The Question of Trust in American Politics
by Nick Penniman
December 11, 2020
Nick | I started Issue One six years ago with the explicit purpose of developing a bipartisan organization to pursue political reform at the federal level. Since then, we’ve developed a staff of about 30 and have supported more than a dozen pieces of legislation. Last year, we had three legislative victories. We have recruited 200 former members of Congress to join us as something called The ReFormers Caucus. Nearly half of them are Republicans. Most recently we've pivoted heavily into election integrity issues. We launched a $20 million campaign in October called Count Every Vote to help make sure that the 2020 elections were safe, secure, and complete.
frank | How do you ensure that? What do your specific efforts look like?
Our campaign is mainly a public relations campaign. The purpose of which is to validate the democratic process in this country. The campaign is overseen by the National Council on Election Integrity, which is a group of more than 40 individuals, half Republicans, and half Democrats. It's everyone from Madeleine Albright to Leon Panetta to Tom Ridge to Bill Frist to Tom Daschle to Dan Coats, who was President Donald Trump's director of national intelligence. It's a mix of Democrats and Republicans. There are seven former Cabinet secretaries, nine former U.S. senators, two retired admirals, and one retired general. It’s a great group.
Going into this cycle, we knew Trump was going to try to do exactly what he's doing, which is to proclaim that if he lost, it was because of fraud because of a rigged process. We predicted that that would happen. So we wanted to put up some kind of a counterforce to that that had bipartisan credibility and integrity.
Since the election, we've pivoted into some of these state-by-state fights. We are doing ad campaigns. In sum, it’s a public relations campaign to spread the reassurance message that the democratic process was safe, secure, and definitive, but also, when things go south, to stop things from happening.
Legislatively, it doesn't seem like there's a huge argument on the Trump side, but there’s a lot at stake in terms of people's faith in the electoral system.
Right. Step one was to put forth the propaganda of fraud, and repeat that, and convince enough people within the Republican Party, and enough Trump voters, that this was a fraudulent election. The Politico poll that came out the other week showed that 70% of Republicans believe that the election was not free and fair. Step two is to file the lawsuits to help put forth the notion of fraud. But they've won just one out of over 40 of the lawsuits! They have failed to produce any evidence. They are, in effect, doubling down on the propaganda. Step three is to try to convince states that because the election was fraudulent, it's really up to the legislatures to do the right thing and send Republican slates of electors in order to express the will of the people.
Has anything ever come close to that 70% threshold?
How do you measure your success with your ad campaigns?
It's very hard to measure success. In order to show that the ad campaign is moving the needle in some way, we would have had to have begun a daily or weekly tracking poll a long time ago. But we haven't. Our assumption is that spending a lot of money in these states and putting it on Fox, on conservative talk radio, in bipartisan op-eds in the Milwaukee paper, and things like that, will somehow open up enough room for enough of the Republicans that Trump has been courting to think twice about what they're doing.
What seems to have been revealed through this election is how much hinges on a handful of individuals adhering to democratic norms. Have those norms been broken irreparably
This has been America's first real brush with authoritarianism. I honestly can't think of a situation like this.
If you go all the way back through 19th and 20th-century presidents, I don't think we've ever had this close brush with true authoritarianism before. You have a president who is willing to destroy all the guardrails, all the democratic norms, and standards to maintain his grip on power, with not enough of a substantial pushback within his own party. It's pretty terrifying. I'm deeply concerned about the future of what the next election cycle looks like.
Trump has done a great job at demeaning and degrading the integrity of our election process in America. It is not unlikely that in future elections, people will continue to feel that it is all rigged. The consequences of that are potentially profound.
That is contrasted, of course, with the recent press release from the Cyber Security Infrastructure Agency that said that they believe that this is the most secure election in U.S. history. At the very moment that we should be celebrating that we voted in the highest percentages in a hundred years, with the highest numbers ever, during a pandemic, with the least amount of interference, we're sitting here scared to death that the president of the United States is going to undermine the popular will of the people. It's a pretty striking moment to be in.
The public trust in our election system and the actual efficiency & reliance of the system are not converging. Our actual progress in terms of election administration is not driving the public perception. What, instead, do you think is driving these narratives?
I think it's been a long time coming. The destruction and depletion of the political system in this country through gerrymandering, through the domination of money in politics, through the barriers that have been put up to people voting, through tribalization of media and information — all of those combined create an environment that's really fertile for authoritarians to claim that the system's rigged against the regular people in this country. That is what Trump did. He claimed that he was going to do something about it, that he was an outsider, and that he was the only one who could do something about it. It was a very appealing pitch in 2016.
When you combine the democratic depletion with the stagnation of the middle and working classes, there are a lot of people in this country who are rightly really frustrated.
For the first time in U.S. history, the majority of people in this country said their children's lives would not be better than their lives. I have three kids. If I actually woke up every single day of my life and looked at my little kids and thought that their lives would be worse than my life and thought that my life is worse than my parents' life – that’s a horrible feeling. Combined, it creates a huge opportunity for someone with an authoritarian mindset to come in and say we need to wreck the whole thing because it's obviously not working for anyone.
If I really had to pin what's occurred in the last month on one phenomenon, it would be on the tribalization of the media. The disparity between the 70% of Republicans who believe that this was not a free and fair election, while our own Department of Homeland Security is claiming that it was the safest and most secure in history shows that we have people living in totally different information environments.
Why do you think that is?
It's a really hard one to solve. We need to reconsolidate the national narrative around journalism. To do that, I think we have to create a campaign equivalent to what we did with smoking. We have to teach people that consuming totally biased, totally propagandistic media is actually bad for them.
I spent 15 years of my life as a journalist before this. I was a newspaper editor and a magazine reporter and then a magazine publisher. My dad was a newspaper publisher. When I grew up, the conversation was centered around a handful of media outlets. I grew up in St. Louis. There was the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. There was the St. Louis Globe-Democrat. At our house, we got Newsweek and Time. We would watch the nightly news. And maybe we would get the National Review, a conservative magazine, sent to our house, but that was about it.
What was powerful about that is that all of those places were committed to the project of journalism and to getting it right. The conversation that we were having in this country was not about whether or not the facts existed, but what to do with the facts. That's what we've got to get back to.
There's nothing wrong with disagreeing about what to do with the facts, but when people can't even agree if the facts exist, a conversation is impossible.
The only solution that I can think of is treating it like tobacco. You can do those things if you want, but you should know what they're really bad for you. Ultimately, if you're going to be consuming media a couple of hours a day, you should be going to places that are committed to the art of journalism and to the truth.