Let me begin by saying that I am no expert in the theory of cognitive dissonance and I have not followed the news or social media much over the past few months. So what I am about to share is just my two cents, but I think it’s important to document my thoughts for the sake of history.
While I am relatively new to the theory, as I understand it, cognitive dissonance is the acknowledgement that sometimes we encounter or experience something that doesn’t fit our existing paradigm. In other words, the facts don’t fit the narrative that we’ve accepted as true. I have experienced this sensation before and I find I usually do my best learning under these conditions. Why? Well, if everything you encounter matches your existing paradigm, you most likely either 1) have life all figured out, 2) subconsciously adapt your understanding of situations to conform to your viewpoint, or 3) live in a bubble. Any of these three leads to mental stagnation and diminishes your capacity for growth. Thus, cognitive dissonance is not a condition to avoid, but rather a common mismatch between existing knowledge and new ideas which allows us to develop a better understanding of the world.
I read somewhere recently that people who question the integrity of the 2020 election suffer from cognitive dissonance. There are three assumptions upon which this claim relies:
Existing Paradigm - This claim assumes that the people in question operate from a perspective that more people voted for Trump than Biden.
New Information - This claim assumes that Biden received more votes than Trump.
Rationalization - This claim assumes that the people in question resolve this cognitive dissonance by attributing Biden’s win to widespread voter fraud to make it fit their belief that more people voted for Trump.
The first order of business is validating these assumptions and their relationship to one another.
Existing Paradigm - Several presidents (including Trump in 2016) have won the Electoral College without the popular vote. Thinking Trump got more votes is not necessary to question the integrity of the election. People may have these concerns for any number of reasons.
New Information - The number of legitimate votes Biden received is at the heart of this issue. Regardless of whether you accept this or not, it is the new information. However, whether or not it causes cognitive dissonance depends on assumption #1 being true.
Rationalization - This claim also depends on assumption #1 being true.
There probably are some people to whom all three assumptions apply, possibly millions of them, but to assume that anyone and everyone who questions the integrity of the election (a significant portion of the electorate) holds a singular worldview that “Trump got more votes” is disingenuous and does a disservice to open discussion by demeaning what could prove to be a foundational question for the future of our republic.
So besides assuming that Trump received more votes than Biden, what other reasons lead people to question the integrity of the election? People had concerns about the integrity of the election well in advance of the election. There were concerns of foreign interference and there were concerns about procedural matters and the lack of transparency related to mail-in ballots. Beyond this, there were several things related to the counting phase of the election that left a lot of people scratching their heads. There was a big jump in Biden votes in the middle of the night, there appeared to be technical irregularities in the data, there were videos circulated which purported to show people counting illegal ballots, there were reports of legitimate ballots being destroyed, there were reports of fraudulent ballots being counted, there were reliably red states which turned blue, and there were other reports of criminal mischief related to the election. There’s plenty more evidence that would lead people to question the integrity of the election and its outcome. That list just scratches the surface.
But weren’t these issues all addressed legally? Many of them were, but remember that elections are time-critical events. While it would be nice to have unlimited time to investigate every concern, there is a limited window between Election Day and Inauguration Day. Any issues resulting from the election must be addressed and resolved within this window to keep our government humming along. That means that those who identify issues often have to choose to raise them with incomplete evidence or just ignore them. Many probably choose to avoid making accusations because they lack adequate evidence. However, there were people who felt that the fraud they observed in the 2020 election was bad enough to bring the issues to light. So you have people raising claims of election fraud which become legal challenges without sufficient evidence to win. Does it mean that the fraud wasn’t there? Not necessarily, but it does mean that it couldn’t be proven. Could it be proven if there was more time? Nobody knows, but the question is inconsequential because there isn’t more time.
So if there isn’t time to address the issues, shouldn’t those people just accept the election results? No. The integrity of the country relies absolutely on the integrity of its elections. If the United States is to remain a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, then the people must be free to elect their leaders without cheating, fraud, or interference. And therein lies the root of why many people are questioning the integrity of the election. It is not about who wins, it’s about whether this is a free country. If its leaders are not legitimately elected, then the government does not belong to the people and must be dissolved. This is why the question of election integrity is so important and hopefully that is a point upon which everyone can agree.
Another reason people question the integrity of the election is the influence of the media. A growing number of Americans is learning not to trust the media. Decades ago, the conventional wisdom was “Don’t believe everything you see on television.” A few years ago, it was “Don’t believe everything you see on the news.” Now, it’s “Don’t believe anything you get from the news.” The news media has been complicit in so much disinformation and misinformation for so long that it has become little more than a propaganda tool. The different outlets give different spins, but none are without bias. The media in general have a longstanding record of counting Trump out (Republican primary, general election, Mueller investigation, impeachment, etc.), predicting Democrat wins, and frequently getting the story wrong. Their messaging in the aftermath of the election was heavily characterized by phrases like “baseless,” “unsubstantiated,” and “without evidence.” So when a biased, often-incorrect propaganda outlet demands everyone accept their version of the facts without question, a little apprehension is understandable.
To summarize, questioning the integrity of the election may be due to accounts of election fraud, concern for the legitimacy of the government, and mistrust of media outlets as much as the belief that Trump received more votes. Thus, to automatically assume those who question the election’s integrity do so from a desire to rationalize their cognitive dissonance devalues a lot of real issues that will not go away after Inauguration Day. Avoiding this sort of post-election fallout in future elections requires us to stop shutting down dissenting voices and have an open, honest conversation about election security and the role of the media in the political sphere. Through these conversations, we can better prepare for 2022 and 2024 when we again come together to elect leaders and representatives for our government of, by, and for the people.