Napoleon Bonaparte once observed that “History is a set of lies agreed upon.” The problem today is that there is little agreement on what the lies mean when lies attributed to one party are being used by the other party to achieve the same goal.
For months, President Biden, Democratic politicians, and some in the media have hammered away at “Trump’s Big Lie” of the 2020 election. They insist that former President Trump began months before the election to plant a false narrative that changes in election laws were part of an effort to “steal” the election. However, in the last few weeks, Biden and others are pushing their own “Big Lie” that state election laws are now being changed to steal the 2022 and 2024 elections. What is most striking is how these claims are detached from the actual laws themselves — the power of this claim being based entirely upon its repetition rather than its foundation.
After the 2020 election, some of us expressed skepticism over the claims of widespread fraud but waited to see the evidence presented in court. That evidence never materialized and, while I predicted an effort to challenge the electoral votes two days after the election, I wrote that calls to challenge the certification of the election were unfounded factually and legally.
Now it is the Democrats and some in the media who are declaring a “plot to steal” the 2024 election due to electoral changes in red states. The changes are being used as an excuse to federalize elections in the United States, an area that has been largely left to the states. Indeed, these laws are portrayed as such an attack on democracy itself that refusing to curtail the Senate’s filibuster rule is not a vote for preserving a long-protected rule of consensus but being an accessory to “election subversion.”
Biden’s embrace of rage politics has fueled the hysteria surrounding these laws. Last week, CNN’s White House correspondent Stephen Collinson denounced “a nationwide effort by GOP-run states to make it harder to cast ballots and easier to steal elections, which is rooted in ex-President Donald Trump’s voter fraud lies.”
The statement was telling. In responding to Trump’s “Big Lie,” Democrats and many in the media are doing something remarkably similar by claiming these state laws are an effort to steal the coming elections — claims that might fuel anger and violence similar to that seen after the 2020 election.
What is most notable about the relentless coverage of the effort to “steal” the election is the lack of specifics. Indeed, when President Biden has attempted to give specifics, he has received “Pinocchios” from Washington Post fact-checkers. He falsely and repeatedly claimed, for example, that the Georgia law (which he described as “Jim Crow on steroids”) sought to reduce hours to vote. The election law actually does the opposite: It guaranteed that, at a minimum, polls would remain open for a full workday while allowing extended hours commonly used on Election Day.
This month, President Biden pivoted away from the false claim of preventing people from voting to the more Trumpian claim of questioning whether ballots would be counted: “not as to who can vote but who gets to count the vote, count the vote, count the vote — it’s about election subversion, not just whether or not people get to vote.” Any vote miscount allegation can be (as it was with the Trump litigation) reviewed by the courts. Indeed, many of the provisions alluded to by Democrats have been reviewed and — at least temporarily — upheld.
Requiring voter identification has been repeatedly cited as clear evidence of an effort to steal the election. However, 80 percent of the public supports voter identification rules. The courts have overwhelmingly upheld these rules as constitutional.
Nevertheless, the drumbeat of the Democrats’ “Big Lie” continues. This month, Washington Post columnist Paul Waldman heralded Biden for confronting the “Big Lie” of Trump, but claimed that elections were still being stolen: “That dagger is still held at democracy’s throat. The lie about 2020 justifies and enables all the things Republicans are doing now to establish the means and the willingness to overturn the next election.”
Once again, Waldman does not actually state how the elections are being stolen. They just are, he says.
What is most interesting is how this claim is being amplified by Biden and others despite every indication that the public isn’t buying it, with election reforms barely registering on some polls as a major concern for voters. That is the problem with big lies. If the lies are not accepted by the public, they may just reduce faith in you rather than the election. Friedrich Nietzsche observed, “I’m not upset that you lied to me, I’m upset that from now on I can’t believe you.” Biden seems to be facing such a Nietzsche moment. With polls showing the president plunging and voters turning toward the GOP, there is clearly doubt over whether there really is a “dagger at democracy’s throat.”
There are good-faith arguments over issues like voter identification and early voting. There are also good provisions in the election bill that should be adopted by states. Yet even the Atlantic and some CNN hosts have noted that some blue states have even stricter rules (including Biden’s own state of Delaware), but President Biden is not claiming that Democrats there are trying to steal elections.
States historically have been allowed to develop their own election rules. While many Democrats are calling for the federalization of elections as proof of faith in democracy, these state laws are the product of democratic processes. When President Biden went to Atlanta to denounce the Georgia law, claiming it was part of an effort to kill democracy, he was asking Georgians to support negating a law that Georgians created for themselves … in the name of democracy.
The fact is that democracy is protected by our courts — and by a host of laws protecting the right to vote and banning discrimination against minority voters. What is daunting is that this Democratic “Big Lie” is being promulgated by the president on the basis of fighting Trump’s “Big Lie.” It is like condemning Bigfoot sightings as the basis for creating a federal Bigfoot bureau.
The Democrats’ “Big Lie” may not be convincing the public, but it is clearly convincing the most extreme parts of their party. Lies can give license to those who are predisposed to violence on both sides, from antifa to the Proud Boys. We have enough lies going into 2024. What we need is leadership.
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. You can find his updates on Twitter @JonathanTurley.