Get our latest essays, archival selections, reading lists, and exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.
Last month Donald Trump ended the presidential debate falsely alleging that mail-in voting is subject to mass voter fraud and refusing to commit to accepting the results of the election should he lose. A week later Mike Pence repeated the falsehood. These statements capped a months-long disinformation campaign by the Republican Party, led by Trump, designed to persuade Republicans and uncommitted voters that mail-in voting is unsafe and that Democrats are planning to use it to steal a “RIGGED!!!” election.
Republican Party elites have led a sustained disinformation campaign—spreading more election disinformation than both Facebook and Russia.
The disinformation appears designed to play three interrelated roles. First, the persistent repetition of voter fraud propaganda provides cover for executive and legislative actions by Republicans at the state level aimed to contain and deter mail-in voting. Prominent examples include Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s decision to remove ballot drop boxes that might help increase access to the ballot during the pandemic; South Carolina’s insistence that mailed ballots be attested by a witness; and the efforts of Pennsylvania’s Republican-controlled legislature to introduce a range of provisions that would make it harder for voters to receive and return mail-in ballots and increase the risk that, once returned, they will be invalidated. These efforts came within one vote of winning a U.S. Supreme Court reversal of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s interpretation of what the state constitution required to assure fair ballot access in the state.
A second likely goal of the disinformation campaign is to deter Democrats from using mail-in voting, for fear their votes will not arrive in time to be counted or will otherwise be challenged by Republicans. And, because Republicans have downplayed the risk associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, surveys find that Republicans are less concerned about the disease, and voters who say they are very unlikely to vote by mail overwhelmingly favor Trump, while Biden leads decisively among those who say they plan to vote by mail. The electoral advantage of constraining mail-in voting on the background of this asymmetry is obvious.
Last, the statements by both the president and vice president strongly suggest that part of the strategy is to develop ammunition for a rearguard battle over the outcome of the election, should the results be closer in battleground states than polls now suggest they may be.
Close examination of the disinformation campaign makes clear that it is not the whim of an individual, but a sustained effort led by Republican Party elites. My team at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society recently analyzed tens of thousands of online stories and Facebook posts and millions of tweets, published between March and August that discussed mail-in voting fraud. Consistent with work we had done on the 2016 election and the first year of the Trump presidency, we found that political elites played a far more important role than Russia or Facebook, say, in spreading election disinformation. GOP leadership, right-wing think tanks, and media elites, particularly from Fox News and talk radio, were the prime movers. Above all, Trump used his Twitter handle, press briefings, and interviews on Fox and talk radio to peddle the conspiracy theory that Democrats are trying to facilitate mass voter fraud in order to steal the election.
The true lesson of this disinformation campaign isn’t about journalism or technology. It is about decades of electoral reconfiguration under neoliberalism.
The effort has worked, sowing significant distrust. Opinion surveys conducted in August and September suggest that there are tens of millions of Americans who believe that mail-in voting is susceptible to voter fraud on a scale sufficient to tip the election. Roughly half of Republicans say that voter fraud is a major concern, and this share rises among those who get news only from Fox News and talk radio. Only a small minority of Republicans support expanding voting by mail. And while not all Republicans toe the party line, they also aren’t the only ones who buy the propaganda.
A substantial number of Americans who do not get their news from Fox News, including significant minorities of Democrats and independents, overstate the risk of fraud associated with mail-in ballots. This is true particularly of the surprisingly large numbers who still get news primarily from local television or legacy broadcast networks. This pattern underscores a major failure of the mainstream press. All independent studies of voter fraud consistently show that it is a statistically minuscule problem. Yet many mainstream news organizations—seeking headlines by obsessively reporting the president’s norm-breaking accusations, and driven by misguided implementation of “balanced” journalism—lend the claim credibility when they frame it as a matter of partisan debate, rather than an issue about which there are well-settled facts.
The true lesson of this disinformation and voter suppression campaign isn’t about journalism or technology, though. It is about decades of electoral reconfiguration under neoliberalism. The Republican assault on voter participation in 2020 reflects the deeper reality that the Republican strategy of the past fifty years has reached an electoral dead end.
• • •
Since the 1970s the Republican strategy has been to harness the mass voting power of anti-Black racism and religious fundamentalism to support the agenda of organized business. In part, the emerging conservative coalition was simple political calculus. After the legislative victories of the Voting and Civil Rights Acts, the Democratic coalition included the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, labor, and the emerging consumers and environmental movements. The Republican Party became the natural home of opponents of that broad coalition. If business was to succeed in passing its radical neoliberal program, it needed a large population of voters whose attention could be diverted from the politics of oligarchic extraction toward identity. White identity, fundamentalist, and masculine-identity voters would bring the votes, while money continued to control actual policy.
After the Democratic coalition broadened in the 1970s, the Republican Party became the natural home of its opponents. It appealed to the mass voting power of anti-Black racism and religious fundamentalism.
In part, this alliance reflected deeper foundations. The production and leveraging of racial ideology has always been a central strategy for undermining labor mobilization in the United States. Economic historians have shown that gender hierarchy has made women the quintessential latent reserve army of labor, whether as the core workforce in the first industrial revolution, the unpaid labor in reproduction and care work, or the workforce introduced into the lower-paid and insecure forms of work after deindustrialization and the rise of the services economy. Black women have long shown how the intersection of these dimensions of domination structures both labor markets and the movements for racial and gender justice throughout the past century. And from the Irish Catholics escaping the potato famine in the 1840s, through Italians and Jews feeding the sweatshops of the Gilded Age and Mexican braceros during and after World War II, to both documented and undocumented immigrants today, status-subordinated immigrants have always provided an exploitable class of workers and a combustible political target for demagogues.
While the foundations of the new Republican coalition were deep, then, its particular configuration was opportunistic, and soon became entangled with newly emerging dynamics in media markets. Lyndon Johnson knew he would lose white southern Democrats by supporting the Civil Rights Act. Nixon soon reaped rich rewards by turning frank racism into more palatable “law & order.” Evangelicals became politicized in part by backlash to the Women’s Movement, in part to the rights revolution and its limitations on public displays of religion. And backlash among men threatened by feminism was enough to flip the gender gap: from the 1920s until 1964 more women voted for Republicans, and men for Democrats; by 1980, that gap had inverted and taken the form we recognize today.
Denizens of this newly defined political identity also emerged as an audience segment that transformed the economics of media markets, giving birth to the outrage industry. Pat Robertson’s introduction of news reporting into religious broadcasting seeded the new business model in 1980. By 1986 Robertson’s CBN was third only to CNN and ESPN in cable viewership. The model was developed and market-proven by Rush Limbaugh on talk radio using Ronald Reagan’s elimination of the Federal Communication Commission’s fairness doctrine as part of his broader deregulatory agenda. Built on these pillars, right-wing propaganda and mouth-frothing identity confirmation turned into a fantastically successful business strategy for both Fox News, founded in 1996, and Clear Channel Communications (now iHeartMedia), which used the 1996 deregulation of radio ownership to deliver talk radio from coast to coast and morning till night.
Right-wing propaganda and mouth-frothing identity confirmation turned into a fantastically successful business strategy for Fox News and other right-wing media outlets.
As cable, satellite, and the Internet dramatically increased the number of channels and audience dispersion, the new strategy of providing intensive engagement to a distinct audience segment outperformed the older strategies of programming to the center and competing for a share of the majority of viewers and listeners. By the time MSNBC tried to mimic the strategy for the left in 2006, liberal viewers were getting identity-confirmation from mainstream media that refuted right-wing media propaganda, and the diverse coalition of the Democratic Party did not constitute a single market segment sufficiently homogeneous and alienated-from-the-mainstream to match the lucrative segment available on the right.
For three decades the business wing of the Republican coalition harnessed the voters of the popular wings to execute the neoliberal transformation of the U.S. economy. After Reagan and Bush, even Democratic Party elites accepted the core tenets of neoliberalism: deregulation, privatization, free trade, and low taxes as consensus policies. Throughout the neoliberal period, this elite consensus implemented policies and propagated narratives that enabled and legitimated the rise of an oligarchic elite while delivering economic insecurity and wage stagnation to the many. Mainstream media, for all its professional focus on fact checking and objectivity, was an integral part of that same elite consensus, and was never able to help people understand why their wages were stagnant and their economic prospects so bleak. Instead, media coverage was dominated by a steady flow of pat distractions—horse-race coverage of elections, celebrity scandals, and patriotic pablum in time of war. While individual opportunists took advantage of the dislocation and anxiety caused by these conditions to further unmoor millions of people from reality—think Limbaugh or Murdoch in media, or Trump in politics—the driving force of the epistemic crisis is that elite institutions, including mainstream media, in fact failed the majority of the people for decades.
• • •
As conservative audiences started to find and embrace programming that fed their biases and reinforced their alienation from mainstream media, these new media businesses triggered a propaganda feedback loop in which it became impossible for conservative politicians and media to survive without playing along. Media outlets started to police each other and moderate Republicans for consistency with the party line. Listenership and viewership numbers rewarded performers willing to stoke outrage, attack the opposition, and portray the worldview of the most committed and alienated half of the Republican base. Core personalities in this media ecosystem, particularly Limbaugh and Hannity, consistently attacked science, academia, government, and the media as sources of lies and propaganda long before Trump adopted the “fake news media” talisman as his own. They created a steady flow of identity-confirming viewpoints and “reporting” while persistently inoculating their audiences against news that conflicted with their aggrieved picture of reality.
Since 1988, the Republican Party has won the popular vote in one presidential election. The Electoral College is their only hope.
Not all Republican voters exist in this propaganda feedback loop. Even today, Pew surveys suggest that about 40 percent of Republicans get their news primarily from Fox News or talk radio. The difference in attitudes between the Fox News Republicans and more moderate Republican voters is large. Yet these more moderate Republican voters remain dispersed among legacy TV networks, local TV, and other media, and have no representative publications. Republican politicians get a consistent signal only from Fox News and talk radio, where they are rewarded for expressing the more radical views of that audience segment. Fox News, in turn, delivers votes. And as these activated audiences came to dominate the primaries, they drove moderate Republicans like Arlen Specter out of the party.
As the party moved farther to the right, its racism, sexism and heterosexism, and nativism became harder to hide, and reflected the views of a shrinking portion of the election. The propaganda feedback loop was driving the party further away from the median voter in a nation where naturalized citizens have grown as a proportion of eligible voters, as did those holding bachelor’s degrees; where the number of Americans who think religion is important is shrinking, and younger Americans are less religious and less heterosexist than their parents; and where evidence suggests a gradual secular decline in explicit and implicit racism. Since Limbaugh began syndication in 1988, the Republican Party has won the popular vote in one presidential election, running an incumbent wartime president in 2004. No one thinks that Joe Biden will lose the popular vote next month; the Electoral College is the Republicans’ only hope.
• • •
This history explains why the GOP has increasingly relied on anti-democratic levers in the U.S. electoral system: gerrymandering in the House, the Senate’s highly anti-majoritarian combination of representational imbalance and the filibuster, and the Electoral College. These were complemented by a broad campaign to make voting harder, from voter-ID and resistance to measures that simplify registration, through voter rolls purges and limiting voting infrastructure in urban centers, to disenfranchising the formerly incarcerated so as to leverage the racial bias of mass incarceration into electoral advantage. The aggressive campaign to fill the federal judiciary with reliable partisans complements this strategy by seeking to thoroughly entrench Republican control of the most counter-democratic of U.S. institutions. Since the near-miss of the 2000 election, “voter fraud” has played a central role in providing the legitimating justification for several strategies use to depress participation the growing population of minority and naturalized citizen voters. And today, we see people waiting five or even ten hours to vote at inadequately provisioned early voting booths, while the postal service engages in “cost cutting” that threatens to delay mail-in ballots into arriving too late to be counted.
The propaganda feedback loop has also made it increasingly difficult for the business wing of the party to control the popular wings as they had with all nominations from Reagan through Romney. The deep tension within the Republican coalition, between the needs and desires of the people who provided the votes and were suffering mounting economic misery under neoliberal policies, and the needs and desires of the people who wrote the checks and whose fabulous wealth was a direct result of those same policies exploded in 2016 when Trump succeeded in swamping the winners of the “money primary” by giving voice to the racism, nativism, and sexism of the mass base for the first time.
As deep tensions fracture the Republican coalition, the party has prioritized suppressing the votes of minorities and naturalized immigrants and blatantly voiced its racism, nativism, and sexism for the first time.
This victory has further deepened the electoral hole out of which the Republican Party has to dig itself. A core theme of the RNC’s 2012 election post-mortem was that the party had to steer clear of immigration: Hispanic voters were a critical and growing constituency that could be brought into the Republican coalition. But Trump’s victory was overwhelmingly based on whipping up the most explicit, racist anti-immigrant campaign in recent memory, and his Muslim ban and family separations abuses have made it increasingly impossible for most naturalized immigrants, overwhelmingly from Latin America and Asia, to support the Republican Party. The dog whistle politics of the Nixon’s War on Drugs, Reagan’s Welfare Queen, and the Bushes’ Willie Horton and Radical Islam were replaced by the bullhorn of Trump’s Mexican Rapists, and while the tune was the same tune, the pitch had become impossible to ignore. As the 2018 election showed, Trump’s frank racism, sexism, and nativism have also turned away some Republican voters, particularly women, who are not part of the Fox News/talk radio universe. As a result, suppressing the votes of the growing portion of the electorate made up of minority and naturalized eligible voters has become even more important to the Republican Party.
• • •
As the daily evidence of democratic crisis washes over us, too often we find ourselves looking for morally neutral or external culprits. Technology, we think, has caused an epistemic crisis so that no one knows what to trust any more. Russia, we fear, has upended our ability to think straight as a nation. Unfortunately, the reality is more deeply entrenched and structural. The crisis of American democracy is not caused by neutral factors, nor is it a passing infatuation with a masterful con man. It is simply the wreckage that neoliberalism has left us. It won’t be solved by more fact checking, Twitter notices, or Facebook oversight boards. It won’t be solved by increasing the budget of the intelligence industrial complex to identify foreign trolls or hacks. It will be solved, if at all, by building a multiracial coalition aimed to construct an inclusive social democracy.
The crisis of American democracy is not caused by neutral factors, nor is it a passing infatuation with a masterful con man. It is the wreckage of neoliberalism.
But a Biden-Harris victory will be only the first baby step toward a post-Trump, post neoliberal order, because the Democratic Party was complicit in the rise of neoliberalism. The increasing power of the progressive left within the party marks a clear path for the party’s transformation toward a more-or-less well defined post-neoliberal order: a multiracial social democracy. The GOP, by contrast, faces a difficult uphill battle if it is to pull back from the Trumpism that is the product of fifty years of unholy alliance. That uphill battle will only begin in earnest if the Republican recourse to anti-democratic institutions and practices fails to deliver victories, including on November 3.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
Protests in China are shining a light not only on the country’s draconian population management but restrictions on workers everywhere.
Support us with a donation this giving season.
Robin D. G. Kelley on the midterm elections.