“[Sociologist Michael] Macy and his colleagues speculate that false conformity and false enforcement can reinforce each other, creating a vicious circle that can entrap a population into an ideology that few of them accept individually,” writes Steven Pinker in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature.
Pinker’s book was published in 2011, but the quote above seems to me like it could be describing the phenomenon we have been witnessing in the United States since the 2020 election. After Donald Trump lost the election, he pushed the false claim – now referred to as the Big Lie – that the election was rigged and stolen. Through the primary elections of 2022 we have seen that the Big Lie continues to have substantial signaling power among Republican voters and many Republican candidates for office have seemingly endorsed the Big Lie or shown themselves to be sympathetic to the Big Lie.
From the outside, this seems like a difficult thing to understand. But when you step into the shoes of a Republican candidate who wants to win an election and think about the quote from Pinker, the situation starts to make more sense.
It is likely that most of the candidates who are running for office do not truly believe that Donald Trump won the 2020 election and that it was stolen from him, but they believe that others do, or at least that enough of their voters do, for them to support the idea. I would suspect that many of them don’t want to have to go on record to support what is clearly ludicrous, but by fervently showing that they have bought into the Big Lie, they can win voters and protect themselves from those voters at the same time.
Pinker continues, “why would someone punish a heretic who disavows a belief that the person himself or herself rejects? … to show other enforcers that they … believe it in their hearts. That shields them from punishments by their fellows – who may, paradoxically, only be punishing heretics out of fear that they will be punished if they don’t.”
Republican candidates may fear that they will be punished for not supporting the Big Lie. So they buy in and begin punishing those who haven’t bought in. Their false conformity feeds into real enforcement of the Big Lie. It creates a cycle where no one can step out and disavow the Big Lie, even though many of them likely understand how absurd the Big Lie is.