September 17, 2021 | Reading Time: 3 minutes
To save American democracy, take all the fun out of lying
The power of treating Republicans like adults.
Scott Kirby is the CEO of United Airlines. The global corporation he runs employs about 67,000 people in the US. On Thursday, he appeared on CNN’s morning show, “New Day.” He said something that surprised host Brianna Keilar, but won’t surprise readers of the Editorial Board.
Kirby said the number of employees who resigned from their jobs rather than get vaccinated, per company order, was in “the single digits.” “We’re going to have more by the time it finishes, but it’s going to be a very low number of people who ultimately decided to leave.”
CNN’s Keilar responded with surprise. (“Single digits!”) I’m guessing that’s because she has seen the same polls everyone else has seen that show eye-popping percentages of the unvaccinated (67 percent in one poll) swearing up and down they’ll never do what they’d told and be forced into getting vaccinated against the covid. They’d quit their jobs first! Well, if United is any indication, they’re doing what they’re told.
Instead of asking ourselves what we’re going to do to save democracy on account of so many people distrusting elections, let’s save democracy by doing this one weird trick: stop believing people who tell themselves wild, howling lies.
Editorial Board readers aren’t surprised. That’s the dynamic I outlined in Monday’s edition. I said we’d see at the same time polls that show resistance to vaccines and company reports that show compliance. There’s only one explanation. These people are lying. Moreover, they like to think of themselves as macho heroes who will never fold under pressure. When the pressure comes, though, they fold in a hurry.
Business is different from politics, obviously, but I want to suggest a similar dynamic is playing out in recent polls that show eye-popping percentages of Republican voters saying they believe Joe Biden isn’t the real president. According to CNN, 76 percent of Republicans say they have no or little confidence in elections. According to a new PRRI survey, 76 percent of Fox-watching Republicans believe the 2020 presidential election was stolen. A typical reaction to this is shock and dismay. How can we save democracy when so many people don’t have any trust in the democratic process? And no one has an answer.
It’s past time to rethink this. Instead of asking ourselves what we’re going to do to save democracy on account of so many people distrusting elections, let’s save democracy by doing this one weird trick: stop believing people who tell themselves wild, howling lies.
Remember the people who are saying that Donald Trump is the real president are the same people who said they’d quit their jobs before getting vaccinated. (They are also the people who are drinking sheep drench.) Their employers didn’t buy it and the lie was revealed. We shouldn’t buy it either. These people know vaccines are safe. They know how to go to a doctor. They know how to take medicine. Similarly, they know Joe Biden is the real president. Their employers are treating them as moral agents. We should treat them that way, too.
Here’s the tip jar!
Let me put this another way. Trust has zero to do with any of this. There was nothing public health officials could do to inspire trust in anti-vaxxers. Eventually, employers had to force them. Eventually, the president followed suit. There is nothing we can do to inspire trust in Republican voters. They are choosing to believe the lies that Fox and others are telling them, because believing so many lies feels so good. Believing the lie that Donald Trump is the real president is part of the bigger lie that goes into shaping their identities as “real Americans.”
Choosing to believe lies feels oh-so-good, but that’s not the only thing. The other thing is seeing the reaction, first and foremost — What are we going to do to save our democracy! They love it for its own sake — it’s fun! — but also because they love seeing people of good faith scrambling to please people of bad faith who have no intention to trust anyone who’s not already a “real American.” Even as we strive to save democracy, we enable people who are okie-dokie with its demise.
You might be thinking that if GOP voters don’t really mean anything they say, there’s no harm done to democracy. But that’s where you’d be wrong. Lies beget bigger lies. Corruption begets more corruption. We know what can happen. Together, they can bring down a republic.
The lies, however, mask a subset of Republicans who really believe what they are saying. For instance, that handful of people who quit their jobs at United Airlines. They are the True Believers. They truly believed their comrades, who said they’d quit, too. So much for in-group solidarity! Now they know their comrades didn’t mean what they said. They feel betrayed. Hell hath no fury like a True Believer scorned.
We can’t stop them from telling themselves wild, howling lies about being “real Americans” chosen by God to rule America in His name. But we can treat them like moral agents. We can say, look. You know the truth. You know you are choosing to believe a lie. The question now is whether you are prepared to face the consequences. That would take the fun out of lying and perhaps save democracy in the process.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.