The Big Lie & the Primary Problem

This new piece in The Washington Post, as well as several others including one in the N.Y. Times based on Jeremy Peters’ forthcoming book, confirms for me the connection between (1) the entrenchment of Trump’s false claim about the 2020 election being stolen and (2) the structural flaw of the existing plurality-winner electoral system that enables Trump to “primary” Republicans he considers disloyal and thereby prevent them from being viable general-election candidates in November. Given the initial response to January 6 by Republicans like Sen. Lindsey Graham and Rep. Kevin McCarthy, followed by the snapback loyalty to Trump once he had proven his ongoing connection with the base and therefore his capacity to destroy in a primary any Republican disloyal to him, the conclusion to draw is that Republicans who might have been willing to speak out against the Big Lie if there weren’t this threat of being “primaried” quickly realized they needed to hold their tongues if they want to keep their careers.

Other Republicans eager for Trump’s endorsement in a primary starting embracing the Big Lie even if they otherwise would have been disinclined to do so. The Post’s description of Senate candidate Bernie Moreno is illustrative of this. Another Ohio Senate candidate, J.D. Vance, could also serve as an example, given the transformation of his views on Trump in his quest for the GOP nomination.

The upshot is that I’m even more convinced than I was a year ago that if we are going to solve the Big Lie problem, we must solve the “primary problem“. We need a lot more Republicans, besides Liz Cheney (who faces her own threat of being primaried by Trump), to denounce the Big Lie. But that’s not going to happen without structural reform that removes the effectiveness of this threat. Structural conditions have enabled the Big Lie to take hold over the last year, and thus there will need to be structural reform in order to undo the perniciousness of the Big Lie.

If every incumbent Republican had the benefit of Alaska’s new electoral system that Lisa Murkowski has, every incumbent Republican would be in a different posture with respect to the threat of being primaried than most currently are. Alaska’s system isn’t a perfect panacea for reasons I’ve explored elsewhere, but it is far better at counteracting the threat of the Big Lie than the plurality-winner system that operates in most states. Thus, as we reflect on how deeply ingrained the Big Lie has become over the last year and endeavor to find a solution, we can’t ignore the role that the existing plurality-winner electoral system has played (which enables primaries to have their effect of eliminating candidates who would be preferred by general-election voters) and thus must move to the center of the electoral-reform agenda the possibility of structural alternatives.

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