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interviews

Losing Our Religion

by Lonna Atkeson
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© Frank

interviews

Losing Our Religion

by Lonna Atkeson
October 14, 2020

This interview with Lonna Atkeson, professor at University of New Mexico, was conducted and condensed by franknews

Lonna Atkeson | I study political science, election science, and election administration, and have been studying these subjects for a very long time. I like to think of myself as someone who has elections in my DNA. When I was a very little girl, around seven years old, I set up my own ballot boxes around my neighborhood. I have always loved elections, and see myself as having a long term connection with these questions and interests.

frank | How do voters establish their perceptions of election integrity? How does rhetoric affect the perception of integrity? 

In political science, we measure the perceived integrity of elections with a couple of questions. How confident are you that your ballot was counted correctly? How confident are you that all the ballots in your state were counted correctly? In the nation? From these questions, we can assess how people feel about the legitimacy of the process. 

This election year is obviously complicated with COVID, and the election process itself is much more complicated this time around for voters. That can lead to confusion, and confusion can go on to affect how voters ultimately feel about this election's integrity. The way people perceive the election is largely rooted in their own experience. 

We have also been presented with two very interesting narratives about election integrity— one on the left and one on the right. On the left, you hear concerns about the potential for voter suppression. On the right, you hear issues about voter fraud. 

There are very loud narratives, on both sides, that delegitimize the process, and that is what is especially concerning about this election. 

Is there legitimacy to those narratives? Is voter fraud something to be worried about? Is voter suppression a legitimate thing to be worried about?

To begin thinking about this question, I think it is important to ask — what is the goal of an election? There are three pillars: integrity, access, and finality. These pillars work in tension with each other. The more accessible the system is, the more open it is to mischief. The more you tighten the system to prevent mischief, the lower access is, and the more likely you are to prevent some people from getting the opportunity to vote. You can make changes to both integrity and access, but then you change the finality of the election — when is this process going to end? We need some sort of finality, and finality is almost certain to be affected in this election as we expect to see a longer counting process.

So the way people perceive the election is going to be in part affected by the narrative that they're placed in, as well as whatever experience they have with their own ballot and their own election system. Does their ballot get rejected? Do other people's ballots get rejected? How many ballots get rejected? People are seeing all these things on social media where people are receiving someone else's ballot. These are all new experiences for people, and they're having to evaluate them individually. What does that mean for the integrity of the process? We haven't talked about these things very much, but they could be very important in this election, and they're important in elections generally.

The conversation seems very specific to the United States. Why do you think that is? And how does the public perception of elections affect the democratic underpinnings of the U.S.? 

I think it's about the affective polarization going on in the US — voting is just another space to be polarized. Again, the left and the right see things differently. Integrity and access are both natural things to look at when looking at an election. You can be more concerned about one or the other, depending on what your experience is, or depending on what the narrative of your party is.

The question of how the public is going to view the legitimacy of this election, is really the major question at hand.

The aftermath of the election is also going to be hugely important. Obviously, if it's a blowout election, then things are going to be easy to resolve. But if it's a close election, and there's a lot of rejected ballots due to people engaging in a process that they're inexperienced with, how does that affect the perceived legitimacy?

In May, in a local New Jersey election, there was an average of 10% rejection rate across all of the counties. If we see that kind of rejection rate in a close state like Pennsylvania or Florida, how is that going to affect our perception not only of the legitimacy of the election, but the legitimacy of who takes office? 

It's one thing, to feel like, I voted in this process and I don't like the people who got elected, but I believe that they're legitimately elected. It's another thing to feel like, I don't like the people in office and I don't even think they belong there — in fact, I don't even think we elected them. That has the potential to undermine democracy. That is what is scary about this election.

What can people do to prepare for a disputed outcome? 

I think people need to take control of their own ballot.

If you're concerned about the post office, then drop your ballot off. Most states allow you to drop your ballot off at an early voting location or the county election official office. People should be primarily concerned about securing themselves. I think that's fundamental, because if I'm in control of my process, if I know what's happening, and if I have some sense that other people are doing the same, then I am going to have greater confidence in the election.

A lot of people are looking to the 2000 election and to Florida. It seems that the difference is, both candidates were prepared to walk away based on the result. How does this moment feel by comparison?

Gallup polled people's perspectives on the legitimacy of both the 2000 election and the 2016 election. The public response was the same in both elections. Despite all the loud rhetoric, most people accepted the legitimacy of the election, no problem. 

Sometimes I wonder how much the voices, and the extremism of social media, enhances fear, outrage, and anger in an outsized way. If you were to just look around your own life, it's not that dangerous. But when we look at images, we have these mirroring neurons in our minds that make us feel like we are there too — that's why we like watching sports and dancing. And of course, that is a problem in politics, because it enhances the extremism in our society. No one's going to get away from social media, but, probably, that is what we should do.

How should the media participate in the narrative about the election's integrity and legitimacy? 

I think that's really complex because, again, there are two, rather extreme, narratives circulating. And everyone seems to be embedded in these narratives in a way that I have not seen before. Historically, we have not seen high levels of attitude constraints — the level of consistency between attitudes within an individual belief system. However, in the last decade, attitude constraint has increased. That is largely because we are embedded in systems, the media being one, that encourages us to create more constraint among our belief systems. It aligns everybody into much clearer tribes and camps than we have seen before.

On the one hand, it is important not to be trapped in the hysteria. But on the other hand, what is a civil war? When are you in a civil war? Are you only in a civil war when you have secession tablets written out?

People on both the left and the right clearly feel that the government is unresponsive, but their solutions and policy preferences are distinctly different. And we have gotten much worse at being tolerant of each other. I teach political behavior, and I added a moral component to my class where I actually try to teach intellectual humility. I think that we have lost a reasonableness. 

We have such a tendency to see such undesirable traits in each other.

A willingness to recognize that whatever position someone has on a policy is coming from a point of honesty and earnestness seems to be something we have completely lost. I don't know how to get it back.

I live in a home where my sons are Republicans and I'm not, so I have to deal with this all of the time. Living in a home that is divisive makes me have to be not divisive, and I don't think we're living in many places where that's an opportunity anymore. I live in this unique home, in a unique environment. I come from a working-class family — I'm very educated and my family's not very educated. My family could be considered more Trumpian right now, and we have to be really tolerant of each other, but most people don't have to be. 

As a professor, I go out and talk to my community all the time. Even eight years ago, I could go out into the community and have a discussion about interesting ideas. Now when I go out in the community, I feel like people mostly want me to tell them what they want to hear. That's a switch. It wasn't like that a decade ago.

Regardless of the result of this election, I find it hard to think about what happens beyond November 3rd. The polarization seems hard to overcome. 

I'm expecting a whole barrage of litigation regarding the integrity of ballots or arguments about the counting of ballots on November 3rd, but I can't think much beyond that either. If I try to think about what a different administration would look like under COVID, is it really going to be much different?

It seems the circumstances are stronger than anything. Politics only has so much will around a disease.

Between the parties, there are push and pull factors. When you think about how working-class Americans have turned to the Republican party and turned to Trump, that is not just a pull factor. The Democratic party has made a huge effort to push those people away. It's part of the rhetoric these leaders use as well. Both Clinton and Obama spoke about working-class voters in a certain way that sent a message to working-class voters that they were not wanted in the party. 

It seems to me that we only ever focus on the pull factors, and we don't think about how it's both a push and pull system that works to move people into different camps. That is much more dynamic and a much more complete understanding of what is going on in our political system.

The media tends to focus on individuals as the primary driving factor for people's politics, but there are many factors — and both Democrats and Republicans are playing this game. 

I think if we are adamant Republicans admit the failure of their party lies in race, we should be equally staunch about Democrats acknowledging the failure and abandonment of the working class.

My family is all working class, they're all out there in the grocery store, while all of my professor friends are locked away in their houses, Zooming along. To me, this moment seems like such a class issue, but we don’t seem to be talking about it in that way at all.

Our conversations in the political realm seem to consistently fail to get to the root of people’s needs. There is an underlying feeling in this country that the government is unresponsive. I mean, I have heard politicians talk about bringing businesses together for cheaper health care and lowering the cost of prescription drugs for basically my entire life. I've heard the same messages, from both sides, over and over and over again. People have experienced this over and over again, and who is or isn’t in power hasn't mattered much to their bottom line. 

When we ask why more people don’t participate in the system – maybe the answer is because participating in the system hasn't made much of a difference. 

There are many reasons why people could find Democrats unattractive and Republicans or Trump attractive. We all think that politicians are liars. The thing about Trump is that he wears that all on his sleeve. He’s honestly dishonest. Do you know what I mean? I think for some people, they look at him and think, well yeah he's dishonest, but so is Biden, so is my Congressman.

I think some people find his dishonesty to be an almost honest characteristic.

Right, and when people operate under the guise of morality and ethics, it feels more evil. 

Morality is something that worries me so much in politics. It results in equating politics with religion, because moral authority is what religion has. If you have a moral reason to do something, you can't and won’t compromise. There is no ability to compromise — if you claim moral authority, there's a line in the sand.  

The whole design of the American government is to try to compromise — to thwart majoritarianism, to thwart the passions of the people, and to thwart moral authority. Madison was obsessed with the possibility of the majority being tyrants, and the whole system is designed to stop that and to enforce incrementalism.

But now, I hear politicians regularly use the word moral – easily, which is dangerous because morality prevents them from compromising. It leads the people to believe there is only one right outcome. And as we see the decline of religion globally, is politics the next religion? We tried hard in this country to remove politics from religion, but it seems that as political ideology becomes more constrained and more important in people's lives, we are moving to a place where politics is our religion. Especially on the left, because people on the right actually have another religion that they are attracted to. That is very worrisome.

When you have religious authority, you have a why, and when you have a why, you find a how.

Promoting politics as religion is dangerous, and promoting politicians as idols or celebrities is dangerous too. It makes it easy to forget they work for you, because celebrities have fans, fans act as a congregation, not as a critical electorate. 

It's too affective. It's not rational. Where's the rationality? We've been moving away from rationality towards affective politics, and that is problematic.

When I think about candidate campaigns, I think of them as love affairs. I think it is a really great metaphor for the way you are introduced to a candidate. You can think about this in the context of 2008, where there is this love affair with Obama. And what happens in a love affair? You project onto a person and see yourself in them — they believe this, or they are just like me on this. And over time, you come to realize, well, no, they're not just like me. And the love affair starts to change. But because politics is a collective love affair, not an individual one, the projections can remain longer. In a collective world and as a collective person, I can continue to project onto them because what is the real impact on me?