A talk with political scientist Thomas Pepinsky (tompepinsky.com) about how many Trump supporters really, actually believe the 2020 election was illegitimate or rigged, and what might America be like if Trump had succeeded in overturning the election. (Transcript included, below.)
Other topics discussed include: What can we deduce from U.S. surveys that show high distrust in elections from both liberals and conservatives? How much do people who say such things on surveys really believe elections aren’t legitimate? The importance of speaking accurately and not using exaggerated, hyberbolic language. What are lessons from other countries that can help us understand what democracy-denigration would be like for us?
Links to this episode:
- Pepinsky’s Vox piece: Life in authoritarian states is mostly boring and tolerable
- Pepinsky’s research on how likely Americans were to view the 2020 election as illegitimate
- Pepinsky’s 2020 blog post “What happens if elections are no longer legitimate?”
- Pepinsky’s 2020 blog post If American Democracy Collapsed, You Almost Certainly Wouldn’t Notice It
- Atlantic article “The truth about Georgia’s voting law”
- Washington Post article about how 1/3 of Clinton voters in 2016 thought the election was illegimate
- Washington Post about how 68% of Republicans believe the 2020 election was illegitimate
Welcome to the People Who Read People with me, Zach Elwood. This is a podcast about understanding people better. You can learn more about it at behavior-podcast.com. If you like this podcast, please share it with your friends and family, and please leave me a review on iTunes or another podcast platform.
On this episode, recorded January 4th 2021, I interview Thomas Pepinsky, a political scientist, whose blog is at tompepinsky.com.
I first became interested in Thomas’s work when I saw a 2017 piece of his entitled “Life in authoritarian states is mostly boring and tolerable”, with the subtitle “Americans have an overly dramatic view what the end of democracy looks like.” It was an attempt to bring some realism to concerns that many had about Trump-related worst-case scenarios.
Thomas wrote a blog in February 2020 that touched on that same topic and I’ll read a little bit from that:
Indeed, there aren’t very many differences between everyday life under most forms of authoritarianism and everyday life under democracy. For most people, in most cases, life is basically the same. And because most people, in most cases, are not motivated primarily by their politics in going about their everyday life, the functioning of national politics is not a first-order concern for them.* Democracies usually do not go out with a bang. They just cease to be.**
The issues may be clarified with the following thought experiment. What is to stop a national political party from challenging the results of, say, the presidential election in the state of Massachusetts on the grounds that that state’s government did not oversee a legitimate electoral process? The implication being, that Massachusetts’s Electoral College votes should not be counted. What is to stop that? Or put more accurately: who is to stop that?
I was interested to talk to Thomas about a few things:
One question I’ve wondered is: If Trump had succeeded in overturning the 2020 election, what might have changed in this country? Personally, I’ve wondered what I would do in that situation. And in order to know what I would do, Id like to have a better sense of what to expect. So I’m curious what similar scenarios in other countries tell us about those kinds of situations.
One study Thomas had worked on was a survey about election legitimacy shortly before the 2020 election. They asked people if they would think the election was rigged if their candidate lost. And, perhaps not surprisingly, there were a high number of both Democrats and Republicans who said they’d think the election was rigged if their candidate lost. Maybe surprisingly, more Democrats said that than did Republicans. So I wanted to ask Thomas about those results, and dig into his thoughts on how he viewed such responses; are such responses really an indicator that a person truly confidently believes that the election was illegitimate, or are some of those answers a way to express various degrees of suspicion, anger, and frustration?
Now if you’re a conservative, you might be ready to turn this episode off at this point. Maybe you believe the election was rigged and don’t want to hear people criticize that idea. Or maybe you don’t think the election was rigged, or aren’t that sure about it, but are just tired of liberals acting like these things are a huge deal, or tired of liberals acting as if these things define everything about Trump or Trump supporters. But I do hope you’ll give this one a listen; I think you’ll actually like this interview. If you’ve listened to some of my other podcasts, you know that I do often examine and criticize some bad thinking and over-reactions on the liberal side, because one of my goals is bridge-building, to try to get more people to see how people on the “other side” are more like us than we know. And I think that applies even for very emotional and divisive topics like this one.
And if you are someone who thinks the 2020 election was rigged, I’d be interested in hearing why you think that. Maybe you’d consider sending me the top one or two pieces of evidence that you’ve seen of the election being rigged, I’d greatly appreciate that, and you have my word your email would be completely confidential. You can send that via the form on my site www.behavior-podcast.com.
Here’s a little more about my guest Tom Pepinsky:
Tom is the Walter F. LaFeber Professor in the Department of Government and Brooks School of Public Policy at Cornell University, and Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. He specializes in comparative politics and international political economy, with a focus on emerging markets and a special interest in Southeast Asia. He is a co-author of the book “Piety and Public Opinion: Understanding Indonesian Islam”. Currently, he’s working on issues relating to identity, politics, and political economy in comparative and international politics.
You can find his blog at tompepinsky.com. And you can follow him on Twitter at @tompepinsky. Okay here’s the interview:
Zach: Okay. Here’s the interview. Hi Thomas, thanks for coming on.
Thomas Pepinsky: Thanks very much for having me, Zach.
Zach: So maybe a good place to start would be an interesting study that you did in mid 2020, where you studied how people would perceive the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election depending on whether their candidate won or lost. Can you talk a little bit about those findings and what you found interesting in them?
Thomas Pepinsky: Sure thing. I’m part of a long-term research project with two co-authors, Sarah Goodman who’s a political scientist at UC Irvine, and Shana Gadarian who’s a political scientist at Syracuse University. As part of the study, we’ve been looking at the kind of impact of COVID on American politics and the way that partisanship has become this very dominant way that Americans think through how they interpret news about the pandemic and how they ought to live their lives. But the other thing about this study is that it’s happening during an election year. So we had the thought to see how far we could push the argument that partisanship determines whatever any American thinks about how politics works. And so we asked people, you have to remember the context, this is a time in which President Trump was already preemptively calling into question the legitimacy of the election. We asked people in October of 2020 a simple question, and this question had a random component to it so I’ll explain the two of them. The question is basically; if President Trump wins the election, how likely do you think that the outcome was rigged? We asked that question to half of our respondents. And the other half of the respondents randomly assigned were given the question; if President Biden won the election, how likely do you think that it would be the election was rigged? Basically we asked this question to all Americans. They either got Biden or Trump as the one who won the election, that was very randomly. Then we looked to see how Democrats and Republicans responded to that question. And it turns out this is basically the strongest finding I’ve ever seen in my time as a political scientist in terms of just sheer substantive and statistical significance. Republicans were almost certain to think that if Biden won that the outcome of the election was rigged, but they would strongly disagree that it was rigged if Trump won. And the same is true in reverse for the Democrats. The Democrats already by October 2020 were concluding that if Trump won the election, they would know that the outcome was rigged. Whereas if Biden won, they would believe that the outcome had not been rigged. And so what we found from this is very strong evidence from before the election had already happened, that Americans were already starting to think about the outcomes of the election as themselves a sign of some sort of deeper partisan divide over how election should be run in the first place. What was surprising, as I said, is just how strong this effect is. I mean, these are enormously statistically significant and substantively the differences are quite large. What’s interesting about this and I should mention is that we focused on partisanship this book, but we’re also plainly aware of lots of other things that differentiate Americans. And so when we look at the differences between Democrats and Republicans, I’m also controlling for a whole bunch in those differences. So you can do this analysis controlling for what state the respondent lives in, how old he or she is, race, income, education, social class, anything that you want, how urban or rural they are, and none of those other factors… First off, none of them matter that much. I mean, it’s really about partisanship, but more importantly, accounting for those factors does not change the fact that this is essentially a partisan difference in the perceived legitimacy of the election that depended completely on who the hypothetical winner was going to be.
Zach: And was that surprising to you, the result, or was that expected?
Thomas Pepinsky: I would not say that it was surprising. It was very distressing though. I think that for many political scientists, I think most political scientists in the United States in particular have have long viewed that at least elections themselves, the results of them are legitimate indications of the amount of support that falls to one candidate versus another, and then cranked through the electoral college administration. So whether or not one likes the outcome, Americans have long agreed that the outcome is the outcome. The outcome is legitimate. It’s not one that they support, it may not be one that they find compatible with their vision for what America ought to be, but it is the outcome. What we discovered in these findings is that Americans, at least in our survey are fairly strongly divided about whether or not it’s even legitimate for the other side to win.
Zach: Yeah. In the 2016 election, there were surveys that showed a third of Hillary Clinton voters considered Trump’s win illegitimate. So, yeah, that wasn’t that surprising to me because I would’ve expected that number to rise in 2020. And obviously, Trump promoting those kinds of views too is not surprising that there’s a high amount on the conservative side. But you talk a little bit in your paper, I think, about there’s some ambiguity there in terms of what people mean when they’re willing to say on a survey that the election was rigged, because that can mean many things. For example, not everyone who is capable of putting that down on a survey means precisely, “I believe there is strong evidence that the election was rigged,” and not everyone who says that is thinking I’m willing to go fight in the streets because I’m so certain the election was rigged. And for some Trump supporters I’ve talked to about this topic, they’ll admit that they don’t have good evidence or they’ll admit that even if there was something weird happening that it might not have been significant enough to make a difference. And so really what I’ve found in talking to some Trump supporters is that they’re really just expressing doubt and suspicion of the other side in a lot of cases, which is interesting to me because you can see that kind of dynamic on the left with the distrust of the 2016 election, for example.
A little note here, added afterward: if you’re curious about the reasons why some people view Trump’s win as illegitimate, on a previous episode, I interviewed Jennifer Cohen, a lawyer who’s been trying to raise awareness about election vulnerability since 2016, and who thinks there’s a good chance the 2016 election was not legitimate. Personally, I’ve seen no good evidence that the 2016 election was not legitimate. I’ve seen no evidence that the election was hacked or that it was significantly influenced by outside forces. Regarding Russian propaganda, I think a lot of the views about Russia’s influence are overblown, or at least there’s not much evidence that should lead one to be certain about how much of an impact they had. I think there can be a strong desire to believe such things due to a failure to understand how Trump’s win was completely plausible based on understandable dynamics that were already in place. For example, the polarization that has been increasing over decades or how his win could be seen to be resulting from real frustrations that led to many having a desire for a populous leader, some of the same frustrations, in my opinion, that led to white support for Bernie Sanders, another populist leader who if you didn’t know, has also been outspoken in the past about wanting to reduce immigration in order to protect American workers’ income. In short, I think a lot of liberals desired some powerful and villain scapegoats because they couldn’t understand how someone like Trump could win. The extensive hype about Cambridge Analytica is another example of this, in my opinion. Many people think that Cambridge Analytica pulled an amazing advanced feat in manipulating American voters with digital marketing magic, but there’s just no good evidence they did that much. And previously on this podcast, I interviewed political scientist Dave Karpf about that. In short, he talked about how it was likely that Cambridge Analytica didn’t do anything that impressive and all the breathless pieces about their influence are largely due to us, just falling for their marketing hype. And he discussed how political science has shown how political advertising generally doesn’t have much of an effect. If Trump had won the 2020 election, I think the perceptions of illegitimacy this time would’ve been more around things like gerrymandering and voter suppression. But if you’re someone who cares about the stability of our country, I think it’s very important to draw a big line between things that are done legally and things that are done illegally. With regards to gerrymandering, I haven’t looked into it that much, but my perception is that Republicans do more gerrymandering than Democrats, but Democrats also do gerrymandering. To pick a random article, there’s a Washington post article from 2021 that reads, “People say they hate gerrymandering, but that isn’t stopping Republicans or Democrats this year.” With regards to voting restrictions, you may find some of the recent Republican state laws that have gotten attention immoral or even reprehensible, but they are legal. With regards to the recent New York City law that allows non-citizens to vote in local elections, you can imagine a conservative finding that law wrong and thereby using that to consider those elections illegitimate. But we have to make a distinction between what is legal and what is not legal. Also, did you know that a 2021 survey found that around 80% of Americans were supportive of requiring ID to vote, and that included 62% of Democrat respondents? That’s just one example of how these issues aren’t clearly broken down by party lines. I’d also highly recommend a great Atlantic article titled the truth about the Georgia voting law by Derek Thompson. In it, he examines the Georgia voting law that has gotten so much attention, and he criticizes a lot of the hyperbole about it. One thing he points out is that even with the recent law passed in Georgia, that state still has easier access to voting than quite a few other states, including many Democrat-majority states. This is not to defend the Georgia law or the apparent trend of making voting harder in some states. But just to say, if you’re going to use those kinds of things as a reason to consider an election illegitimate, there are many aspects of our election system that one could theoretically use to make those kinds of arguments. I wanted to put in this note because I wanted to go into a little more detail about how I see some liberal beliefs about election legitimacy as being unreasonable and based around emotions like anger and distrust and fear. That can be seen as similar to many conservative citizens’ beliefs about the 2020 election. Okay, back to the interview.
Zach Elwood: Can you talk a little bit about how you see a lack of nuance maybe in the public’s perception of these dynamics? Because it feels like there’s a flattening of perception, where it’s like the other side is willing to say that on a survey they’re as bad as the worst people who committed an insurrection, things like that, that kind of flattening of perception.
Thomas Pepinsky: That’s right. So we have to be very careful to figure out what we want to learn from a survey such as the one that we did. And you’re absolutely right. People can use survey responses to express feelings rather than actually truly healthy use. And they can use surveys as an opportunity to voice their frustration or to kind of take a stand on where they view themselves in the context of American politics. But those are not the same thing as saying a election which is illegitimate is something that calls for an insurrection. We know that most Americans did not participate in the insurrection on January 6th. We shouldn’t conclude that just because Americans got divided about what the legitimacy of elections that they therefore would adopt the most serious response to this. But on the other hand, let me take a different perspective here. Really the core thing that elections have to do, the really one thing that recommends elections over other ways of determining who runs your country is that it is a procedure that we follow and we agree to respect the results of it. If elections didn’t have that quality, I’m not sure why we would defend them. Think about it this way, if you actually believed that the winner of an election had been installed illegitimately either through malfeasance, by fake voters or through the illegal machinations of senators and representatives, would you have any moral reason to obey the politics or the policies or laws that were implemented by that government? My ethic says that I would not be obligated to do that. And so I take it extremely seriously when people say that they think that the outcome of the election is illegitimate. I certainly never said myself because I take this very strongly. I was horrified that President Trump was elected president, absolutely horrified. But there’s no doubt in my mind that he won the election. It wasn’t rigged. I think the Russians interfered in it, and I think we ought to know about that. But I had absolutely no doubt that he won that election.
Zach: Yeah. That’s what’s been frustrating to me about talking to Trump supporters when I’ve been researching this topic and other topics. It’s kind of this casual belief that they have expressing doubt in the elections is almost like not a big deal. And I’m like, “That is a very serious thing you’re doing, and it’s very serious and country destroying for a leader to do that.” That’s what’s been frustrating to me. Even though I try to understand these things from a human emotional level and why people believe these things, at the end of the day, I’m always left with a frustration and a disbelief that people can take these things seemingly not that serious and almost use these things as an expression of fuck the other side basically, an expression of just suspicion and anger when these things are so serious.
A little note here, added afterward: I wanted to go into a little more detail about what I’ve learned about conservative beliefs on this topic. Some of the Trump supporters I’ve talked to do actually really believe that the election was stolen. So I wanted to clarify that and say that I don’t mean to imply that the more casual fuck you feelings represent everyone. I talked to one Trump supporter who was pretty confident that the election was rigged. When I was digging into what drove those beliefs, it seemed to me it was based mainly on his anger and distrust of Democrat leaders and his view of them as willing to do anything to retain power. He held them in very low regard for various reasons. One of which was what he saw as baseless and unfair propaganda against Trump and conservatives. His anger was also based on the perception, which I think many conservatives have, that Democrats want to increase immigration solely to get more votes. One thing that he thought really proved his point in that regard was New York City allowing non-citizens to vote in local elections, which he saw as really tipping the hand of what Democrat leaders were trying to accomplish. He was also, of course, influenced in his election beliefs by Trump and various stories making the rounds in the conservative media about election shenanigans of various sorts. Interestingly, even with his high amount of distrust in Democrats and in the election results, he also admitted that he couldn’t be sure that any election shenanigans had actually changed the results. And he also admitted that if the shoe were on the other foot with Trump being declared the winner and many liberals believing that the election was stolen while also losing a lot of court cases and many Democrat leaders stating that the election was legitimate, he’d be just as skeptical of those liberals claims as liberals are of his beliefs. So it seemed that even with his high confidence in his beliefs that the election was rigged, there were also some healthy doubts in the mix, inability to see such views through other lenses. Another Trump supporter I talked to rated his confidence that the election was rigged at about 50% and was in general much more laid back about the situation with much less anger at liberals. He seemed mostly sad that our political landscape had descended into so much anger and hatred. Another Trump supporter I talked to said that he thought that Trump was “the greatest president we’ve had” but he also said that Trump’s denigration of the election without proof made him lose respect for him. He said that he didn’t forgive him for his tyranny. And clearly there are some Trump supporters who are dangerous people who are actively fomenting and hoping for an insurrection and a civil war. All this is to say that from what I found, there is a range of thought and degree of belief on this topic, which to me is comforting in the sense that it’s much more complex and nuanced to landscape than, for example, a simplistic statement of 50 something percent of Republicans believe the election was rigged. Okay, back to the interview…
Thomas Pepinsky: It’s like, is it legitimate if Tom Brady wins another Super Bowl? I mean, I don’t like Tom Brady very much. And so it’s easy for me to express that feeling as a long suffering Eagles fan by just saying, “Of course it’s not legitimate.” But I don’t mean it, that’s an expression of what I feel. What we don’t have in political science or any of the social sciences is a really good way to move from those expressions on surveys to the actual decisions that people will make. We just don’t have a great way to translate from what I think is a very clear expression of a psychological orientation or partisan disposition towards, for example, the willingness to act. What I want to know, which I don’t know, and our surveys are just not going to be able to tell us this is, I want to know what percentage of people who hold that belief would take up arms to fight for it. And I think that we ought to know the answer to that question. In my most depressing moments, I think, what happens if the 2024 election is conducted in a way that I actually don’t think is legitimate? Will I put my money where my mouth is? Or will I wake up the next morning and make breakfast like I do every morning, get a coffee and then think about what I have to do that day?
Zach: Yeah, I want to come back to that idea. First I want to say, I saw a really interesting thread on Twitter by the political researcher, Thomas Zeitzoff, and he was making some great points about how these views that the other side is very dangerous or that were on the verge of a civil war, which seem all over the place these days, he was making the point that some of these are based on questionable or debatable studies and ideas or debatable perceptions of such things. For example, he cited research by Joseph [Mernic] that showed that belief that political violence was justified was based largely on perceptions that the other side believe political violence was justified. So it would seem that there can be this kind of dynamic whereby journalist articles covering these polls and surveys in unnuanced ways can influence. Those things can then be shown framed in certain ways, extreme ways to one side or the other. And so you have this amplification dynamic going back and forth, sort of how polarization dynamics work in general. And Thomas was making the point, other people have made the point that taking the worst case framing of these things is leading to making the worst case scenarios more likely. And I’m wondering if you have any thoughts about how those dynamics work?
Thomas Pepinsky: I think Thomas is right about this. The asterisk behind that statement is that I don’t know how worried one ought to be. As I said, I don’t know how to translate the findings from surveys into predictions about the future. I think that most Americans still don’t care that much about politics. I don’t know what to do. I also think it’s irresponsible to not report what we find. I think we ought to report it in ways that are honest to what we found and the limitations of interpretation, but because I’ve only been working on this particular question for the past five years ago, we’re entertaining hypotheticals that hadn’t been entertained in a long time. We don’t have long time serious evidence to know how common was it for people to say these sorts of things. So, I don’t know, for example, what percentage of Republicans thought that Bill Clinton’s election in 1993 was illegitimate, ’92 election, ’93 inauguration? I don’t know how widely that was felt. So it’s hard for us to benchmark how bad the news is. But if you continually tell people that they hate each other and that the other side is irrational and unreasonable, eventually, if you really believe that, you’ll have to start acting accordingly. So the way that this shows up to me is when I look at lawn signs. So I grew up in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and I recently drove with my family from Harrisburg to Ithaca, which goes through majority Trump territory until like the last three miles. And the lawn signs that I saw, my daughter dutifully read out loud, sweet little girl, “Joe and the whore had to go. Fuck your feelings. Not my president.” Flags flown upside down as if we’re being occupied by hostile force. Do these people believe that? If they do, they should murder me if they encounter me. I hope they don’t believe that. But if they do, I mean, I’m sure they’re armed and I’m not. I don’t know how this ends.
Zach: Yeah, that’s the weird thing too, is almost this trying to have it both ways. We believe the election is illegitimate or a lot of us do, but yet the idea that there would be an insurrection is unbelievable. And don’t try to say that we would do that. That was Antifa. It’s like trying to have it both ways in terms of like, “We believe this horrible thing happened, but don’t you dare say we would do anything untoward about it.”
Thomas Pepinsky: Right, exactly. And this is where I have to confess that I’m not the best interpreter of American politics because everybody has relatives and family with different perceptions than they do about politics and who are members of different political parties, but I’m simply not close to anybody who’s a strong Trump believer. I don’t know what that is like.
Zach: Yeah. And I confess, I’ve had to reach out to people and make a specific attempt to understand these things, which is what me got interested in interviewing you actually was because I was talking to Trump supporters about, do you really believe this stuff and how strongly do you believe it? And that’s what got me interested in looking at polls and surveys and stuff about that. But yeah, it’s really hard to know what’s going on, it really is.
Thomas Pepinsky: And the psychology of this is so different from the sociology. I think about the psychology as what we can tap into, and the sociology is how do we aggregate from what individuals believe to what they will do collectively. And that, I guess, is the part which, as I said before, we just don’t have a great sense of how to translate the psychology to the sociology or to see how they interact.
Zach: That’s part of my interest and the social media impacts too, because I just see social media as an accelerant. It’s like gasoline on the fire kind of thing in my opinion, where it helps account for why these things could more easily reach ahead and reach ahead more quickly than they would’ve in pre-internet days. You’ve studied a lot of democracies that fell apart, mostly in Asia is my understanding. Is my understanding correct that widespread distrust in elections across the board is a key component, maybe a necessary component of democracies falling apart? Do you have any opinions on that?
Thomas Pepinsky: Oh, sure. It’s not a necessary condition, but it might be a sufficient condition. By which I mean, there’s lots of ways that a democracy can collapse. There’s lots of ways that it can fall apart. And a lot of them, a lot of those ways come in the context of wide agreement of the outcome of an election but a small minority of people who don’t like it. I’m thinking of the recent democratic reversal in Myanmar or Burma as an example of a election, I think was widely viewed as legitimate in its outcome, but the hunter coup’d anyway. So you can get democratic decline in a lot of ways. But I do think that widespread distrust of elections, honest widespread distrust of elections really undermines, as I said before, the core point of what why we look to elections. I’m taken by the position that elections don’t reveal the true soul of a country, elections don’t tell you what everybody really believes, they don’t do any of those things. What elections do is they allow us to agree to disagree peacefully over how the country ought to run. And if we don’t agree to disagree, then we have to fight about it. And that I think is what I see as the downside risk for the United States right now. And the example I look to and this’ll sound like a crazy example for American listeners given how crazy the politics is there, but the best example I can think of is Thailand. Thailand is a country that has had a long history of military interventions. It’s had more coups than any country in the world except for, I believe, Bolivia since 1932. And so it’s a deeply unstable electoral system, and is currently run by military hunter, so not a democracy at all. But the reason why the military keeps stepping in is because Thai people are just fundamentally divided about what happens when their side loses an election. And there’s one side that simply cannot write an electoral law that’ll allow them to win, and another side that will win any election that allows basic full suffrage rights for all Thai people. And so the one side that doesn’t win is correct that their side will never win an election, and therefore they are willing to tolerate other ways of gaining political power. And that’s what I see as the risk in the United States. If you don’t agree to listen to the outcomes of elections, then there is some other way you’re going to decide who’s in charge of your country.
Zach: Yeah. You said something important, I think, where the role of democracy is not to accomplish things that you think are right, things that… It is not implying some continual march of progress, democracy is just about preventing, solving conflicts peacefully. And I think that that misunderstanding on both sides, when I’ve said this to liberal people, some people get angry and it’s almost like they can’t accept that democracy means that things that they consider bad can happen, when in my mind democracy is just basically a might makes right kind of system or majority rule system. There’s lots of bad things that can happen under democracy, even apart from democracy falling apart. But yeah, I think that kind of idealistic expectation of democracy is on both sides too, I would say it’s across the board. As the country becomes more emotionally polarized, the things that used to be kind of standard political wins and losses and didn’t have emotion attached to them, they all take on this emotional good versus evil, we can’t stand to let the other side have a victory of any sort. They all start to take on that kind of feeling.
Thomas Pepinsky: That’s right. And I would emphasize that people will even define democracy in ways that rule out the outcomes that they don’t like. And so they will say things like, “Well, if America is economically highly unequal then that can’t be democratic, because democracy can’t be associated with inequality. I think there’s a lot of things that we should care about that aren’t democracy, inequality being one of them, but a fairly narrow and minimalist conception of democracy is a procedure that is widely agreed upon about how to allocate the authority to make laws without having to fight about is actually, that’s an amazingly valuable thing. And people will tell you that that’s not that big of a deal, and these are people who have never lived under an authoritarian regime.
Zach: Well, yeah, you’re getting to the point of it. There’s two meanings in how people widely use the word democracy. And one is just a dry form of government description, and the other is this idealistic meaning of everyone has a say and everybody’s equal, etc. I think the blurring of those two concepts, those two definitions is part of the problem in terms of the ambiguity and confusion around how people talk about democracy. And I think that might play into… I had a question about the muddying between democracy and authoritarianism, because it seems like there’s some ambiguity there too in the way people talk about it in the sense that they’ll describe what seems like a democracy or mostly democracy as having authoritarian aspects. But clearly you can have a fully function democracy where many people agree to implement authoritarian aspects. So there’s this overlap where there’s nothing stopping a democracy from passing horrible legislation and things that are authoritarian in nature.
Thomas Pepinsky: That’s right. I mean, I guess this is another interesting area where psychological versus sociological aspects of our concepts become really important to disentangle. Because I view there’s two ways that people use the term authoritarian. One is to describe a system of government, a property of people interacting with one another, and another is to describe a set of values that individuals hold. So people talk about authoritarian personalities versus authoritarian regimes.
Zach: So it’s almost similar to how people use democracy in a way?
Thomas Pepinsky: That’s right.
Zach: The two different, yeah.
Thomas Pepinsky: And so people will talk about an authoritarian regime as being a regime that’s run by authoritarian people, but that’s not right. It’s, in fact, probably the case that most countries that become democracies do so because two authoritarian personalities lead two factions that are unable to defeat one another. And so they innovate for themselves an agreement rather than fight about it openly to adopt a procedure that allows them to have a peaceful chance at gaining power, with the loser agreeing to wait till the next election to try to have their say again. Authoritarians can do that. Authoritarianism does not mean government by authoritarian.
Zach: You say if Trump had succeeded in undermining the 2020 election, is there a country that comes to mind that has encountered something very similar to that very scenario?
Thomas Pepinsky: That exact scenario is a little bit far from any country that I know well. The countries I study most closely tend to be in Asia. The issues and the nature of democratic reversals are complicated by either having a different form of government, so like a parliamentary system versus a presidential system, which generates different types of incentives for presidents versus parliaments or it’s because they’ve got this long standing either dynastic royal family they have to handle or a military that has a history of intervening openly in politics to get what it wants. So those are all pretty far from the US case. I think the best way to think about the US case in comparative perspective is to think instead about, what are the commonalities that these very different countries have with United States? I just don’t know of a lot of cases of countries where people legitimately disagree about the legitimacy of elections and honestly and earnestly don’t agree who is the winner of an election that persists for very long without having some sort of reversal or some sort of external force that sets the ship right again.
Zach: Did you say, is it hard to compare Asian countries to Western countries for cultural reasons?
Thomas Pepinsky: I don’t have any problem comparing the Western and the East, as they say, for purposes of culture. I’m a big believer that culture matters, but that it is overly capacious explanatory variable. I think that everybody who’s a social scientist has to ultimately start with one of two positions. What is that we’re all the same and the others that we’re all different? And I’m of the position that we’re all the same. And so I don’t think that there’s anything particular about say Confucian or Muslim or Buddhist culture that is incompatible with democracy or that fundamentally makes the concerns of people who live in the countries that I know best different than the concerns that we have. I’m always struck by just how much the experiences of the US do travel and the same in reverse. Of course, there’s going to be things that differ for cultural purposes. So like Christmas just isn’t as big of a deal in Indonesia cuz it’s a Muslim majority country as it is in the United States. But even given the vast differences in cultures, languages, histories, geographies, economies, agriculture, everything you can think of, at the end of the day, the United States and Indonesia are both two very diverse democracies with a lot of heterogeneity and a dominant religion in each. And they confront analogous problems even if they do so using a terminology which is drawn from a different cultural system.
Zach: Yeah. One thing that strikes me in that area is just how calm a country like Thailand seems to be with how much overturn and coups they’ve had. And it’s hard to imagine America being that calm, but maybe that’s just a factor of… Maybe we’ll get there.
Thomas Pepinsky: Well, I mean, let’s think about it. Thailand seems calm because Thailand is constructed a way that the country can function, especially which is particularly comfortable for Western tourists without having to be involved in any of the deep debates. But make no mistake, Thailand’s a deeply, deeply divided society. As recently as the mid 2000s, even after 2010s, the airport was shut because the protests were so large. I mean, it really was Bangkok ground to a standstill. And people have been murdered. I don’t know the numbers off the top of my head, but this is not a situation of peaceful disagreement or maybe some people get roughed up in a protest. Thailand has a history of opposition politicians being murdered by regime forces. And think about it, I was just listening to the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young song, Ohio, in the car on the way to work today. Remember when the National Guard killed four people at Kent State? Well, I don’t literally remember it, I wasn’t alive then. But we’ve had these stories as well. These awful things happened and they’ve become cultural touch points. And then we get up the next day and figure out if we’re going to have coffee, what’s for breakfast, and we have to keep living.
Zach: Right. And I definitely didn’t mean to imply that they were calm and that they weren’t passionate people and that there weren’t problems. I guess it’s just could be the perception that we have from outside and things like that. Yeah.
Thomas Pepinsky: This is the dangerous thing, is we imagine that when authoritarianism arrives, it’s going to be like Kristallnacht or it’s going to be this obviously evil, horrible thing that affects everybody. And in reality, when authoritarianism arrives, most people are completely unaffected in their day to day.
Zach: That’s what I wanted to segue into was one of the reasons I wanted to talk to you was the piece that you wrote about, you wrote it for Vox, it was titled Life in authoritarian states is mostly boring and tolerable with the subtitle, Americans have an overly dramatic view what the end of democracy looks like. And I wonder if you can talk a little bit about the ideas in that.
Thomas Pepinsky: Sure. That’s probably the best thing I ever wrote in terms of it captured a question that people were asking and I think it intervened at an important moment in American politics for helping us to think clearly about what authoritarianism means. So the argument that I make there is really kind of the same thing as we’ve been talking about throughout our podcast so far, which is that authoritarianism is not the same as the most fantastical comic book or movie version of totalitarian dictatorship that Americans are taught about. And one reason why this is the case is because we just don’t have a history in the United States of the form of authoritarianism that is most dominant around the world, which is not totalitarian dictatorship or fascist dictatorship, but rather simply a non-democratic system of politics in which there may be elections, but they’re not free or fair. Or maybe there’s no elections, but the military is not attempting to create a total institution that controls all aspects of your life, but rather simply wishes to organize the political system differently than what would be obtained by having elections. So most authoritarian regimes are not constantly brutal towards everybody. Most of them are constantly brutal towards some people. So you think about the case of the Uyghurs in China, and it’s just the completely horrific experience of the internment camps that are happening there. And you can contrast that to life for most Chinese citizens of coastal cities for whom that is entirely foreign and their lives proceed relatively unimpacted by the moral horror of what is happening. It’s also true that democracies can be awful to their citizens as well. And United States is probably the best demonstration of that fact. We can have a democratic system of government as I’ve defined it and still enslave large numbers of Americans. Or we can [mainly let] the slaves and then pass repressive laws that are designed to prevent their participation in politics. In no way does my argument dismiss these things or or the day to day traumas that are felt by people who are excluded from the dominant system within a democratic regime. But I’m not speaking to those people, I’m speaking to people who are like me, who are not the descendants of slaves, who are not in the situation of having to day to day confront a racially unjust system, but people for whom unless you’ve traveled and lived in another authoritarian system, you just have no way of imagining what this would mean for your day to day life. And I think that Americans think we have a kind of American revolution fantasy about how when tyranny happens, it affects everybody and they all can jointly resist. And in doing so, they throw off the yolks of tyranny and establish liberty for themselves. That’s not what would happen if elections would cease to be free and fair in the United States. And in fact, even if there were an open army civil war in the United States, that is not what most people would experience. Most people would still wake up and they would have the same concerns, day to day concerns that they had previously. They would rely on an economy to continue to function, the jobs that they would need to continue to exist, their expectations about how their days would go would not be changed very much by authoritarianism. It’s not like a situation such as the Soviet collectivization of the farms, where every farmer has to give up their farmland and move to a collectivity and rearrange every aspect of their daily life. Authoritarianism is actually mostly quite boring and most people can tolerate it.
Zach: Yeah. It says you say that it feels like there’s a lack of analogies or a lack of knowledge about how these things play out, that the analogies that people reach for that they know about are, like you said, the revolutionary war, the civil war, Nazi Germany, these really extreme examples. And it’s a lack of knowledge of just how mundane these things are happening in Poland or Hungary or other places, Russia. And you had a great defense of your piece at the end of your piece, because you knew that people, it could be interpreted as like downplaying the seriousness of these kinds of things. But you say, “No, it’s actually making you see a more realistic view of how these things happen. And if you’re always thinking, imagining these things as being some big configuration, you’re not well set up to actually see what’s actually happening right in front of your face and seeing how the truth is much more mundane in most cases. So I think that was a good point. It’s thinking realistically about these things and avoiding focusing on the more extreme or hysterical interpretations or estimations. It actually helps you deal with things more equipped to actually help with the solutions. But I guess that gets into the question of what would one do which you had talked about earlier, because it’s very unclear what would be the right thing to do, which I guess accounts for a lot of the inaction in these cases too, because you can imagine… And this is why I think it’s valuable to talk about these things too. Say the next election Trump or someone else did succeed in overthrowing what we think is a legitimate election. The question is, what is the response to that? And it’s not clear what to do cuz you can imagine thinking, “Well, if I went on the streets or did something militant or extreme, does that actually help or does that help the other side?” It’s not a clear cut… There’s no clear cut solutions, right?
Thomas Pepinsky: That’s right. I will confess that I don’t have a great response to that question either. What then must we do question is kind of tricky in the best case, but when we’re still thinking, so hypothetically about the future of American democracy, it’s hard to even imagine all the things that would be happening in this world that we’re talking about.
Zach: Too many unknowns, yeah.
Thomas Pepinsky: There’s too many unknowns. One thing I will say though is, and this might be a constructive thing. So one read of that authoritarianism is mostly boring and tolerable piece is that I’m restating the banality of evil, which is I think this is Hannah Arendt’s great insight about the process through which Germany and other fascist states come to be complicit and enact the industrial slaughter of millions of people. And that evil is banal, it was day to day. I don’t think of our problem as confronting an evil in that way, although, I do worry about the rise of antisemitism and the plainly antisemitic [unintelligible 47.58] that I see in some corners of American politics. The really disturbing thing about life in most authoritarian states is that most people aren’t evil and the most things that are happening aren’t evil, and they’re not for evil ends, not really. They’re for things that you don’t agree with. I take the example of Malaysia, which is where I was when I was writing that piece. That’s the country that taught me about how tolerable and boring life in an authoritarian regime can be. The main policy disputes are not about murdering people. They’re not about the legitimacy of minorities to exist, live and thrive, it’s about what is the optimal level of corruption in a developing country? What is the optimal level of affirmative action in a developing country? These are things that we can disagree about, that’s not evil to hold views that are different than mine. It’s a mistake. It’s a policy disagreement. And that fact makes the banality of authoritarianism even more hard to worry against, because if you’re waiting for somebody to say… If you think that your opponents are going to announce that they’re going to do terrible things so everybody knows how terrible they are, you’re definitely wrong. That’s not how it’s going to happen.
Zach: Right. It’s much more complex and subtle than that, yeah. Getting back to that idea that each side may be amplifying, ramping each other up with the worst framings and interpretations of the other side. One of the things that bothered me about the extreme analogies with Trumpism, the analogies to Nazi Germany or whatever, I just think they’re not helpful in the sense that using unrealistic and extreme analogies help the other side and help increase the divides. So if a black Trump supporter hears those kinds of analogies or a Jewish Trump supporter hears those kinds of analogies and just views them as completely hysterical and unreasonable, that makes them more likely to continue supporting Trump because they view the other side’s objections as unreasonable and extreme. So that’s one of the reasons I try to inject some nuance which is not often appreciated.
Thomas Pepinsky: Nobody likes that nuance, but I think you’re absolutely right. I think you hit the nail on the head. If we think the very worst of our opponents, the very, very worst, who can blame them for thinking the worst of us? At the end of the day, consistent with what I said before, I think that we’re all basically the same. We have the same basic psychological makeup, we have the same basic psychological needs. We disagree about things a lot, and we hold different identities, and that’s fine. Democracy has to allow those things to exist. But you’re right. If you think that the problem of the Trump administration was that it was laying the groundwork for a Holocaust, then you are mistaken. That is not the reason why that was to my way of thinking a government that I certainly didn’t support and was happy to vote against. If I really did believe that they were laying the groundwork for a Holocaust, I think that I’m morally compelled to take up arms against it. And that I don’t is pretty good evidence that I believe that it’s actually a much more mundane concern, which is we shouldn’t prevent black people from voting in the American south in order to protect tax rates for large corporations.
Zach: And similarly, if you’re a conservative who perceives that liberals think that you’re a Nazi, that can really derange your perceptions of what to do. There’s a lot of complex dynamics going on.
Thomas Pepinsky: That’s right. You’re right. It does work exactly in reverse. And I try to be generous, but when people paint me with the most simplistic one-sided brush, I naturally respond by saying that I wholeheartedly reject everything that they stand for.
Zach: Yeah. It gets back to these basic out-group versus in-group dynamics of perceiving the other side as completely monolithic. I mean, to me, when I think about these polarization dynamics, it all comes back to this perceiving the other side as this monolithic group of people that all are as bad as the worst person in that group, and perceiving your side as this ideologically diverse group that we can forgive them their faults cuz they vary so much. It comes back to these very basic dynamics. So speaking of things that say we did, I know it’s hard to guess how these things would go, but say, in 2020 Trump had succeeded in overturning the election and stayed in power, was there anything that you would clearly do differently in your life if that had happened? Are you willing to say anything about that? For example, trying to move to another country, things like that. Or if you’d rather not talk about that, that’s cool too.
Thomas Pepinsky: No, that’s a great question. I used to be so frustrated when people said, “If Bush wins the election in the year 2000… If Bush wins the election I move to Canada.” Well, I’m not Canadian, I’m American. I don’t view moving to Canada as an option. And I think it’s actually kind of a fairly obnoxious thing to say. There’s a lot of things I would do which I won’t talk about here if this had actually happened. But again, we’re talking about a world not in which Trump wins the 2020 election, a world in which the outcome of the election was the outcome of the election but it was overturned through the courts or through some sort of its direction. In that world, I don’t know, I just don’t know what I would do. But I can imagine a lot of difficult conversations about arming oneself or about what are the laws that I will follow and what are the laws that I will not follow. But if you’re an actual Democrat and you really believe as I do that the one thing that elections do is offer an agreement about how we will agree to disagree and the other side no longer agrees with that, I am also no longer bound by that convention either.
Zach: Do you have an opinion on how close Trump was to succeeding in overturning that election? I realize that’s probably really hard to say and maybe not your area of expertise, but maybe you have an opinion.
Thomas Pepinsky: I don’t know. I think we got to remember why he didn’t. The reason why he didn’t is cuz we have federal administration of elections in the United States, not because he didn’t try. If he had been able to fire the secretary of state of Georgia, he would’ve. He didn’t have that capacity. He tried, he tried to change the guy’s mind. He tried to figure out if there was some sort of Georgia law that he could invoke. But I think the thing that stopped him in the first instance was the federalization of American elections. I also think it’s very clear that the Republican party has figured that out and wants to put itself in the position where that’s no longer possible.
Zach: I think it’s worth remembering too that there were a good number of conservatives who played a role in preventing Trump from doing that. And that’s why… This isn’t to make false equivalencies or defense of the GOP, it’s more, to me, I try to focus on the individuals with honor and the individual factors that play a role and not so much on the group dynamics, because I think the group dynamics no matter how you slice it just end up focusing on the group as a whole in the comparative badness of one group versus another. I just feel like it’s a never ending cycle. So I try to remember that there are honorable people on both sides, even if you happen to believe that a group has more or less honorable people than the other. But, yeah.
Thomas Pepinsky: I agree. And I think that we should remember that Brad Raffensperger’s own personal interest in doing the right thing, what he thought was the right thing, the honorable thing, the respectful thing, the law abiding thing is what stopped President Trump from stealing Georgia. And he’s a hero.
Zach: And there was an equivalent person like that in Pennsylvania, I think. There were some other instances of that.
Thomas Pepinsky: Yeah, he’s just the one that comes to mind the most clearly, because we got the phone call of him thinking about what to do, but you’re right. There’s a lot of… I think it’s important to remember that people with whom we disagree, I think Brad Raffensperger holds the same view of democracy that I do. If the election was conducted fairly, his job as an election administrator is to think carefully about whether or not there’s any reason to overturn it. And he came to the same conclusion that I hope that all of our election administrators on both sides of the aisle will always come to.
Zach: Is there anything else you’d like to say that you’d want to put in before we end?
Thomas Pepinsky: I don’t think so. This has been fun, I really enjoy covering all this stuff.
Zach: Thanks for coming on Thomas, it’s been great talking to you.
Thomas Pepinsky: Sure thing. Thanks for having me.
Zach: That was Thomas Pepinsky. His website is at tompepinsky.com and his Twitter is @TomPepinsky.
I focus on political polarization topics on this podcast because I think it’s important to get more people interested in building bridges and healing our divides. To me, this means trying to see other people as simply other humans like ourselves, as really just ourselves in a different form. Not in any spiritual, let’s all just get along, type of way but because I think it’s really the truth. All that separates us are different environments, different backgrounds, different factors at work. I think if humanity, not just America but the whole world, is going to progress and avoid destroying ourselves, we’re going to need more people doing that kind of work.
We need to try to escape the instinct to see our political enemies as monolithic, with everyone in the other group being as bad as the worst people in that group. We need to understand that the things that scare us about the other group are often just simply not seen by the “other side”, in the same way that the things that scare them about our group are often not seen or comprehended by us. When we attempt to see complexity and nuance, and recognize that a group is just a bunch of individuals, our language changes; we speak more persuasively, and we create less animosity. One past podcast talk I did was with Karina Korostelina, who wrote a book about how insults and hurt feelings drive political conflicts; one thing she said was that she thought social media was creating more opportunities for us to insult others and be insulted, and I view that as a key part of what we’re experiencing.
With regards to Trump supporters believing the election was rigged and the January 6th Capitol riot, one thing I’ve seen from many liberals is a kind of righteous arrogance, not just at a personal level, but at a group, tribal level, a way of speaking that communicates “These things prove that Trump supporters are bad, even evil; look at what some members of their group believe about the election and look at what some of their group members did on January 6th.” In other words, there’s a righteous sense of “I or my group members would never do such things.”
But I think it’s valuable to push back on that group-associated righteousness a bit, because that righteousness is what prevents empathy and prevents listening and prevents building bridges. We know there were many liberals who believed that the 2016 election was illegitimate; some people are still quite confident it was illegitimate for various reasons. Hillary Clinton called Trump an illegitimate president. Some other prominent Democrat leaders have said similar things.
But this is not to equate the two sides at all; I’m not interested in that and I don’t believe that: Trump has behaved in a uniquely disgraceful way, as have some of his influential enablers. Even many Trump supporters recognize that: To quote a Trump supporter I’ve been talking to: the way Trump speaks has been quote “like gasoline on the fire”. Many Trump supporters recognize that Trump has played a role in making our divides worse.
I’m interested in showing how, at an individual level, we all have more in common than we think; that the ideas and actions we judge others for so harshly are things that we ourselves, or people on quote “our side”, are capable of doing in different circumstances. And I think it’s especially important to recognize this about the “rigged election” beliefs amongst Trump supporters, because that’s currently the most emotion-producing aspect of Trump supporters that acts as a blocker to liberals having empathy for Trump supporters.
To take a hypothetical; let’s say that Trump had been declared the winner in 2020. Clearly, we would have had a quite high % of Biden voters who perceived the election as illegitimate. Considering the violent activity we saw in the wake of George Floyd by people who were strongly anti-Trump, do you think it’s possible we might have seen some election-related violence from those people? On this podcast, I interviewed a militant Portland-based antifa person who believed that physically fighting with cops in the street was part of a fight against an encroaching white supremacist, fascist government. It’s easy for me to imagine those kinds of people doing some bad stuff if Trump had won. It’s also easy for me to imagine people who weren’t extreme at all doing some bad stuff if there had been a big protest in DC; because mobs tend to take on a life of their own. Its easy to imagine one thing leading to another between cops and protesters or between protesters and anti-protesters. Add in the fact that covid-related shutdowns and job losses have destabilized many people financially and emotionally,; it just isn’t surprising to me that many people would be capable of behaving more recklessly than they probably would in better times.
And if some bad things were done by anti-Trump people, it’s easy to imagine that Democrat leaders would be downplaying the significance of those event and conservatives would be constantly talking about how the actions of those rioters was a hugely important thing, that it was a perfect representation that liberals were all about destruction and chaos.
To be clear: I’m not saying I think such a thing would surely have happened or even likely have happened; i’m just saying something like that was at least possible. And I”m definitely not saying if it did happen that it would have been directly equivalent to what Trump supporters did. For one thing, I don’t think there’s anyone like Trump on the Democrat leader side who would rile up such ideas in such a major way. My goal is definitely not to say: both sides are equal; or to imply that the Capitol riot wasn’t a big deal. My goal is just to examine things at a human level. I’m saying that being able to see how we, or people on our side, are not perfect and are capable of behaving in some bad and extreme ways – recognizing that truth can help us lower our group-related anger. It doesn’t mean you can’t still be mad at the people who are doing bad things; for example, it doesn’t mean you can’t criticize Trump’s behavior or the behavior of influential people who promoted rigged-election narratives; it doesn’t mean you can’t work hard for what you believe politically.
But it means trying to see how our fellow citizens have reasons for what they do, for what they believe, just as we do. At the very least we can try to see how there are many people who are easily deceived, no matter their political views, and maybe that’s actually a reason to feel bad for some of those people, not to hate them. In short, this stuff is complicated, and if I accomplish anything with this podcast, it’s to get some people thinking more about the complexity around us and the value of having some humility and uncertainty.
This has been the People Who Read People podcast, with me, Zachary Elwood. You can learn more about it www.behavior-podcast.com. If you think I’m doing something worthwhile or even important, please consider sharing some of my podcast episodes on social media and please leave me a rating on iTunes, which is the most popular podcast platform so the most important place to receive ratings. Also, I make no money currently on this podcast and spend a good deal of time on it, so if you like this, consider donating to my Patreon, which is at www.Patreon.com/zachelwood. My Twitter is at @apokerplayer.
Thanks for listening.
Music by small skies.