When history of this era is written, the struggle for democracy will be in the very first chapter. We know the chapter will begin with the Big Lie, but we do not yet know how it will end. This week gave us two clues for what we will encounter on the road ahead.
On Tuesday, Senate Republicans spent the day trying to block the passage of a federal law that would set minimum standards and protections for voting and protect voters from extreme partisan gerrymandering. Not a single Republican will dare support the bill. For all of the praise heaped on the likes of supposedly “moderate” Republicans such as Mitt Romney, Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, there is no longer any place in the Republican Party for protecting voting rights.
On Wednesday, House Republicans voted to remove Liz Cheney from a leadership post because of her insistence that Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election. The party has room for Republicans who are for free or fair trade, pro-business or anti-business or even pro-tax or anti-tax. The only disqualification for membership in the party of Lincoln is to acknowledge that Joe Biden’s election was legitimate.
Republican politicians have gotten the message. Over the last few weeks, the Big Lie has started its dangerous transition from a fringe theory to official state policy and law. The Big Lie has become the justification for passing laws that make it harder and, in many cases, impossible for lawful American voters to vote. It has been used to justify a farcical “audit” in Arizona that includes searching for remnants of bamboo as the “auditors” attempt to prove the most incredulous conspiracy theories peddled in the far-rightest fringes of the Internet.
And, most ominously, the Big Lie is being used to replace nonpartisan election officials with people who fully embrace and believe those same unhinged conspiracy theories.
In 1974, Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn warned that in his country “the lie has become not just a moral category but a pillar of the State.” Though the circumstances are different, the risk he warned about is real and, unless we actively resist the Republican anti-voter movement, it could very well write the end of our democratic chapter.
The transformation of the Big Lie from a political ideology to a basis for state action is a critical one for a society, especially a democracy, because once it infects our laws and official policies it creates real harm to the public. A law that calls an arsonist a firefighter doesn’t just result in confusion; it threatens public safety.
Yet, the adoption of the Big Lie as a “pillar of the State” continues. In addition to the laws enacted in the last few weeks in Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas and Montana, additional suppressive voting laws based on the Big Lie are coming soon. Texas will likely enact the most suppressive law yet before the end of the month. Meanwhile, other states are considering public spectacles like the one in Arizona — simply to sow mistrust in our election systems and show fealty to Dear Leader.
The truth is that we are almost certainly closer to the beginning than the end of the damage that the Big Lie will wreak. The fervor behind the lie that is driving these state laws is not lessening, it is gaining momentum.
A recent CNN poll finds that 70% of Republicans do not believe that Biden “legitimately” won the election. While 20% base this on a “suspicion,” the remaining 50% say that there is “solid evidence” to support their belief. Solid evidence? There is, of course, no evidence that Biden did not win the election. In fact, the presidential election was not particularly close by historical standards. Biden won the same number of electoral votes that Donald Trump did in 2016 — which the former president called a landslide.
When Texas asked the U.S. Supreme Court to throw out the presidential election results for Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, 126 Republican members of the House of Representatives supported the effort. Only hours after the violent insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 139 House Republicans voted against certification of the election results. The ransacking of the Capitol actually yielded 13 more Republican votes in favor of the Big Lie.
When House Republicans first tried to remove Cheney from her position in February, it failed 61-145. This week she was voted out by voice vote in a meeting that lasted 15 minutes. Her supporters were so few and her opponents so cowardly that there was no record made of who voted for or against her. During her speech to her colleagues, she was booed.
Cheney’s position on the Big Lie did not change over the last three months. What changed was the Republican Party’s official embrace of the anti-democratic rhetoric and actions of the former president, only tightening its grip on the Big Lie.
In 1974, when Solzhenitsyn’s described the Soviet Union’s disinformation campaign against him as a “lie,” the New York Times expressed its typical journalistic skepticism. It put the word in quotes. To add further moral ambiguity to its coverage, the paper described the Nobel Prize winner’s book — an account of the horrific conditions he endured in Stalin’s Gulag — as “controversial.”
When it comes to issues of democracy, freedom and voting, it is often too hard to see in real time the immorality of neutrality. Even today, too many reporters and commentators label laws and litigation to protect voters as “controversial” and refuse to call the Big Lie a lie.
In contrast, those promoting the Big Lie speak in confident, absolutist terms — e.g., the election was stolen. Those of us who know it’s a lie and its consequences need to speak in equally certain terms.
“We cannot let the former president drag us backward and make us complicit in his efforts to unravel our democracy,” said Cheney. “Down that path lies our destruction, and potentially the destruction of our country.”
Fighting against the enshrinement of the Big Lie in state policy is the most important issue in our public lives and we need to treat it as such. I do not agree with Cheney on much, but she is right that fealty to the Big Lie and codifying it in state laws will lead to our destruction. And however the story ends, it will undoubtedly be the defining issue for the Republican Party in 2022 and 2024.
Yet, while Democrats divide their attention between healthcare, the economy and racial justice, Republicans are singularly focused on making voting more difficult and spreading disinformation about our elections. Every day the proponents of the Big Lie are speaking louder with more voices and influence on this topic than we are.
If Democrats do not make preventing the Big Lie from becoming a pillar of the state a top priority, we will lose not only elections but our democracy.