Editor’s note: This commentary is by Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint, D-Windham.
As I write this, there’s a national post mortem underway to examine every detail and aspect of the insurrection that occurred in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6. Thousands of rioters — encouraged by President Donald Trump — violently stormed the U.S. Capitol. Five Americans are dead and many thousands more will now live with the post-traumatic stress from hiding as the angry mob attacked. These delusional marauders marched under the banners “Stop the Steal” and “Trump is My President.” But they also held signs, waved flags and wore T-shirts that were much darker: celebrating the Holocaust, the Confederacy, and the dangerous and bizarre QAnon conspiracy. They insist that Trump did not lose the election and that he has called them to fight to take back the country. To them, emboldened by Trump and many others, invading the U.S. Capitol was the necessary next step.
Many of these Americans actually believe the baseless rhetoric of the Trump White House and the president’s many depraved accomplices in Congress. They’ve been swept up in a cult of personality that reinforces ideas and falsehoods they already held about our nation, its culture and its social order. What I’m wrestling with this morning is whether there’s an important distinction to be made between those who truly believe they’ve been wronged and the utterly morally reprehensible elected and appointed officials who supported this terribly dangerous ruse simply because they believed it served them politically.
At the end of the day, I believe there is. It is horrifying to understand that there are thousands of Americans among us who believe the election was stolen; who believe that there is a “cabal” controlling American government and the media. It is infinitely more concerning to acknowledge that there are politicians, longtime operatives and bureaucrats who know these claims to be false, and who have failed to correct them because these claims serve their aims of implementing a conservative agenda at whatever cost. Because these are different problems, they require different solutions.
First, we must try to recover those who’ve been truly and deeply misled. Think of a time when you made a mistake and were so embarrassed that you couldn’t bring yourself to apologize. Maybe you even decided to “double down” on the mistake because it felt easier to do that than to admit your error. This is not an unusual scenario; most of us have been there. It’s difficult to shift gears and cop to the mistake because we have to acknowledge our fallibility and accept unpleasant information about ourselves.
Psychologists refer to this as “cognitive dissonance” because we must hold contradictory ideas at once, and our resulting emotional stress feels out of sync with our previously held beliefs about ourselves. It’s not a comfortable feeling, even when the situation is rather minor. And when the dissonance is related to beliefs about an extremely consequential election, the results can be catastrophic.
Why are so many Americans willing to believe the truly fantastical scenarios about rampant fraud in this election? There are many contributing factors. Many citizens do not understand all the inner workings of elections and how elections are run by each state. Many aren’t familiar with the secure processes for tabulating absentee ballots. Others don’t truly understand the role of the courts. Some are motivated, either consciously or unconsciously, by racial animosity. Others fear for their economic future and believe outrageous, dangerous propaganda about President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.
And still others get their news from absurdly partisan websites and television networks which provide a uniformly comforting narrative that is in line with their world view: the world is dangerous; liberals want to destroy the world; immigrants, brown people and others are trying to steal scarce resources. When this is your reality, accepting that 7 million more people voted for Joe Biden defies belief.
To accept that Trump lost the election is to believe that on some level you are a loser. And if you’ve given money to the fraudulent initiative to supposedly “stop the steal,” well, you weren’t only duped, you’ve also paid a literal price for being fooled. Certainly, accepting the truth of the situation — that in fact Joe Biden clearly and decisively won the election — means also accepting that you were duped by the man you thought was looking out for you and your interests. This goes to the heart of your beliefs about yourself.
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But how do people arrive at this place of being hoodwinked? The research of Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman offers some insight. In his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” Kahneman argues that we tack between two different ways our brains form thought; he refers to them as System 1 and System 2. System 1 is quick, automatic, unconscious and frequent, and it’s driven by emotions and shaped by stereotypic tropes. System 2 is slow, infrequent, logical and requires effort. We spend most of our time operating in System 1. Kahneman asserts that in System 1 thinking, we associate new information with already existing patterns or thoughts, instead of creating new ones. And, says Kahneman, when we’re faced with a difficult question, we often will answer an easier one instead, usually without noticing the substitution.
The constant barrage of information available to us from radio, television and social media encourages our brains to stay in System 1. Rarely do we take the time to move the information collected in System 1 mode into a System 2 reflection.
In such times we need leaders who will show us the uncomfortable but courageous path forward. We need leaders at all levels who will take the information, add more detail, nuance and fact, and help us synthesize the realities that cause the distress of cognitive dissonance. This, President Trump and many congressional Republicans have failed to do. Instead, they have used the constant drama of System 1 to fuel fear, distrust and partisanship. Left unchecked, these three elements will undermine American democracy, and American society as a whole.
My point in discussing Kahneman’s work is not to excuse the actions of the mobs that attacked the Capitol, but to understand how some of these horribly misguided Americans got to this dangerous point. And to remind us of how we, as humans, all struggle with this dynamic within our own thought processes.
We have no time to waste. We must not wallow in System 1 thinking. We must use every tool available to us to marginalize conspiracy theories. We must prioritize and legitimize the truth-seeking process of excellent journalism — even when it stings our egos — and we must stop rewarding politicians who care more about scoring cheap political points than they do about the long-term health of our fragile democracy and the safety and well-being of its people.