Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, February 11, 2021

The Great Nothing-Conspiracy of the 2020 Election


Time Magazine has a much-shared piece entitled "The Secret History of the Shadow Campaign That Saved the 2020 Election".  It's been shared around a lot on social media.  On the right, I most often see it shared with the comment, "See, now they're admitting they stole the election" or "No Republican will ever be able to win national office again; the fix is in."  So I figured I'd do what a lot of people sharing the article perhaps hadn't done and read the article -- not the just the headline but the entire thing.  Having finished it, I'm surprised at how little it has to say.

The oft quoted opening summary goes:

The handshake between business and labor was just one component of a vast, cross-partisan campaign to protect the election–an extraordinary shadow effort dedicated not to winning the vote but to ensuring it would be free and fair, credible and uncorrupted. For more than a year, a loosely organized coalition of operatives scrambled to shore up America’s institutions as they came under simultaneous attack from a remorseless pandemic and an autocratically inclined President. Though much of this activity took place on the left, it was separate from the Biden campaign and crossed ideological lines, with crucial contributions by nonpartisan and conservative actors. The scenario the shadow campaigners were desperate to stop was not a Trump victory. It was an election so calamitous that no result could be discerned at all, a failure of the central act of democratic self-governance that has been a hallmark of America since its founding.
This is the inside story of the conspiracy to save the 2020 election, based on access to the group’s inner workings, never-before-seen documents and interviews with dozens of those involved from across the political spectrum. It is the story of an unprecedented, creative and determined campaign whose success also reveals how close the nation came to disaster. “Every attempt to interfere with the proper outcome of the election was defeated,” says Ian Bassin, co-founder of Protect Democracy, a nonpartisan rule-of-law advocacy group. “But it’s massively important for the country to understand that it didn’t happen accidentally. The system didn’t work magically. Democracy is not self-executing.”

But what does the story actually show? 

It partly follows the efforts of Mike Podhorzer, an AFL-CIO political advisor who put together an informal group to share ideas on how to deal with what he considered to be the two most likely outcomes of the election: "Trump losing and refusing to concede, and Trump winning the Electoral College (despite losing the popular vote) by corrupting the voting process in key states."

Now, I think it's worth pausing a moment to think about those two alternatives, because what they highlight is that he wasn't prepared to think about the possibility that Trump might just plain win the election.  He seems to be implying that if Trump won again via a narrow margin in key electoral vote states, this would be "by corrupting the voting process in key states".  In other words, what we're hearing from here is the mirror image of the "stop the steal" crowd -- people not willing to admit it's possible to lose.

You might think this was pointing towards dark revelations of how this "shadow campaign" tilted the election towards Biden.  But what follows is...  not very exciting.  Members of the group helped get funding for masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer for poll workers.  Others supported campaigns to get mail-in voting approved more widely by states and to encourage people to make sure of it if they had COVID related concerns about voting in person.  They promoted news about how the counting would likely look: if the in-person votes were counted first, the counts would at first look Trump-heavy, and then as mail-in ballots were counted the count would shift towards Biden.  They encouraged people to report disinformation to platforms like Facebook and Twitter rather than writing explainers enouncing it because the denunciations tended to just make the disinformation spread faster.

It makes a great deal of some rather anodyne moments.  Such as the AFL-CIO and Chamber of Commerce putting out a joint statement saying: “It is imperative that election officials be given the space and time to count every vote in accordance with applicable laws.  We call on the media, the candidates and the American people to exercise patience with the process and trust in our system, even if it requires more time than usual.”

After the election, the left-leaning parts of the network encouraged their allies not to stage big post election protests, lest they turn violent.  

The article also tries to give the activists a lot of credit for focusing attention on a few of the "pressure points" in the election counting and certification process:

Election boards were one pressure point; another was GOP-controlled legislatures, who Trump believed could declare the election void and appoint their own electors. And so the President invited the GOP leaders of the Michigan legislature, House Speaker Lee Chatfield and Senate majority leader Mike Shirkey, to Washington on Nov. 20.

It was a perilous moment. If Chatfield and Shirkey agreed to do Trump’s bidding, Republicans in other states might be similarly bullied. “I was concerned things were going to get weird,” says Jeff Timmer, a former Michigan GOP executive director turned anti-Trump activist. Norm Eisen describes it as “the scariest moment” of the entire election.

The democracy defenders launched a full-court press. Protect Democracy’s local contacts researched the lawmakers’ personal and political motives. Issue One ran television ads in Lansing. The Chamber’s Bradley kept close tabs on the process. Wamp, the former Republican Congressman, called his former colleague Mike Rogers, who wrote an op-ed for the Detroit newspapers urging officials to honor the will of the voters. Three former Michigan governors–Republicans John Engler and Rick Snyder and Democrat Jennifer Granholm–jointly called for Michigan’s electoral votes to be cast free of pressure from the White House. Engler, a former head of the Business Roundtable, made phone calls to influential donors and fellow GOP elder statesmen who could press the lawmakers privately.

 Maybe these efforts were a factor.  Maybe not.  I think it's worth noting that although many GOP politicians who were in a position to win points with angry and fearful GOP voters by grandstanding about the election did so (looking at you, Ted Cruz) none of the GOP state officials and GOP-appointed judges who had parts to play in the election drama caved to the hysteria and conspiracy theories.  Even the electoral vote objections on January 6th, disgraceful as they were, had no path to changing the election results.  These were drama-only events which served to create hatred and division but did not actually have any chance to change the election result.  

That's not to say that it's bad or even useless that a lot of people put time and effort into trying to make sure that the election moved forward smoothly.  After all, a democracy is a government of and by the people, and out state works not merely because "the state" does things but because many organizations and informal networks throughout society support the working of democracy.  (As a side note, this is why it's hard to "spread democracy" in places that do not have a culture and history which support it.)

But I think it's important to note that the fear-inspired reactions to this piece from left and right are both wrong.  No, we didn't come within a hair's breadth of having our democratic institutions collapse; we just had a very contentious election that some people did not like the results of.  And no, this is not proof that a dark conspiracy of elites and big tech now will control all elections, it's just a puff piece about some people who think they did their part to keep democracy working.

There is probably an important lesson to be learned here in terms of the sorts of organizing that will be important in the future.  Just as Trump's organization in some ways drew lessons from the way that Obama organized his successful campaigns, there are probably useful lessons to be learned from this group left, right, and center.  But what people should not take from this is that not dark forces control it all and there's no point in bothering to vote anymore because the fix is in.


Nate Winchester said...

None of the state GOP officials caved to conspiracy... until it was their people who lost.

Look who's now concerned about voter registration.

Look who's now concerned about voter registration.

Darwin said...

I guess I'm not fully clear what you're indicating here. The charge here is apparently that the New Georgia Project violated state election regulations that require that organizations collecting registrations forms turn in those forms within ten days. According to the Georgia Secretary of State, there were 1268 forms collected by New Georgia Project in 2019 which they took longer than 10 days to deliver.

That's a violation of regulations and, if proved, the NGP may end up getting fined or otherwise disciplined for violating regulations, but it doesn't really involve activity that would have affected the outcome of an election and so doesn't relate to Trump's 2020 claims.

However, if NGP is going to register voters, the need to obey the law just like anyone else, and if they violate the law they should be punished. Seems pretty open and shut.

Nate Winchester said...

You honestly believe that an organization just got up to violating the law in approximately 2 months? Just overnight they had everything set?

That there was just no chance that people willing to break the law and rig things for a state election are just going to completely not do it for stakes that are much larger and they have a self-admitted moral drive to do so right before?

. . .

I mean you claim to be a writer, but you have this bad an understanding of human nature? Or are this bad at piecing together a larger picture?

Well you're probably qualified for the modern star wars films.

Paul Zummo said...

People are so heavily invested in the conspiracy no amount of rational argumentation is going to convince them. Something about pearls and swine comes to mind.