was a good and necessary first step, but having President Biden in the White House will not silence Trump or put a stop to the disinformation machine that propelled him to power. It’s time to get serious about building a modern media infrastructure that engages Americans year round, online, with the facts and stories that counter the lies — and to begin the critical work of rebuilding trust in our government, elected officials and one another. If we don’t, we may still very well lose the democracy we just narrowly secured the opportunity to save.