An interview with someone who believes the 2020 election was stolen and illegitimate
This will be a transcription of this episode of my podcast, which was an interview with Peter Wood, a conservative thinker and writer who strongly believes the 2020 election was not legitimate. I think these conversations are important. If you’re someone who doesn’t believe these things and finds them ludicrous, I’d argue that we need to grapple with the fact that many people believe these things, and that it’s possible to believe these things without being a horrible person or an ignorant person. As an extremely polarized society, we will continue to have more of these conflicts where one side perceives the other side’s concerns and beliefs as increasingly difficult to understand, and we won’t heal our divides by pretending our political opponents are monsters, or that their concerns are incomprehensible, or that their beliefs are evil. I’d argue we need more conversations and examinations of each other’s beliefs, and more treating “the other side” with respect and serious regard.
Okay, below is the transcription. To listen to the episode, go here.
Zach Elwood: Welcome to the People who read people podcast, with me Zach Elwood. This is a podcast about understanding other people, and understanding ourselves. You can learn more about it at behavior-podcast.com.
This episode examines beliefs that the 2020 election was not legitimate. It includes an interview with Peter Wood, who is a political thinker and writer who very much believes the 2020 election was not legitimate, who believes that it was rigged. So I’ll be asking him about that and examining these kinds of beliefs in general.
I think conversations about this topic are important; many people genuinely believe the 2020 election was not legitimate, and we need to be able to discuss that; the answer is not in pretending that such beliefs are not genuine, or that they represent some sort of malicious or even evil stance. When we act as if these very real divides we have are taboo to talk about, we run the risk of creating more animosity; we run the risk of confirming people’s fears that there is some grand attempt to silence them.
If you’re someone who cares about the United States and wants to see us succeed, or even just someone who wants us to avoid falling apart and descending into chaos, I hope you’ll listen to this episode. And it’s my hope that if you think this is a good episode on these topics, you’ll share it with other people, especially maybe conservatives who have suspicions about the 2020 election. And if you do share it with a conservative audience, I hope you’ll point out that on my podcast I frequently criticize liberal-side thinking that I see as unreasonable, and frequently try to share conservative perspectives, as I think those things might make some conservative people more likely to listen to this.
Now first I want to say: clearly not all Republicans believe the 2020 election was illegitimate. In surveys, around 35% of Republicans say they believe the 2020 election was legitimate, so clearly this is not purely a one side versus the other issue. I’d also say, though, that even within that roughly 65% of Republicans that say the 2020 election was not legitimate, it’s not exactly clear what such survey results mean. Are some of those people saying they believe the election was rigged just venting their suspicion and distrust and frustrations? Are some of these people similar to the 1/3rd of Hillary Clinton voters in 2016 who said they thought that election was not legitimate, likely some of whom were not certain about the topic but just expressing some distrust and frustration?
In a previous episode titled “How many Trump supporters really believe the 2020 election was stolen?”, I talked to political scientist Thomas Pepinsky about this topic. I talked about the views of some Trump voters who I’ve interviewed, and how there is a range of beliefs and uncertainty even amongst people who express high levels of suspicion about the 2020 election. And we also talked about the high amount of election distrust on the liberal side; we talked about the research Pepinsky did that showed that, in an alternate world, if Trump had been quickly declared the winner in November of 2020, there would have been a high percentage of Biden voters who believed the election was not legitimate. So you might like to listen to that episode first, as this episode is sort of a follow up to that one.
So it’s important to recognize first that in extremely polarized countries like ours, high distrust and suspicion of elections are common. It’s the natural endpoint of societies that have become very us-versus-them. We tend to think we are unique; we as Americans can be pretty myopic in not seeing how the things that are happening to us are completely standard and have happened to many countries. So I think it’s important to emphasize that high distrust in elections is completely standard and is exactly how democracies in many polarized countries fall apart. Both sides come to view the other with so much distrust and animosity, that they filter everything that happens through the worst-possible lens, they essentially become paranoid; they see indicators of malicious activity and big plots all around them.
For example, on the left, Russia’s attempt to influence our election in 2016 was one reason why many liberals thought the 2016 election was not legitimate, or at least what made many suspect it was not. It’s why, for example, Hillary Clinton, called Trump an “illegitimate president” and other Democrat leaders and pundits said similar things. But there’s no evidence Russia’s campaign actually did much of anything. For one thing, their disinformation was a drop in the bucket compared to other disinformation and distorted news out there; personally, as someone who studied and wrote about Macedonian and other foreign origin fake and biased news, the russian stuff was much smaller impact than those things, and probably even smaller impact than our many domestic fake and distorted news creators. Basically, in a very polarized country like ours, we have no need for foreign super powers to create very polarized and distorted news for us; we’ve got plenty of that ourselves, and there are plenty of incentives for us and everyone around the globe to cater to that anger, even just for financial reasons.
For another thing, the Russian online propaganda was likely consumed by people who were already very polarized.
If you want support for these things I’ve just said, check out a 2019 study by Christopher Bail and his colleagues about Russia’s propaganda attempts.
And you may be saying: but isn’t all the fake news, no matter where it comes from, a reason to view an election as illegitimate? And to that I’d say: clearly not: because there has always been news on both sides that can be criticized. As a country gets more polarized, it becomes more and more difficult to differentiate between people’s genuine positions and purposeful misinformation, so to act as if there’s some clear line that is crossed when it comes to fake news is missing the point. You can’t just say ‘well there’s a lot of bad and distorted information out there, so therefore the election wasn’t legitimate.’ Because some amount of people will always be able to say that about the news they don’t like. And there will always be foreign influencers of various kinds, if only just financially motivated foreign influencers.
Regarding Russian influence, an important point that I’ve barely seen examined is this: Russia may have done that work solely to get us to distrust our elections, because fomenting distrust in elections is a hugely country-destabilizing thing. So in that sense, even if Russia did absolutely nothing to impact our elections, they did succeed in making us have more doubt about our elections, and that alone could have been the goal. It would help explain why Russia would be completely okay with us finding out what they did. In other words: it’s a lot easier to get people to distrust their elections than it is to significantly influence those elections, and Russia would likely know this. And many liberals doubting the 2016 election fed into our mutual animosity and distrust and can be seen to later contribute to Trump voters distrusting the 2020 election. This effect can be seen in the many Trump voters responses about the 2020 election, which I’ve heard a lot personally, that go something like “Well you guys didn’t think Trump was a legitimate president, so you can’t complain if we feel the same way.”
When it comes to our elections generally: it’s important to recognize: we’re a large country, with hundreds of millions of people, so there will always be something going on somewhere that can be pointed to as an indicator of some bad behavior and used as a reason to arouse distrust and suspicion. This is just generally true about everything, not just about elections. Our country is huge, and if your goal is to find something that you can filter through a paranoid us-versus-them lens, there will be no shortage of things to find. You’ll be able to find one-off instances of people acting bad; oh look, some weird liberal did something weird in Wisconsin; some weird conservative did something weird in Florida. These one-off behaviors must mean something, we think. They must be part of a pattern that shows us what’s really going on; that there is maybe some big plot, or at least that these things point to the darkness that is in the hearts of our political opponents. This kind of picking and choosing of bad behavior by random people on the other side and holding it up as emblematic of the other side is a big part of what constitutes political dialogue these days.
And you can see how this dynamic applies to elections and leads to us doubting elections. Do you know how many election workers are involved in elections in this country? In 2018, for the mid-term elections, the country had 600,000 poll workers. And in 2020, due to covid, there was a shortage of poll workers, because a lot of election workers are volunteers and are senior citizens, and so this meant many people decided not to go out and volunteer that year. So it was understandably pretty chaotic, and I’d say it’s pretty chaotic even in the best of times. No matter if Biden or Trump had won the 2020 election, if your goal was to sift through everything that happened to find instances of seemingly bad or suspicious behavior, you’d be able to do that all day long. Oh, look, some inept person did something bad over here, oh look someone said something kind of weird over here; oh look there was an anomaly over here, oh look this video shows something that seems weird but maybe it’s not actually weird it’s just that we don’t actually understand what we’re seeing.
There’s really no end to that. You could do this for any election we’ve had. If you look back at articles about past elections, you’ll be able to find some stories like this, about various anomalies and mistakes and trivial instances of individuals voting twice, and such. Elections are messy things, even in the best of times. That’s why it’s so easy to create suspicions about elections, and why election distrust is one of the final stops for very polarized countries before everything comes apart.
If you’re someone who cares about the stability of our country, who doesn’t want us to descend into chaos and dysfunction, you have to require a high bar of proof to believe or claim that an election was not legitimate. When it comes to the things that threaten our country, threaten us falling apart, this is probably near the top of the list. It means taking the claims very, very seriously. And I mean that for people on both sides, because there is a similar problem on the left of using whatever things they don’t like about election integrity-related laws and regulations as a reason to believe that elections are not legitimate, and this is also a serious mistake.
I’ve been working on a book about healing and depolarizing America and I wrote a section about this specific topic, and if you want to read that, check out the entry for this episode at my site behavior-podcast.com. But long story short; if we want to avoid worst-case scenarios for our country, we have to make distinctions between things that are done legally versus illegally; we have to have respect for the law, even when we don’t like what the law is doing. We have to have as much faith as we can that the bad things we perceive as happening may be remedied by future legal means.
Because it will always be possible for someone to view some election-related law or regulation as unjust and unfair and use that as a reason to claim an election wasn’t legitimate. But that way lies madness and chaos.
And we have to acknowledge our own uncertainty about things and embrace that uncertainty; we have to acknowledge that it’s easy for us to be paranoid and see things that aren’t there when we’re very angry and distrustful; we have to see it as meaningful and important to be uncertain and to not give in to our most pessimistic and paranoid doubts. And that requires some discipline; we crave certainty, we do have doubts and suspicions, but if we’re going to survive as a country, we need more people willing to say “our doubts and suspicions and anger are not enough.”
I first became interested in interviewing Peter Wood when I saw that he’d been interviewed by Braver Angels, the non-profit group that works on depolarization and healing American divides; in that interview, Peter expressed his views that the 2020 election was not legitimate.
What caught my attention was that that interview had been removed by YouTube, apparently for promoting election misinformation, and this struck me as a bad decision, as I think we need more of these conversations. Interestingly, soon after that, an interview that I had with Braver Angels leader Jon Wood Jr was also removed from youtube for misinformation, which was especially wrong and egregious as neither Jon nor I said anything that could remotely be construed as misinformation.
But in both of these cases, Youtube admitted they made a mistake and returned both of these videos to our respective channels. I mention this because on one hand, it’s easy to see where the perceptions of big tech censoring conservatives can come from; clearly there can be errors made about what constitutes valid discussion and what qualifies as harmful spreading of obvious lies, and I do think these companies make mistakes and often go too far in restricting speech. But on the other hand, it’s quite easy to see the challenges these huge companies deal with; i don’t envy youtube or any big platform trying to police and moderate content; it seems an impossible job; they have real pressures from the public to take down lies and misinformation, and to try to do that in some automatic way is very difficult. And they will never please everyone. They are, after all, just a bunch of people trying to meet the public’s demands, as all private companies do. I mean, there are many liberals who believe Zuckerberg has some sort of rightwing anti-progressive agenda , and you’ve got many conservatives who think Zuckerberg has an extreme liberal agenda; clearly these companies are never going to please everyone when we’re so polarized.
So anyway, I found the Braver Angels interview of Peter Wood quite bad. The reason I say it was bad is because it was merely Peter Wood talking at length about his views that the election was not legitimate, with basically zero pushback from the interviewer on the ideas Peter expressed.
Now I want to say first that I hugely appreciate Peter coming on to talk with me; as I said, I believe conversation is important. But I believe if our goal is healing our divides, we have to be willing to push back on bad ideas, to examine faulty logic and us-versus-them paranoia where we find it, no matter where we find it. I’d say that’s especially important to do on our own side. If you’re someone who’s listened to this podcast in the past, you know that I am often pushing back on bad and polarized thinking on the liberal side. I once interviewed a militant antifa person from Portland, Oregon, who believed that physically fighting with cops and lighting buildings on fire were rational and justified things to do, and I criticized his thinking in that podcast; I attempted to point out what it was that made that thinking bad and unhelpful. And in a previous episode I examined bad, illogical liberal-side reactions to the Rittenhouse verdict and how that could be examined through the lens of polarized, us-versus-them thinking.
This is just to say; I think we need to push back on bad ideas where we find them, and examine why that thinking is bad and do that as respectfully as we can. The answer isn’t just to say “oh interesting, you think the election was rigged and I don’t,” or “oh interesting you think cops are evil nazis and I don’t, let’s agree to disagree.” That hands-off, laissez-faire approach is what I found so bad about the Braver Angels interview. We need to be willing to challenge others and challenge ourselves, and to try to do that while being respectful and acknowledging that people do have understandable reasons for what they believe.
After listening to that interview, I bought Peter Wood’s recent book, which is titled “Wrath: America Enraged.” And I found it, like his interview, to be full of bad thinking and bad logic. In my opinion, Peter is a textbook example of a polarized mind, someone who has fully consumed us-versus-them narratives about what’s going on around us. And when I say someone has a “polarized mind,” I mean someone who sees all or almost all the fault for our problems and divides in originating on one side, who sees all the malice and deceit as residing on that other side, and who has almost nothing bad to say about one’s own side.
One would think in a book about American anger, you’d see examinations of how both sides have their fair share of anger; one could point to, for example, Trump himself and his consistently divisive and angry rhetoric, or the long history of rage-filled conservative radio, or how Newt Gingrich is well known for making American politics more divisive and angry in the 90s, or all the angry conservative TV pundits. There is clearly a lot to criticize on the liberal side, don’t get me wrong, and a lot to talk about with regards to society’s relationship to anger generally, but one would think any fair minded attempt to discuss our anger problems would be able to examine how many people on both sides have played a role in this.
But Peter’s book is primarily interested in explaining why liberals are the ones who are full of unreasonable rage and who are engaged in various deceitful and malicious plots, and explaining why conservative rage is justified. His book is less about examining our anger problems than it is about promoting the idea that the 2020 election was rigged and that America is under attack by liberals. He also promotes the pessimistic point of view that our divides are so deep and our conflicts so great that we’re likely at the point where we won’t be able to heal our divides, but at a point where one side simply must triumph over the other, so he counsels conservatives to channel their justified rage into practical channels. As he says in the intro to his book “I don’t want to dampen anyone’s anger. I just want to step back from the immediate sense of wrath to help us figure out where and how we can direct it. And if your anger is beginning to fade and you are concluding that we can wait this out, I want to remind you that your anger is worth sustaining. You will need it.”
In short, Peter’s book is less about examining American anger than it is about promoting the righteous anger that Peter feels is justified.
I’ll be getting to the election-related subjects and the interview, but first I want to go into some details about Peter’s views of the world. I see it as important to the subject at hand because, for one thing, it’s a manifestation of our very polarized, us-versus-them environment; many people, many liberals and conservatives, look at our country more and more in this way, and this is not surprising. Our us-versus-them divides lend themselves to this thinking, and create more people on both sides who see the worst in their political opponents. And so I think it’s worth examining how such views are present in one specific person.
For another thing, a belief that the 2020 election was stolen by some large liberal plot requires a certain kind of worldview. It requires a worldview where conspiracies like this are even possible, and a worldview where one confidently believes in such conspiracies instead of having some reasonable amounts of doubt and uncertainty. So in that sense, I think it’s valuable to examine the characteristics of that worldview and see how it manifests in other areas, on other topics.
I also want to say that clearly Peter is just one person; he only represents himself. When I interviewed a militant antifa person and examined their thinking, I got some feedback from liberals who were like ‘But that’s just one person; he doesn’t represent all the reasons antifa people or BLM activists were protesting or even rioting’. And clearly that’s the case; at the start of that interview with the antifa person I said exactly that. In this case, clearly Peter Wood doesn’t speak for everyone who believes the 2020 election was not legitimate, as there are a whole range of beliefs and emotions in that segment of the population. But by interviewing Peter, someone on the extreme edge of that population, it’s a way to understand some of the ideas of people in that population segment, and that’s all I aim to do, and if some people see things in a few different ways, or get a few different ideas than they previously didn’t have, then I see the effort as worthwhile. Put another way: I can’t interview a whole range of people; all I can do is interview one person at a time.
So first, I wanted to start out by examining some of Peter’s analysis of our anger problems in his book, and how they can be seen as quite biased and lopsided. In that book, he has a chapter about Trump, where he basically tries to make the case that Trump himself wasn’t that angry, that despite all appearances to the contrary, he was actually calm, but that he merely caused anger in others. To fit Trump’s divisiveness rhetoric, all his angry rally speeches and tweets and emails, into his narrative that all the unreasonable anger is coming from the left, Peter must engage in some real mental gymnastics. I mean, most Trump voters I’ve talked to, and many I’ve read statements from, will readily acknowledge how divisive Trump has been. One enthusiastic Trump supporter told me that Trump’s behavior has been like quote “throwing gasoline on the fire of our problems.” It’s just that most conservatives are willing to overlook Trump’s behavior because they view liberals so pessimistically or view him as accomplishing a lot. But Peter seeks to absolve conservatives and Trump almost completely. And most tellingly, Peter’s stance in this book is completely different from things he himself has said in the past about Trump. To quote from a 2015 article Peter wrote for the National Review:
Donald Trump is the angry man of the hour. He joins a long list of people who in the last half century have made their mark by bursting the confines of civility to say aggressively rude and obnoxious things. Vein-popping, vitriolic anger displayed in public is an art form — of sorts. It is a performance art, and it is a new thing — new, at least, in the yardstick of lifetimes and centuries. Donald Trump’s antics would have been unthinkable in the era of Eisenhower, let alone FDR.
Later in that article he says:
The Trump phenomenon, like a forest fire, will have to burn itself out. That won’t happen soon enough for many conservatives, but it will indeed happen. For even anger, after a while, becomes tiresome for the audience. Donald Trump himself is unlikely ever to feel ashamed. But new anger is a performance, and for every performance there is eventually a curtain, if not a final bow.
I fully believe that Peter’s current beliefs are genuine, don’t get me wrong. I fully believe that he believes the things he’s said in his recent book. So in that sense, it’s interesting thinking about how our us-versus-them polarization has a way of shifting our perspectives. Just as on the liberal side, there are now a lot of liberals whose beliefs are likely much different than they were a few years ago, due to how increasing polarization influences us to see things differently, to define ourselves more and more by the threats we see from the other side. And I think that’s important to point out because we often think that people whose stances have changed so much so fast or who have become so us-versus-them in their thinking are being deceptive or manipulative or not genuine. But in most cases, our beliefs really do go through big shifts based on what the people around us believe. A lot of our thinking is based on the thinking and emotions of the people around us, the people we define as our group.
I want to share a couple snippets from Peter’s book about how he views other contentious topics. Here’s one quote from the start of Peter’s book:
That wrath is further prodded by a progressive elite that seems to take sadistic delight in devising new ways to torment ordinary Americans. “Antiracism” (Peter puts antiracism in quotes) is a psyops campaign aimed at institutionalizing discrimination against Whites.
Note Peter’s confidence: he confidently states that antiracism is a psyops campaign. No question about it, no doubts. A psyops campaign, if you aren’t familiar with that term, is short for psychological operations; it means a covert, deceptive operation to influence a population. Now there are many legitimate things to criticize in the realm of antiracism: i’ve criticized some of those things in this podcast. One of the best writers I’d recommend on understanding what there is to criticize in this area is John McWhorter, who happens to be black and politically liberal; he’s written many articles for The Atlantic and New York Times on this subject; he’s also written an entire book on this subject.
But McWhorter recognizes that the people he disagrees with are human, that as misguided as he finds a lot of things in that area, he sees that most people are motivated by noble ideals, they feel they are doing noble work. And I see that, too. What Peter is doing here is no different than some of the extreme worst-case framings that some antiracism activists are capable of; take something you’re upset about and instead of attempting to see the understandable reasons for why well meaning people may be behaving why they do, look for signs of hidden aggressions and malicious behavior and even large conspiracies. There’s no shortage of this kind of paranoid thinking, this lack of attempting to understand the people we disagree with, on the left and the right.
Here’s another quote from Peter’s book:
Progressives manipulated the Wuhan virus epidemic by turning a manageable health crisis into a major economic disaster, an excuse for stripping Americans of their civil liberties, and an incitement of mass hysteria.
Again, a lot of confidence here. Peter sounds very sure that American progressives purposefully used covid to hurt the American economy and purposefully sought to strip Americans of their rights. Quite a doozy of a charge. I mean, clearly America is not the only country that instituted strict covid policies. For example, look at the large numbers of deaths in Spain and their overflowing hospitals and how they instituted extremely strict lockdowns in their big cities, much more strict than any city in America went through. I personally knew people in Barcelona who couldn’t leave their apartments without good reason, who were subject to questioning on the streets if they didn’t have a good reason. Does Peter believe that other countries were involved in this grand plot? How big is this plot exactly? Could it be that there wasn’t any sort of plot, but just a bunch of people trying to respond in understandable ways to a global pandemic? Is it possible to see how, even if you don’t agree with everyone’s approach to covid, that these were trying times that threatened people’s lives and that presented no easy answers?
And I’d ask, now that we’re returning to some semblance of normality in America, what exactly was the point of this huge plot that apparently involved most of the world? What civil liberties exactly have been stripped? What did these progressive masterminds gain? If American progressive reactions to covid were part of a grand plot by dastardly powerful elites to steal the American election, wouldn’t those people have been so powerful that they could have done that without covid? These paranoid narratives about covid just don’t add up.
Again, we live in a huge country, and it will always be possible to filter everything through a paranoid, worst-case framing lens. If you’re conservative and you dislike when liberals act hysterical about things they’re concerned about, I’d ask you to turn that telescope around towards your side and be willing to examine similar aspects of some people on your side.
To put it bluntly, I think Peter is just generally very paranoid, and I could go on for a while about his conspiracy-minded beliefs. In his interview with Braver Angels recently about the election, he also promoted a conspiracy theory that the January 6th Capitol riot was likely planned by the FBI, and again relied on some very weak logic to explain why he thought that.
So getting back to Peter’s book, a big part of his book, probably the most significant part, is that he promotes the belief that the 2020 election was not legitimate. And the most important aspect of this for me is that he spends almost no time on explaining why he confidently believes that. He says:
Progressives, claiming the need to protect “voter rights” seek to lock into place the subterfuges they used to steal the 2020 presidential election.
Later he says:
I will add, however, that my own wrath was kindled by what I take to be the Democratic Party’s significant electoral mischief in the 2020 presidential election. I’m fully aware of how contentious it is now to say the election was “stolen,” though I believe it was. I also believe that anyone who has been willing to look squarely at the nature of voter registration, mail-in balloting, vote-counting procedures, monitoring of vote counts, judicial unwillingness to examine the substance of complaints, irregularities in the use of voting machines, interruptions and delays in vote counting, ploys to neutralize the legal authority of state legislatures to set election rules, “consent agreements” on balloting, and -above all- results that are statistically impossible or nonsensical cannot but conclude that the election was marred by electoral fraud. Whether such fraud was decisive in the election of President Biden is technically an open question, but it is “open” only because the pertinent evidence has been either destroyed or ignored.
A little later he says “But I have little more to say on that topic in these pages…”. He explains why he’s not going to get into any of the details about why he believes such things in his book.
Now, if you’re conservative, imagine an alternate world where Trump had been declared the winner in 2020 and there was a liberal academic who wrote a book about why liberals were right to be enraged about the election being stolen, and in the intro he basically said “I’m not going to get into why I believe this; anyone paying attention in this area knows why it’s not legitimate, I’m just going to move on to what we do about it.”
You’d likely think, “hey, that’s a very serious and dangerous claim to make, maybe you should give some supporting evidence; what are the main reasons you believe that?”
But in Peter’s book, he glosses over this, and I want to examine that decision. If I were making a claim that an election were not legitimate, and if I cared about the stability of my country, I’d be able to point to the exact incidents that were the most persuasive pieces of evidence. I would view it as a moral duty to do that. I would view it as a cop-out, and a dangerous, irresponsible cop-out to say ‘hey, it’s totally understood why the election was not legitimate, I don’t have to explain why I believe this, look it up yourself.’ I’d say that the burden of proof is on the people who make big claims alleging large bad things to have happened.
Could it be that what is really at the heart of all these beliefs that Peter and others have about the election is an underlying distrust and suspicion of liberals? And not so much any specific incidents? In a similar way to how some liberals said that the 2016 election of Trump wasn’t legitimate, based mainly on a feeling, an emotion, that “this couldn’t be right; it doesn’t fit with how I think the world should work; something must be off; these people are gross and must have done something underhanded”?
I think that’s the case, and I think it helps explain why Peter wouldn’t want to get into specific incidents in his book; because even if some of the incidents he may have believed or may currently believe are suspicious are eventually explained satisfactory, or if there is just a standard uncertainty about what exactly happened with some incidents, what will always remain for Peter and for many people is the feeling that something bad happened; what will remain is that deep distrust and frustration, and therefore no matter what specific stories of election fraud or mistakes get debunked or explained, there will always be other things to point to, other reasons to be suspicious.
Just as in the case of Trump’s 2016 win, there were many things liberals would reach for to explain away the win: it was Russian influence, it was this or that fake news, there might have been hacking of vulnerable voting machines; it was Cambridge Analytica and manipulative digital marketing; it was weird that Trump won when the surveys said he wouldn’t win; basically, there’s always something to reach for when you’re angry and frustrated.
And I think this gets to the almost pointless task of debunking the specific rumors and stories about an election; because the root cause is the emotion, the anger, the frustration. And if we’re going to heal and have productive conversations about this, we have to confront that as the root cause in these areas. We have to confront and criticize the very nature of our paranoid stances, and see how the paranoid aspects of our political opponents that we don’t like can be true about us and about our own side.
When I was talking to Trump voters recently about the election, one Trump voter said at first he thought there was about a 50% chance the 2020 election was stolen. Later, after thinking about it more, he wrote the following:
I was just thinking about the election the other day. It went through my mind that no, the election was correct. I’m basing my opinion of that on the fact that no lawsuit proved otherwise. Now-a-days I don’t think you could get away with anything, with cameras and cell phone recordings, along with the fact that I think it’s impossible to keep any wrong-doing private. Once two people know something, it’s no longer a secret. If there was any large-scale fraud then someone would have sold their story. My opinion on overturning the election? The ONLY time I would support that is if it was proven in such a way that even both sides would have to agree there was fraud. I think the damage it could do to our country would be very bad.
And I think in this man’s uncertainty is real wisdom. We need more of that uncertainty. He may very much dislike liberals as a group and their political goals; he may very much suspect that some bad stuff happened during the 2020 election. But at the end of the day, he recognizes the limits of his knowledge, and also recognizes just how unlikely large conspiracies are.
And our tendency to believe in large conspiracies is another big factor here; it goes along with our growing paranoia. Fairly standard things take on more significance, start to seem part of some hidden plot. But we need to think through the logic here; big conspiracies are unlikely; it’s hard to keep secrets; it’s so easy these days to record everything we and others do and say, and people always end up fighting or wanting to spill the beans for revenge purposes or to sell their story for money or whatever. It’s very hard to keep secrets and we need to recognize that often our beliefs in big conspiracies are rooted in our increasing us-versus-them distrust and paranoia. If you want to read more thoughts on that, as I think it’s a hugely important topic, I’ll include some of that on the entry for this episode at my site behavior-podcast.com.
So now I’m going to play this talk I had with Peter Wood. And again, i want to say that my critiques of Peter’s ideas and beliefs are not meant to be personal insults to Peter. I believe Peter very much believes what he says he believes, and I also appreciate him being willing to discuss his ideas with someone who disagrees with him. It’s entirely unsurprising to me that people like Peter have extremely us-versus-them framings of things; that’s entirely expected in our polarized society; I’d just argue that it’s important to criticize those ideas and attempt to rise above them as much as we can.
Here’s the talk with Peter Wood.
Zach: I was curious what you thought about an idea I rarely see examined or discussed: the idea that liberals are the dominant force in society, in the sense that they’ve won the culture wars — they dominate entertainment media, they dominate academia — and I think that plays a big role in making many liberals blind to their biases and I think that’s a relatively unexamined dynamic, and I think it helps explain why, in surveys, in research, liberals don’t understand conservative views; conservatives understand liberal views better than vice versa. And I’m curious if you have any thoughts on this kind of assymetry in society and how that can affect the anger dynamics.
Peter: Is the left oblivious to its cultural hegemony? Well, that’s probably too broad a statement there. Well, let’s say I live in Upper West Side, New York City, a very blue part of blue America. My little voting district is the place where AOC has her largest set of financial contributors. I spend about a quarter of my time in rural Vermont. Likewise, it’s a Bernie Sanders country. So I’m surrounded all the time by people who think of themselves as politically liberal, and I generally keep my mouth shut so I pass. I keep my mouth shut on radio or podcasts and I write a lot, so anybody who wanted to know what I think could easily find out. But we are so smokestack to society that nobody ever does. I’m in conversation daily with people who view themselves as on the politically left, and they just assume that I am too, because anybody wouldn’t be. It’s the natural way to be. It’s what our society is all about. Yes, out there in western Pennsylvania or Kentucky or someplace maybe in Florida or Texas, you’ll find some people so wrongheaded as to disagree with our policy prescriptions, but certainly not around here.
So I get firsthand familiarity with the tendency of people on the left to just assume into place that their cultural likes and dislikes, their political preferences prevail and are natural and are everywhere. I have also spent a fair amount of time in conservative circles. I generally have to travel for that but I do a lot of traveling. I’m invited to speak to such groups and I never encounter the sense that these groups view themselves as speaking for how everybody feels. They are excruciatingly aware of the bias in the media, in the conversations they have with friends and relatives who hold different views. It’s a asymmetry that is astonishingly large, it’s a chasm. The left thinks that it owns America, the right thinks that the left owns America too but they think it’s time to take it back. That’s the real cultural division. I venture further on that I suspect that the right, in absolute numbers, has a larger footprint than the left does. That’s a dawning realization. Part of what helped make it dawn was the 2020 election. And on that I need to speak very carefully on several podcasts. I made reference to the 2020 election only to have YouTube take them down. So I’m speaking to you under the threat of censorship-
Zach: Well, you can speak freely because my next question was about the 2020 election, and you can definitely speak freely because they won’t censor us on the major podcast platforms. You know, it was mainly YouTube that I’ve seen that happen on for what it’s worth. But I’ll let you finish up, though, because my next question was going to be about the election.
A small note here: the Braver Angels video that was temporarily removed from youtube had already been returned to youtube at this point in time, and that episode of theirs was always available via other platforms, so I just wanted to point out that his unwillingness to talk about the specifics of his beliefs about the election is not justified from what I’ve seen. In other words, the reports of the censorship of his speech are greatly exaggerated. Back to the interview…
Peter: Well, this point I’ll just leave it then that it seems to me that division in the country feels to probably everybody that there’s this asymmetry involved. One side holds most of the cards right now. But in sheer numbers of people and in a sense of ownership of traditional American culture, the other side has a lot to say. I’ll just [inaudible]
Zach: Yeah. In your book, in your latest book, you talked about your belief that the 2020 election was not legitimate. And you talked about that in The Braver Angels Podcast recently. I’m curious, if you had to point to a resource online or wherever that summarized the reasons that you and other people believe that it wasn’t legitimate, where is the resource you would point to that has the compilation of those kinds of pieces of evidence to make your point?
Peter: Well, I don’t think I want to enter into that kind of question. There are now five or six fairly hefty books that can be easily found that attempt to summarize matters. But I think that as soon as I let the conversation go off in that direction, it becomes one of provoking people to say that I’m promoting Trump’s lies, or that the courts have said there’s nothing to this, or that we are living in some grand illusion. It seems to me that a fair-minded person would not want to rely on some set of documents or opinions that I push people to. I’ve read them, I’ve read things on the other side as well, but I don’t want to go there.
Where I would be willing to go is the really larger picture, the idea that President Biden garnered some 90 million votes, far more votes than any candidate in American history received for the office of president, far more votes than President Obama received in either of his elections. And it is a figure that kind of boggles the imagination given that he basically ran a campaign from his basement. He made very few public appearances, those that he did make were stumbling and not very impressive. So one would have to assume for those numbers to be achieved, that the American public was so repulsed by President Trump that it broke all bounds of historical precedent and turned out to give him this revolutionarily-sized mandate. Now, Trump was acknowledged to get about 75 million votes, which itself would have been a gigantic record in American history. In any case, we have to put these two numbers together, and you get a depiction of the 2020 election as a groundbreaking epochal event in which a higher percentage of eligible voters came forward to vote than ever before. Now, with no further word about whether there was mischief at the ballot box, or the voting machines were rigged, or the vote counters were up to mischief, something is very odd about that election.
A note here: this is a common point that I’ve seen people make about the election; that the results were not what they expected. But this doesn’t make sense to me as a criticism. For one, Trump has been a very divisive and anger-producing president; it’s fair to say he’s created more negative emotion than any president in a long time. He’s driven many conservatives away from the Republican party. Even people in his own administration have harshly criticized his behavior and his stances on various things. Even Trump voters I’ve talked to will admit he has been extremely problematic. There’s analysis of all sorts of shifts in conservative voters; some analysis said that Trump’s insults about Biden being old and senile lost him some votes of senior citizens, to take just one example. And what does Biden not campaigning much have to do with anything? People turned out in droves to vote for Biden largely because of their intense dislike of Trump, so in that sense it’s entirely understandable why Biden wouldn’t have to campaign that much, and why he would choose to not do much campaigning during a pandemic. For someone to not understand how much anger there was towards Trump seems to suggest being in a pretty big bubble.
So on top of the unusualness of Trump himself and how he’s affected us, we were in a global pandemic, and our voting behaviors were going to shift due to that, no matter what was done voting regulation-wise. It’s absurd to me to act as if any perceived strangeness in voting patterns, with all that we’ve had going on, is any sort of evidence of anything. And yet you’ll often hear this point brought up, that ‘hey some places that were fully expected to be Trump wins were not’. All these arguments are really really weak to me, and the fact that this is often touted as a primary point I think shows how weak the rest of the arguments often are. Remember that in the intro to Wood’s book that I quote, when referring to the supposedly strange-seeming election results, he referred to this aspect as being the most impressive piece of evidence. Back to the interview…
Peter (cont’d): And when one notices a historical anomaly, it seems to me there’s some obligation to ask, “Why? How? How did this happen?”
We got some clue as to how it happened when one of the supporters of Biden turned to the pages of Time magazine to explain, “Here’s how we did it.”
A note here: regarding this Time magazine article; this is something Peter points to in his book as one of the chief pieces of so-called evidence for why he thinks the 2020 election was stolen. It’s a piece by Molly Ball called The Secret History of the Shadow Campaign That Saved the 2020 Election. In Peter’s book, and again in this interview, he points to this article as if it’s some amazing piece of evidence. But I’ve read that article and I invite you to read it; it explains how some liberals were concerned that Trump and the GOP would attempt to restrict voting in various ways that would help them, and so various people wanted to ensure that the elections would be as fair as possible. And then when covid hit, some of that effort turned into an effort to make it easier to vote using mail-in voting and other things.
The article even describes how their attempts were bipartisan; they enlisted conservatives and Trump supporters in that effort. And they would make the case to those people: look, if Trump does win and some liberals doubt the results, this will help you to be able to say ‘look, the elections were legitimate because we did our best to make sure things were done right.”
Long story short: I’ve read this article and it is a bit mind boggling to me that Peter Wood thinks this article is some sort of great evidence for why the 2020 election was not legitimate. I mean, the sheer fact that they published it in Time magazine alone shows that it can’t be that incriminating.
Put another way: even if you think liberals’ concerns about Trump engaging in shenanigans were uncalled for, surely you can understand how those are well meaning concerns based on Trump’s temperament and behavior, and also surely you can understand how covid caused many people to be genuinely interested in making it easier to vote using mail-in ballots. I didn’t agree with some of the ideas of the people in that article, but I understood why they were doing what they were doing, just as it’s possible for me to understand what it is that drives some conservatives motivations even when I disagree with them, but there was nothing in the article that made me think that the election was not legitimate. If Peter takes the view that attempts to make it easier to vote are what contribute to making an election illegitimate, would that mean that when conservatives make it harder to vote, those elections can just as easily be considered illegitimate?
None of the things in the Time article require any conspiracy, and clearly it would require a big conspiracy for many people to coordinate to cheat the election, and so I’d say: where is the evidence of that conspiracy? Do you really think with the hundreds of people such an effort would require, and all the communication that such a thing would require, you’d have no one, not a single person, leak evidence of that plot? Even assuming all the liberal conspirators could keep such a secret together, you don’t think a single conservative would have been in the loop somewhere who could blow the whole thing open? And again, if these people were so powerful to do this, why would they need covid to do this? And if they were so powerful as to rig this election, why did they not give some Democrats some more congressional seats? Again, these conspiracy theory ideas really fall apart when you examine them. Okay back to the interview…
Peter (cont’d): Part of the explanation of how we did it was very careful planning in the years before the election in order to install in place people running the local elections who were firmly on the Democratic side. Why should that make a difference? It shouldn’t matter who’s counting the ballots, if we’re counting them honestly they’re going to be the same number no matter what.
A small note here: I don’t know what Peter’s referring to here. In most jurisdictions there are, as there have always been, people from both parties involved in election procedures. It’s always been known that it’s important to have people from both parties involved to avoid allegations of fraud. Back to the interview.
Peter (cont’d): But we also had the COVID circumstances, which allowed for a call for the use of absentee ballots in a looser manner and in a more generous manner than ever before in American history. The absentee ballot regime was absolutely against the law in some states. State legislators didn’t want it but their state attorney generals without legitimate power said they had to be used this way. We ended up with ballot counts in some states that aroused a lot of suspicion. When early complaints were taken to some of the relevant courts, the courts generally said, “You don’t have standing to bring an argument, therefore we’re not going to hear it.” The ‘you don’t have standing’ position was promptly interpreted by the liberal press to say there’s no evidence. No standing and no evidence are two entirely different things. That may well have been the case that some of the people who did come forward did not have standing, or that they prematurely brought forward evidence that was not very substantial or credible. I’m perfectly happy to hear those arguments as well, but I do think we end up with an election in which for a great many Americans, including me, there’s an asterisk on the election. It doesn’t mean that at this stage it’s provably falsified, I think that there is substantial evidence in some states like Wisconsin that might go that far. But none of those have been properly adjudicated yet. In any way, a year into President Biden’s presidency it doesn’t make any difference. He is the president. But there is a sense among many millions, let’s say at least 75 million Americans, that this election was compromised and that the legitimacy of future elections is in question if the same balloting techniques are permitted to occur yet again in the midterms and in the next presidential election.
A small note here: 75 million is the number of Trump voters, and not all Trump voters believe the 2020 election was illegitimate, and it’s also questionable how much many of the ones who would say that on a survey really truly believe it. So this is just to say that Wood’s claim that 75 million Americans believe the election was compromised is just way overstating the number. And of course, many millions of people believing something doesn’t mean anything; remember that on surveys, ⅓ of Hillary Clinton voters in 2016 said that they thought Trump wasn’t a legitimate president. Back to the interview…
Peter (cont’d): Those two things go along with the current ferocious argument over whether it’s the left or the right that is suppressing the vote. Any attempt to say that you want to use voter ID is viewed as voter suppression.Any attempt to say that we should permit wide open access to the ballot via absentee ballots collected through ballot harvesting is viewed with a declaration that this is democracy in action by the left.
A note here: I do think Wood has a point here. For example, on a recent survey, around 80% of Americans supported voter ID requirements, and that included around 60% of democrats. This is just to say: when liberals act as if creating more stringent voting requirements is something related merely to voting obstruction or even to racism, or whatever, they do themselves a disservice and sound unreasonable to many Americans. Liberals might have to face the fact that, as unreasonable as they believe conservatives’ ideas about election integrity and fraud to be, that those are genuine beliefs many conservatives have, and creating more election security rules may be the necessary cost to pay for reaching a compromise and maintaining our country’s stability. For a good article explaining how some liberal-side framings of election security topics are overwrought and exaggerated, I recommend an Atlantic article by Derek Thompson about Georgia’s recent voting law titled The truth about Georgia’s voter law. Back to the interview…
Peter (cont’d): So there is a profound disagreement there on I know which side they come out on, but I’m also on my own side and I think these are matters for which we really need to have as close as we can to a dispassionate, careful exchange of ideas, coupled with a patient pursuit of real evidence. What really happened in 2020? For those who say the election was stolen, I’d say you’re probably right but we don’t know.
A note here: Note that Peter says ‘for those who say the election was stolen, I’d say you’re probably right but we don’t know.’ He says “we don’t know,” I just wanted to emphasize that, which seems in direct contradiction with his mostly very confident statements in other places. Back to the interview…
Peter (cont’d): For those who say it’s a big lie, I would say nobody’s lying here but I can see what we have is a disagreement. And that’s a disagreement that is worth putting out in daylight and having an actual discussion, rather than finding anybody who expresses doubts about legitimacy of the election cancelled or suppressed or treated as a kind of anti-constitutional monster. I’m probably closer to you on your own expressed views of how we go about seeking a solution to our cultural divisions, but I am to many people who call themselves Conservatives. I am willing to call myself a Conservative for the sake of convenience, but my loyalty is not to a party, it’s to a civilization. And that’s how I see we have to play this out.
Zach: Yeah. I guess the thing that strikes me in that area is claiming that an election was not legitimate is just such a huge serious accusation and potentially a country-destroying one. Because you look at many polarized countries and often how they come to an end at least democracy-wise, is this increasing distrust of elections, which is completely understandable in a very polarized and distrustful population. So, given the seriousness of it, it seems like there should be a very high bar for people who make those claims. For example, I’ve talked to many Trump supporters and trying to understand their perspective. And not all Trump supporters even believe the election was not legitimate. And the thing that strikes me is no one’s been able to point me to, you know, you’ve mentioned various books and ideas but you would think you would think for such a serious accusation, someone would have constructed some sort of online resource walking people through the best reasons, the best pieces of evidence for why they believe that. And what strikes me is there’s a tendency to just point to the all of these things, you have to go read and do your own research and it’s clear to the people that have done that. But it’s kind of like when I think of the American Revolution, for example, like Thomas Paine’s Common Sense was making a case for why somebody who was skeptical would want to support America being its own country. I just don’t see that effort on the part of people who claim the election was not legitimate. I just want to see, in the same way that if Trump had been declared the winner pretty quickly in 2020 and liberals were the ones who would doubt his legitimacy, I would also want to see the real reasons why they were saying it wasn’t legitimate. Without that very good compilation of evidence, it’s just hard for me to take this seriously as somebody who’s looked into these things with an open mind and tried to get people’s perspectives. I would want to see that resource and I’m curious why that doesn’t exist.
Peter: Well, let me answer this in two ways. There were a very large number of Democrats who disputed the results of Bush v. Gore. Where is the resource in which they pulled together the evidence that the 2000 election is illegitimate? Where is the Tom Paine’s Common Sense of 2000? If it exists, I don’t know.
A note here: Regarding the Bush versus Gore election in 2000. Yes, some people thought that the 2000 election was not legitimate due to people acting badly and partisanly, and due to the belief that a recount would have resulted in a Gore victory, but at the end of the day, what happened was legal, and went through proper channels, no matter how faulty and biased one thought those channels might be. At the end of the day, there was no reason to say that Bush was not the legitimate president.
Also, it’s a much different situation because the main problem in the 2000 election was simply that the race was just so close in Florida, and because there were some ballot problems, the so-called hanging chad situation. When it comes to the votes cast, no one was alleging that one side was trying to cheat; it was just a debate over what to do with the messiness that ended up happening.
And things are never perfect; democracy and elections are messy, and they’ll be especially messy in a polarized country when elections are close. Our best general strategy if we care about our stability is to trust in the law, even if we think such things are messy. To quote from a 2001 piece by Gerald Pomper:
“Safety came instead from the American public, who showed remarkable restraint and calm, even as it avidly followed events. Americans’ “willingness to accept a less than perfect outcome reflects both a realism about the way we run elections and a lack of passion about either candidate.”
That willingness to accept a less than perfect outcome is important. Because everything we do as humans is less than perfect, and the more polarized we become, the less perfect things will be, and the less perfect they’ll be perceived as.
So maybe what Peter Wood is doing is similar to someone in 2000 confidently proclaiming that Bush was not a legitimate president. And I’d say it’s much less responsible than that because, at least in the 2000 election, there are a few very specific things people would point to to criticize; there weren’t that many things to point to. It didn’t require throwing out a bunch of nebulous reports. Presumably, ifPeter were writing a book about the 2000 Bush-Gore election, he’d be able to list the few specific things of what bugged him instead of, as he does in his book, confidently proclaim his belief that the 2020 election wasn’t legitimate without listing the reasons why.
Ok back to the interview.
Peter (cont’d): But when we turn to the more recent election, well, there are figures who I regard as pretty serious intellectuals like John Eastman who’ve made cases. There’s Mollie Hemingway, the editor at The Federalist who recently published a book titled Rigged: How the Media, Big Tech, and the Democrats Seized Our Elections. There is no shortage of pretty serious people who’ve put out homes that are worth considering on this matter.
A note here: Let’s take the Mollie Hemingway book that Peter points to as being a serious work in explaining how the election was stolen. I’ll read from a Wall Street Journal review of this book:
Seventy-five percent of Republican voters say the 2020 election was “rigged,” per a recent poll, with “real cases of fraud that changed the results.” Are they right? From the title of Mollie Hemingway’s book, “Rigged,” you’d think it would be easier to figure out. The prologue is titled “You’re Not Wrong.” She quotes President Trump saying he was “cheated” and that “it hurts to lose less than to win and have it taken away.”
Yet she criticizes “hyping” of “dramatic claims” about Dominion voting machines, plus Rudy Giuliani’s “disastrous” legal turn. Other flapdoodle theories make no appearance. When Mrs. Hemingway says “rigged,” she means everything from jockeying to kick the Green Party off Wisconsin’s ballot, to Fox News’s early call of Arizona, to Twitter’s blackout of the Hunter Biden story in the New York Post.
Some of this has merit, but when Mr. Trump says “rigged” he means “massive election fraud.” Here the book is less helpful. There was much to object to in 2020, but she overstates the case. Yes, Democratic lawsuits pushed to loosen rules, sometimes successfully. Mail votes rose from 25% in 2016 to 43%. That’s a concerning trend, but even before the pandemic most states let anyone vote absentee at will, including Pennsylvania, Georgia, Michigan and Wisconsin. Covid was always going to create a deluge.
The rest of that article examines how the things that Hemingway attempts to point to as evidence of malfeasance are pretty standard and understandable aspects, some that could apply to all elections. To quote from that article again:
Mrs. Hemingway raises the question of Georgia voters who moved between counties. Temporary movers, such as students and military, are no problem. But permanent movers are supposed to re-register within 30 days. She cites an analyst who says he found more than 10,000 Georgians who changed addresses at least a month before the election, voted in their old counties, and only later re-registered. Fraud?
It’s tricky. People might temporarily move in with family amid Covid, only to stay. They might buy a house but spend weeks in transition. An address change isn’t legally enough to challenge a voter’s eligibility. WSB-TV spoke to a man who moved “a few blocks” over a county line. He “figured it was a statewide election,” so “it didn’t even occur to me that I could be doing anything wrong.” That’s a problem, not a “rigged” vote. Also, the state said 86% of these people voted in person. Mr. Trump won 55% of Georgia’s in-person ballots, so maybe the oversights helped him.
It seems that Hemingway’s book includes a lot of weak arguments. It seems that some of the claims that Hemingway would point to to make the “rigged election” case are based on legal things that happened that are completely understandable, and on other completely standard election-related phenomena being viewed in the most pessimistic light possible. For example, even if you don’t agree that it was necessary, hopefully it’s completely understandable why many people would want to make it easier to vote during covid. One would imagine that that would be something that conservatives, in different times, would be supportive of. In short, believing that the election was “rigged” or illegitimate due to such legal efforts is no different that liberals believing similar “election was rigged’ things due to legal election integrity laws that Republicans have put in place.
If we’re going to take the stance that completely legal procedures or completely standard small anomalies can render an election illegitimate, we’re really lost as a country because there simply will be nothing that we can’t turn into a reason to believe whatever we want about elections.
Back to the interview…
Peter (cont’d): But at the same time, there are also books and websites and so forth that are kind of fringe, they’re not very serious people who are making audacious claims that aren’t founded in real evidence. So my reluctance to get into this is-
Zach: Like Mike Lindell maybe. Yeah.
Peter: I’m not mentioning names, you’re free to.
A note here: Why wouldn’t Peter be willing to say what theories about the election are crackpot and bad? One would think that if these crackpot theories were hurting making the case that the election was not legitimate, that one would be willing to call them out, and say, for example, “Mike Lindell is nutty and he’s making our real concerns look bad.” So why wouldn’t Peter be willing to do that? I’ll just leave that question there for you to think about. Back to the interview…
Peter (cont’d): The point here is that in any contentious area of culture where disputes are taking place, the buyer-beware adage comes into play. Not everybody on the same side is to be taken with equal seriousness and you have to be prepared to sort through the arguments coming from left and right with the understanding that some people are relatively reliable reporters of the facts, and others dress up their opinions as though they are facts. We get into a real bind over these matters as soon as you start trying to sort that through for other people. But I trust people of good faith who exist on both sides have the capacity in the privacy of their own meditations to go and read materials on either side and see what sticks. Are they really convinced that the vote counts in various states were completely on the up and up? There are phenomenon which I’ve seen with my own eyes and I suspect you have as well, that get explained away also easily. An absentee ballot to be counted has to be folded, put in an envelope, put inside another envelope, and submitted maybe through a Dropbox or maybe directly through the mail. And yet when we saw the absentee ballots being counted, great many of them were stacks of pristine unfolded paper. What were those things? Once the question is raised, you get an answer like, “Oh, we made copies of the originals because it was easier to count them by photocopying them first, and that’s why they were flat.” So they, on Election Day, copied 10s of millions of ballots in order to count them better? We’re to believe that? I don’t know, maybe it’s true.
But this kind of thing happened with such frequency that we’d find the suitcase ballots emerging from under a table after the room was closed and the balloting count was reopened at — was it 2:30 in the morning? Two o’clock in the morning? It was caught on videotape, and now we’re told, “Oh, well, that was nothing. Never pay any attention to it.” Again, maybe there was an innocent explanation for it but why do we have 200 innocent explanations for odd behavior, and not a single one of them shows odd behavior on the other side? There’s something fishy in this election, whether it can be proven or documented.
A note here: I don’t know what any of these things Wood is talking about here are referring to. But again, it’s not surprising that if you look at an election in a country of 330 million people that you’ll be able to find all sorts of things that look strange, if that’s your goal. I would bet my life’s savings that if you did this kind of search for any election we’ve had in this country, you’d find all sorts of similar seemingly strange or unusual things that seemed on the surface hard to explain. And then add to that we were doing all this during covid, during a lot of chaos, and things had changed a lot. It’s not surprising you can find various unusual-seeming things. But none of that proves anything.Back to the interview…
Peter (cont’d): Now, one side of me says at this point, “Why bother?” Those of us on the side that there was something fishy in the election are convinced at this point that we will never see justice in the courts, we will never see the New York Times run a story on the front page or even on page 50 saying, “Oops, we made a mistake.” We know that the press, broadcast, cable news, print and so on has a narrative that it’s going to stick to no matter what. We know that the courts are just loath to get involved with this.
A small note here: just a reminder that Trump and his team lost basically all of his court cases that were filed that alleged election fraud. To quote from USA Today: “Out of the 62 lawsuits filed challenging the presidential election, 61 have failed,” and “decisions have came [sic] from both Democratic-appointed and Republican-appointed judges.” In fact, most of the judges were elected state judges. The 13 federal cases saw votes by 12 Trump appointed judges, and none of those cases were favorable to Trump. Back to the interview…
Peter (cont’d): It seems to me under those circumstances, wisdom is on the side of draw your own conclusions and proceed accordingly. But don’t expect this to be proved. Don’t think that Zachary Elwood is going to be convinced, because he’s not going to be convinced. He knows his side of the story perfectly well, too. And I’m good with that. Let Zach have his views, I’ll have mine, and we will proceed accordingly.
Zach: Do you think, I mean, isn’t natural and completely expected in a very polarized country as it is in many polarized countries that these things will happen? Like, say if Trump had been declared winner in November of 2020 and you would see in a similar way from the most polarized liberals, most angry liberals, you would see books and articles pointing to all these things that could be fishy, and you would see a very similar thing on the other side. Do you see that as being probable if Trump had been declared the winner?
Peter: Well, I would see that a titanic eruption of anger on the left would have happened for sure, because it happened in 2016. The left would not be happy with the results, yes. Would the left go to the argument that there had been tampering with the election? Well, yeah, that’s what it did before. It declared that Trump was in collusion with Russia and Russia had somehow rigged the election. Now, they spent 10s of millions of dollars trying to prove that, it turned out to be a phoney allegation but one which was very helpful in trying to undermine the Trump presidency. Why wouldn’t they do it again? My assumption is of course, they would have. Would it have been legitimate? Well, it would have been legitimate if Trump had fiddled with the election. And, of course, we’re now going into the world of counterfactuals. I don’t see Trump or his people as having the capacity to engage in the kind of mammoth fraud that the left managed in the 2020 election. So they might have made the accusation, but I doubt that would have been true.
A small note here: Wood says that Trump and his people wouldn’t have been able to engage in the kind of mammoth fraud that the left managed in the 2020 election. And yet, why would that not be possible? Trump was the president at the time, with a huge amount of power. Why would he not have the capacity? And what is it about the left that gave them amazing capacity?
And this also points out another weird element of this narrative; if Trump and the GOP were so aware of the threat of the election being stolen, where were their efforts to combat this? Presumably there would be many things one could do, besides making it harder to vote, to ensure a legitimate election, like appointing various bipartisan committees to oversee things and such. But Trump’s strategy seemed to be to mainly complain loudly that the election was being stolen, which he did many times in the months leading up to the November election, and then after he lost, lodging a bunch of lawsuits when he lost and complaining more.
And also note that Wood, having previously said that we “couldn’t know” if the election was stolen, now says confidently “the kind of mammoth fraud that the left managed in the 2020 election.” So which is it? Are we just suspicious that something bad happened? Are we uncertain but think it’s likely? Or are we completely certain that mammoth fraud was committed? Because those are all big differences. We don’t convict people of murder because we’re “kind of certain” they committed murder; there’s a reason we require a jury to reach a confident conviction beyond a reasonable doubt.
Back to the interview…
Zach: Right. Yeah, you seem to very go back and forth between expressing a lot of confidence that the left did that versus like, can we really know for sure. And you act as if I have a stance or that other people have a stance on this. And my stance is just being uncertain because in the same way that you, for example, or other people can point to all these various things, I feel like it would be the same thing if Trump had been elected. You’d be you’d be having the most polarized and angry liberals pointing to all these inconsistencies and maybe strange behaviors of local election officials etc, etc. There will be no shortage in a polarized environment of people filtering everything through these very polarized narratives. And my stance is — it’s not even a stance, it’s like, this is such a serious accusation in the same way that I found it bad that a third of Hillary Clinton voters called the election illegitimate in 2016. That is very bad to me because high bar for such a theoretically country-destroying promotion. I’m erring on the side of uncertainty and just saying, this is a very very serious thing to believe in.
Peter: Well yeah, I certainly inhabit this sort of ambiguous point where my personal conviction is that the election was stolen, but as to a stand as to whether it’s publicly worth arguing that out at this point, the answer is no, I don’t think it is. I’m happy to see other people do it if they want to but I don’t think at this point much of anybody is left in the middle to convince.
A note here: if it’s so clear and obvious that there was mammoth fraud in the 2020 election, why does Peter Wood say it’s not worth arguing it out at this point? If it was so clear, presumably we’d be able to make a strong case about it. I know I certainly would. If I believe that that was the case, I’d certainly be trying to make that case to people who are unpersuaded, and I certainly wouldn’t just be vaguely pointing to things that could have happened; i”d be pointing to things I know happened. And I’d be pointing out bad crackpot theories that people are spreading that hurt the real case to be made. Back to the interview…
Zach: Let me let me ask you this. I know you’re kind of pessimistic about our divides getting better, but if there was something you would say to the liberal side as to how can we get better? How can we heal? What are the steps towards that? What would you say to a liberal audience?
Peter: Well, I do speak on occasion to liberal audiences. What I would say is it would behove all of us to cultivate some self-doubt that there are things that we believe are true that probably are not true. They seem very convincing to us at the moment, but it’s worth listening to people who have other points of view, and trying to understand not just why they have other points of view but whether there’s any legitimacy to those points of view. I welcome groups like Braver Angels that attempt to broker a conversation between left and right. I think it’s rather telling, however, that when Braver Angels did the brave thing of posting that podcast and getting it reposted after Facebook took it down,
A correction here. I’m pretty sure Peter means Youtube, not Facebook. Unless it was also taken down on Facebook, which I don’t think it was. Back to the interview.
Peter (cont’d): they got furious response from a fair number of their own members, people who had come forward and said, “I want to be part of this left-right discussion,” but as soon as they heard a view that was outside their zone of comfort, their anger bubbled up at the organisation that exists for that very purpose.
A small note here: I think what actually angered some listeners of that Braver Angels episode with Peter wasn’t that the conversation was being had but that there was zero pushback from the interviewer to Peter’s ideas. Which is the reaction I had when listening to it; just very much disappointment in the badness and unhelpfulness of the interviewer’s technique. Back to the interview…
Peter (cont’d): So my pessimism I think is well earned. I think cultural divisions like this, it’s not the first time it’s happened in human history, and they don’t resolve by people saying let’s find a happy middle ground. They usually resolve by one side or the other decisively triumphing. And right now the energy in the country is directed towards that, the left wants to win so does the right. It may not happen in the next election or the one after that but probably sooner or later it will happen, that one side will have such a decisive victory that the other side will be demoralized.
Generations die off, maybe some future generation of the grandchildren and millennials will think that this whole thing was silly and will be going on to something else. The other thing that can bring a culture war to an end is the great disaster, whatever that might be; another 911 or Putin-instigated nuclear war. We might forget our differences if we’re engaged in the struggle for survival. I hope that that’s not the answer to any of this. It would be nice if I could end my remaining days as someone who lives in a world where left and right can talk to each other in a civilized way. We still have that to some extent, but it’s not to be found in certain segments where one would hope it would be. It’s not to be found on college campuses these days, and it’s sort of not to be found in our mass media.
Zach: Yeah, I definitely agree with you about the part of our solution is being less certain and having more doubt in regards to doubts about what the motivations of the other side are or what your stance on a specific topic is, and doubts about the moral righteousness you have about those topics. I see that as a big part of the solution. But yeah, as you say, I feel like it’s hard to ask for that in a very polarized society. You’re hard to expect in any way. But yeah, thanks a lot for coming on, Peter. This has been great.
Peter: Great. Thank you for having me.
Zach: That was an interview with Peter Wood.
One reason in my opinion that Peter would not want to call out bad, provably false and debunked allegations about the election being rigged is that Trump and his family and other GOP leaders have spread some of those provably false allegations. So if Peter were willing to call out some of those bad, wacky ideas, it would mean acknowledging that Trump and his team helped spread some of those ideas, and that would mean examining the significance of that, and examining the motivations of those people.
Because even if you’re someone who believes the 2020 election was not legitimate, hopefully you’ll be willing to admit there’s a lot of bad information out there. To learn more about this, I’d recommend reading a Buzzfeed article about Eric Trump titled Eric Trump Is An Election Disinformation Superspreader.
And Trump himself, in the months leading up to the election and in the months that followed, promoted a whole slew of allegations that were debunked. On the page for this episode on my behavior-podcast.com site, I’ll include links to my twitter thread of various Trump emails that promoted all sorts of weak and vague allegations that the election was being stolen.
Trump and his team’s approach to this was akin to throwing all sorts of spaghetti on the wall and hoping some of it would stick. It was about creating the perception that amongst all these things, even if many were debunked, there would be a lot of doubt created. Something would stick. Remember that many prominent conservatives, including Bill Barr, Trump’s own attorney general, said that Trump’s claims that the election was not legitimate was, to quote Barr, “bullshit.” It’s not much different than if Trump were to lose a golf game, and would start complaining about all the reasons for why he lost; pointing out his golf clubs were bent, and that he didn’t have a visor, and that his leg was hurting, and that his opponent got a lucky shot; if you can create enough doubt and excuses, people will start to doubt whether your loss was significant, whether it really was a loss.
I’d like to end with a clip from a recent Sam Harris podcast where he and Anne Applebaum and others talked about the 2020 election and Trump’s claims that the election wasn’t legitimate. I’d also like to point out that Sam Harris is someone who is often critical of liberal ideas. He’s even sometimes called rightwing or even racist by some liberals, quite wrongly on both counts in my opinion. This is just to say that he is someone who points out bad thinking where he sees it, and is no favorite of the left. And similarly, for Anne Applebaum, she is fairly conservative-leaning, and quite knowledgeable about political conflicts across the world, and knowledgeable about how democracies fall apart. And like Sam Harris, Applebaum has done a good amount of criticism of liberal-side ideas. She wrote a great recent piece in The Atlantic about liberal-side moral panic, which was called The New Puritans. Again, this is just to say that she is also not someone who simply regurgitates liberal talking points. And if you’re conservative hopefully that will help make her points more palatable.
Here I played a couple minutes from Sam Harris’s podcast. If you’d like to listen to this snippet, go to minute 32:00 of this episode.
Zach: That was Anne Applebaum from a January 2022 Sam Harris podcast about American democracy.
This has been the People Who Read People podcast, with me Zach Elwood. You can learn more about this podcast at behavior-podcast.com. If you liked this podcast, please consider sharing it with people you know. I currently make no money on this podcast and spend a good amount of time on it. If you’d like to donate to my Patreon and encourage me in this work, that’s at www.patreon.com/zachelwood. My Twitter is at @apokerplayer.
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