We use the word “steal,” as we use many words, in several distinct but related senses. Here is an illustration of the core meaning. Joe goes into a candy store, looks around furtively (from the Latin fūr, “thief”) and then, when he sees that the shopkeeper is distracted, pockets some M&M’s and walks out. Joe just stole the M&M’s.
That act of theft is simple. There are plenty of more complex and nuanced ones, but the element of assuming as one’s own something that rightfully belongs to another is key.
Our elaborate and often convoluted financial system is replete with examples. So is our political life.
Perhaps the most popular meme floating about in polite society today is the contention that any hint of the 2020 presidential election being tainted is a “Big Lie.” It is so popular, in fact, that some journalists and politicians appear to present themselves to the Office of Acceptable Propaganda each day before setting off on their rounds. They collect their allotted quota of different ways of ridiculing and dismissing those imprudent enough to suggest that, as a matter of fact, there were lots of problems with the 2020 elections.
It is important that these approved scribes and politicians engage in this ritual because there are many different ways in which this rhetorical epithet needs to be expressed if it is to achieve its goal: to silence debate by intimidating people.
To this end, a number of different rhetorical registers must be sounded. Some are blunt and angry, as for example this tweet from a writer for The Bulwark, a marginal NeverTrump site supported by leftist billionaires: “Chris Sununu, Doug Ducey, Brian Kemp, and Glenn Youngkin . . . every single one of them is campaigning either for or with an election-denying lunatic.”
The obloquy is directed not simply against certain ideas, but also against the people who express, or might express, them. Thus we find Michael Steele, an anti-Trump Republican and former chairman of the Republican National Committee, castigating supporters of the former president as “lice, fleas, and blood sucking ticks.” The formula does have the advantage of clarity: I mean, partly because of its unsavory historical echoes, you know where you stand with Steele.
But there are many other rhetorical gambits deployed in this effort to silence debate on the question. Some employ careful—or at least careful-sounding—analysis, sprinkled discreetly here and there with the imprecations against the Big Lie™. Some eschew personal abuse almost entirely, preferring instead to communicate an hauteur that signals how far beneath consideration any hint of an adumbration of electoral mischief would be.
The aim, as I said, is to silence any and all criticism. The means is largely intimidation, but it is intimidation that aims first of all to create a consensus: a unanimity of sentiment so widespread that it no longer has to be prohibited because it is regarded as morally outrageous by polite society.
I bring up the idea of consensus because it is a source of mischief and confusion not only in our understanding of history—did X actually happen when and where and how you say it did?—but also in science. Thanks to intellectual pied pipers like Thomas Kuhn (and Karl Popper before him), we have gotten used to sociological explanations masquerading as scientific ones. You will recall the popularity of the observation that “97 percent of climate scientists believe in global warming/climate change/etc.” As a matter of historical fact, there was never anything like that percentage of scientists who agreed with the Al Gore/Barack Obama mantras about climate change. This is something that Steve Koonin, a former science advisor for the Obama Administration who broke ranks by challenging the dominant narrative, showed definitively.
But the key element here is the assumption that a consensus renders further discussion beyond the pale. It is just such an assumption that stands behind the mendacious application of the epithet “denier” to those who dissent from the reigning orthodoxy about climate. People who question the historical reality of the Holocaust are “Holocaust deniers.” That is a bad and dishonest thing. Why not use the same locution to render people who disagree with the reigning consensus about climate similarly radioactive? And if that worked, why not try the same thing with people who noticed the multiple anomalies that attached themselves like barnacles to the 2020 election?
The point is that cognitive success in science, and indeed in any empirical inquiry, is not a matter of consensus but of truth. In Galileo’s time, the consensus was that the earth was the center of the universe and the sun revolved around the earth. That was the consensus. Everyone who was anyone knew it. But it was wrong.
Blurring the distinction between consensus and truth was Thomas Kuhn’s great if crafty intellectual folly. It is the reason he made such a hit among sociologists and students of comparative literature. We see the results everywhere, with respect to climate and fossil fuels, COVID policy, and even in our understanding of elections.
There is a lot more that might be said about the perils of mistaking consensus for the truth, but for now I want to return to the meaning of the word “steal” and its application to the 2020 presidential election.
We know that if Joe walks into a candy store and pockets some M&M’s without paying for them, he has stolen the M&M’s. What if he stays in his basement during an election and somehow accrues 81 million votes and manages to win several key states late at night only after a series of strange interventions in a handful of key cities? Might that also be a kind of theft?
Perhaps the title of Mollie Hemingway’s Rigged: How the Media, Big Tech, and the Democrats Seized Our Elections puts it more precisely. The election was not stolen outright. It was misappropriated by the forces Hemingway identifies: the media, which hated Trump, Big Tech (Mark Zuckerberg, Twitter, etc.), and the Democrats, who in several states used the COVID emergency as an excuse to circumvent the Constitution and change election procedures by executive fiat rather than (as mandated by the Constitution) through the state legislatures.
Did that constitutionally dubious procedure mean that the election was stolen? Maybe not. But surely it casts a shadow. And you can be sure if the partisan shoe were on the other foot the media would not be so quiescent. Just imagine if election procedures were changed by secretaries of state or governors and a Republican won! There would be hell to pay, and rightly so.
Mark Zuckerberg spent nearly half a billion dollars in a (successful) effort to influence the election. Does that implicate the idea of stealing? Again, imagine if some conservative were to do the same thing and his candidate won. Would the New York Times nod approvingly?
It is probably worth pointing out, too, that when Hemingway invokes “Democrats” we should not forget to include the FBI, an organization that has again and again shown itself to be the Democrats’ Geheime Staatspolizei. The recent revelation that the FBI leaned on Facebook, Twitter, and other media to bury the story of Hunter Biden’s laptop on the run up to the election should give us pause for about 27 different reasons. We know from multiple polls that had that story been allowed to stand thousands upon thousands of people who voted for Joe Biden would have changed their votes. Why was that action by the government not regarded as thief-like?
The examples pile up. Conrad Black, in a sobering article, listed some of them:
Everyone knows that there were potentially millions of harvested ballots that weren’t verified as authentically reflecting the voting preference of a real voter. And everyone knows that the judiciary at all levels refused to hear any of the cases that could have altered the election result. There were 19 of them, including the direct lawsuit of the attorney general of Texas in which he was joined by 18 other state attorneys general against the states that the plaintiff alleged had failed in their constitutional duty to ensure that national elections were conducted fairly in their states.
Was the 2020 election “stolen”? Perhaps that is not quite the right word. But, pace The Bulwark, what is “lunatic” is not distrusting the election but giving it a pass because, as every right thinking person will agree, it produced the desired result.