Time for some math! In a democracy, numbers are very, very important, especially in decision making. When a piece of legislation is introduced to the Senate, the House of Representatives, a state legislature, or a city or county council, it gets voted on. In some cases, the voting starts in a committee. If a majority of a committee approves of the legislation, it goes to another committee or the floor of a legislative chamber, where it gets another vote. If the legislation gets the number of votes needed to pass, it probably will become law.
The people deciding on the legislation (and signing it into law) are themselves chosen through popular vote. Depending on the election, a person needs a majority or plurality of the votes to become an elected office holder. The voters in these elections are members of the general public, usually adult citizens who have registered to vote. Once again, because we are counting votes, we are dealing with numbers.
All the above is pretty basic, stuff that even those of us who were nodding off stoned in the back of civics class picked up. Basic or not, it is important to remind ourselves about this stuff, especially when so much political crap is being thrown at us, often with no explanation or context. Let’s continue.
On numbers and voters, I am going to work backwards. Every election for a political office is voted on by voters. Because we do not have automatic registration, to vote a person must make an effort to register to vote. Only voting-eligible people are allowed to register to vote. At minimum to be eligible to vote, a person must be at least 18-years-old and a United States citizen. So, the registered voter is a subset of a group of eligible voters, which is a subset of the adult population in the United States, which is a subset of the whole population.
According the U.S. Census’s 2020 voters survey, 92% of the total US adult population is eligible to vote. Of the total US adult population, 67% are registered to vote. Of the voting-eligible population (a subset of the total population), 73% are registered to vote. For this exercise, I am going to concentrate on the 73% and here is why: In an election, when we are talking about wins/losses, the only people that matter are those who have the right to vote, which is eligible voters, and the ability to vote, which are registered voters. When we count the numbers, no one else but the registered voter matters.
Hopefully, all the above is clear. Take another pass at it if you need to.
In November 2020, Joe Biden was elected the president of this country by registered voters of the United States. Biden’s margin of victory was sizeable and, when we look at the numbers – the only thing that matters – there is no question that Biden won. Even so, Biden’s opponent, Donald Trump, joined by the Republican Party and right-wing media have spent months claiming the opposite, that Donald Trump won the 2020 election and that any data that suggests otherwise comes from corrupt sources.
Although Trump and his supporters have presented no solid proof that the “election was stolen” from Trump, months of repeating what we are now calling the “Big Lie” has a number of people claiming that they believe that Donald Trump won the 2020 election. How many people? According to a May 2021 poll by Ipsos, an analytics firm, 53% of Republicans, 22% of independents, and 3% of Democrats believe Trump is the rightful president. On the surface that seems like a lot of people, however when we play around with the numbers, not so.
Remember that 73% of the voting-eligible population is registered to vote. Of that 73%, according to Pew, only 29% identify as Republican, 33% as Democrats, and 34% as independent. Do a little math, putting the percentages of people who believe the Big Lie in context and the Reuters’ headline that screams “53% of Republicans view Trump as true U.S. president” isn’t so scary.
Again, in the big picture, it is the number of registered voters, not the number of Republican voters that matter. What we want to know is what is not how many Republicans think Trump won, but how many registered voters – Republican, Democrats, and independents – believe Trump won the election. That percentage is 17%.
So, let’s rewrite Reuters’ headline to read “17% of registered view Trump as true U.S. president.” Now, if your eyes passed over that headline on your social media feed, you wouldn’t think much of it, but reading 53% is something different, especially if your brain reads 53% as the general population!
A caveat: These numbers are based on national, not regional, statewide or district data. Because it is national, we don’t see the concentrated strength or weakness of regional beliefs. Without doing the math, I think it is safe to assume that if we ran numbers in a conservative city like Bakersfield, the percentage of Big Lie-believers in among registered voters would be much more than 17%. If we did the math for San Francisco, we’d struggle to come up with enough Big Lie-believers to stuff into a BART train.
Because the numbers are not evenly distributed, the percentage of Big Lie-believers in some areas will have a greater impact on elections than in others. That means that my data – 17% of Big Lie-believing registered voters – and Ipsos’s – 53% Big-Lie believing Republicans – are not very practical, at least not as far as giving us actionable information.
What my 17% does do is give context which allows you to develop some perspective that keeps you from freaking out over the 53%. It is important to note that mine is one analysis sent out to a small number of people after Reuters and 100 other news sources ran headlines focusing on the 53%. My thoughts here cannot correct the first impression most people got when they saw Ipsos’s number in a headline.
The people who have only read the 53% react mainly in one of two ways: If they are Big Lie-believers or cynical Republican operatives, they think, “Yes! We are right! We will win!” If they are reality-based or oppose the right-wing, their hearts will sink and, with it, their morale and perhaps their drive. They might view 53% of anything – Republicans, voters, the country – as a huge group of crazy people whose numbers are to big to defeat, when the truth is much different. At worst, 17% of registered voters believe the Big Lie. When we do the math for voting-eligible citizens, the percentage drops to 15%.
Today, the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) released a survey on the U.S. population and QAnon. Depending on how the survey is reported, 15% (The Hill) or One-fifth (NBC) of the population believes in QAnon. NBC’s reporting is curious given that in January they released a poll that had only 2% of the population having a positive view of QAnon. What’s also odd is that when you dig into the PRRI poll, more people believe that “the government, media and financial worlds in the U.S. are controlled by a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who run a global child sex trafficking operation” (23%) than that in the QAnon theory (20%).
So, we have 53% of Republicans, 17% of registered voters and 15% of voting-eligible people thinking Trump is the true president; 23% of the population thinking that Satan-worshiping pedophiles run the world; 20% believing in QAnon; and 2% having a positive view of QAnon. Now, before you get your worts in a worry, let me throw some other numbers at you.
In May 2017, Gallop released a poll finding that 24% of Americans believe that the Bible is literal truth. While that is a record low, it still means that 24% of Americans believe that Noah built a boat that could hold two each of the world’s entire animal, reptile, bird, and insect population and keep them comfortable, alive, and at peace for 40 days and 40 nights, and that after the worldwide flood receded, Noah, his family, and all the critters climbed down from a mountain, distributed themselves across the globe and repopulated Earth. The same 24% of Americans believe that a guy lived inside a whale, a burning bush talks to people, dead people can be reanimated, and a skinny Jewish guy born from a virgin in the Middle East was blond-haired, blue-eyed.
In 2017, PRRI released a survey which reported that 14% of American thought that AIDS is “God’s punishment.” That 14% is down from 2007’s 23%, which is down from how people felt in the 1990s.
From 2001 to 2009, anywhere from 23% to 54% of Americans supported torture. When asked about specific methods of torture such as waterboarding, sleep deprivation, exposure to extreme heat/cold, food deprivation, and “harsh interrogation” support ranged from 40% to 64%.
If I wanted to, I could roll out a ton of other statistics that show Americans believing irrational and/or dangerous things or supporting the absolutely worst stuff possible. And the further back you go, the worse it gets. Past American attitudes show majority support for the atomic bombing of Japan, the “internment” of Japanese-Americans, denying refugee status to Jews fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe, the enactment Jim Crow laws, lynching, depriving women the vote, passing xenophobic laws, practicing slavery, and committing genocide of Native peoples. And while public support of these atrocities were high while they were happening and continued to be popular in the decades that followed, modern times has not turned all Americans against obvious crimes against humanity. For example, in 2016, 20% of Trump supporters thought that ending slavery was a bad thing. Of course, this is a fraction of a fraction of a fraction, but still, we are talking slavery.
Point is, 17% of registered voters believing the Big Lie, while not good, is not a unique phenomenon. A certain percentage of Americans believe and will always believe in bad and stupid stuff. This isn’t a Trump thing. This isn’t a Republican thing. This is an American thing. People holding damaging ideas and rotten beliefs are part of who we are. Over time, the percentages might shrink on certain issues, but the focus of the craziness will shift and find a way to express itself. That won’t change and we won’t change the people who are inclined to believe this stuff.
What we can do is work very hard to make sure that they don’t have access to power. That starts with being very frank and honest about this country. We have to stop being shocked about our country and its citizens. We must refuse to try to assign responsibility for a general darkness to specific people, hoping that their downfall or defeat will “end the nightmare.”
When we fixate on Trump supporters or QAnon as if they are reachable or likely to change (even by repeating “Well, they are still gonna think he’s god”), we ignore and deny that what we are dealing with are a set of systems that can empower craziness and destruction. We might have to battle through Trumpoids, Q-ists, and others to get to the system, but that is the fight. And, while are in this fight, when the numbers come, we must do our best to pause and understand them than simply see them and freak out.