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Shaking confidence in something can undermine its success — even when everything is working.
The people who lined up in some of the state’s grocery stores this week were there, in part, because last year’s winter storm and electric blackouts wrecked their confidence in the reliability of the electric grid.
The storm this week isn’t nearly as severe as the one a year ago. Electric companies were on high alert, and prepared in ways they weren’t last year. The state’s politicians, worried that a blackout would be as bad for their reelection chances as it is for the health of Texas residents, were much more diligent. So were the rest of us, which is why we were buying water and food and batteries.
The system is working like it’s supposed to. If it keeps going this way, we could regain our assurance that the people in control can keep the lights on when the weather is nasty.
If only all of us could do that with elections.
Failure isn’t the only way to shake public confidence. You can destroy confidence by attacking an election system that works, just because it turned President Donald Trump out of office.
“We all know who won in 2020,” Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick told the crowd at a Trump rally in Conroe last Saturday, repeating the “Big Lie” that is the heartbeat of Trump’s post-presidency. Patrick and state Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller both let the crowd know they want Trump to run again in 2024. Both are themselves up for reelection this year, depending on the support of a Texas Republican Party still in thrall to the former president.
A fair number of those voters can’t believe they were outnumbered in the 2020 election, that the majority of American voters disagreed with them, and that the Electoral College produced the same result as the popular vote. Trump won in Texas, besting Joe Biden by more than 600,000 votes, or 5.6 percentage points. But nationally, Biden got 7.1 million more votes, and won the Electoral College 306-232.
For all of the keening about it, the election wasn’t all that close. But Trump and his supporters won’t let go, protesting the vote counting, launching an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol in January 2021, pressing forward with new voting laws spurred by unsubstantiated claims of election fraud and holding rallies — like the one on Saturday — promoting the idea that any election they don’t win is corrupted.
At the rally, Trump raised that specter himself, saying Texas is “never, ever turning blue — that is, unless they rig the election.” To Abbott, he added, “Don’t let ’em do it, governor.”
When the 2000 presidential election results were questioned by the Democrats backing Al Gore and Joe Lieberman, Republicans for George W. Bush and Dick Cheney pushed back hard — and successfully. Republican sloganeers turned out satirical versions of the Gore/Lieberman signs that instead said “Sore/Loserman,” and “Enough is enough.”
The 2000 election protest ended before the end of 2000, after the U.S. Supreme Court decided against allowing a Florida recount and Gore conceded. The Democrats weren’t happy about losing, but they didn’t storm the Capitol. The public wouldn’t have supported them if they had tried.
Here we are, a couple of decades later: same shoe, different foot.
This time, the sore losers haven’t given up. Some of them hold state positions in Texas, administering and defending the very system that produced Biden’s win over Trump, and that produced their own wins, too. The state’s top Republicans can rally with Trump and others and cry foul about the elections if they want. But they’re products of the same system they protest.
Protest enough election results, and people will start believing you. It erodes their confidence, just like confidence was eroded when the lights went off last February. The elections didn’t fail like the grid failed. They just didn’t produce the result the minority of voters preferred.
Messing with that is a dangerous thing to do, if your power depends on their confidence in your democracy.