The nation appears to disintegrate before our eyes. Suspicion proliferates. What were once ‘normal’ channels of communication about politics and the state of the world are no longer trusted. Trump’s repeated assertions (even before it began) that the 2020 presidential election was rigged have failed the test of multiple lawsuits, each thrown out of court by both Democratic and Republican judges, some Trump appointed, for lack of any evidence. Yet, about three-fourths of Republicans still believe that Biden somehow stole the election. Why?
Sociologists have long studied crowd behavior and other forms of collective behavior such as fads and fashion, as distinct from the social behavior associated with long-standing culture, institutions, and conventional wisdom. Generally, collective behavior is characterized by the suspension of ordinary rules, norms, and values, resulting in mass belief and action blind to ordinary norms. So, how is the current surge of collective fear, paranoia and hatred that infuses politics different? When and how did beliefs about political reality become completely detached from verified facts?
In the face of an increasingly threatening and unstable world, many folks seek certainty to ease the anxiety produced by personal loss and an unpredictable future. We think of ourselves as ‘rational’ creatures who draw our beliefs from observing the world around us. That is not entirely true.
Most of what we know we learned from others, first our parents and family, then from the broader social groups of which we are members. Also, our senses, both physical and intellectual, are constantly bombarded with far more ‘data’ than we need or can use. We must filter our sensory and verbal input in some way or other. We discard most of the data to which we are exposed.
Some data is useless for our purposes. Some data, whether sensory or language, conflicts with everything we think we know. Both tend to be discarded in favor of what seems useful and consistent with what we already believe. In a stable world, that worked pretty well. But our world is no longer stable.
In a changing world, just believing what you always believed may not work very well. That produces anxiety. We seek consistency and simplicity to relieve our stress.
What we know is most consistent with what our friends and family know to be true. Knowledge is very social in that sense, despite our belief that we always “make up our own mind.” We participate in ‘communication channels,’ whose participants are mostly close associates in our families, workplaces, and social circles.
“Confirmation bias” is a psychological term for the process we all engage in to some extent. We tend to ignore or discount information that is inconsistent with our prior beliefs. Existing beliefs, whether about values or facts, strongly resist change. The evidence must be very strong before we give up what we were so sure was true. That is generally how science works too, but with the added safeguard of public discussion of evidence and logic. Scientists do not give up the theories that have worked until now, unless new evidence is so strong that they can no longer deny it.
Knowledge is corrupted when belief is so strong that we refuse to accept facts that contradict it, no matter how strong or obvious the evidence. Conspiracy theories become easy excuses for denying facts. The lack of evidence for conspiracy is deemed evidence of the effectiveness of the conspiracy at hiding its nefarious actions.
Lies are not lies in the eyes of the tyrant. All statements, whether true or not, are merely tools for controling the population to which he feeds his propaganda. Hannah Arendt said it best in her reflections after the fall of the Nazi tyranny.
Before mass leaders seize the power to fit reality to their lies, their propaganda is marked by its extreme contempt for facts as such, for in their opinion fact depends entirely on the power of the man who can fabricate it.
~ Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism
Yet, the question remains, why do people believe propaganda when verified facts refute it? Well, first, propaganda feeds on anxiety, fear, and repetition. Facts have little to do with it. Trump’s base does not participate in communication channels focused on facts. Trump did not file all those lawsuits with the intent of winning them or proving his claims were factual. He must have known that would not happen without evidence for his claims. The lawsuits were, instead, props in his theater of the absurd. Keeping up the charade allows him to collect millions of dollars from his gullible followers by lying that he intends to prove the election a fraud.
The rational model of human behavior is only a small part of what drives our actions and beliefs. Emotions and relationships carry far more weight than science or critical thinking. The rise of acceptance of autocratic attempts (as described by Masha Gessen in Surviving Autocracy) such as Trumpism reveal the intellectual and emotional weakness of American industrial-consumer culture. It also reveals the fact that democratic institutions are only as strong as the minds and values of the people.