Interview
"In Tribal Politics, not acknowledging defeat is a political mechanism"
In an exclusive interview with LPO, political scientist Francisco Cantú analyzes the era of denialism and the attacks on democratic institutions as part of a scene where everyone believes they are "owners of the truth."

Francisco Cantú is a specialist in electoral processes, who studies the different forms of electoral manipulation and has a keen eye on the political dispute in the United States. Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Houston, Cantú affirms that episodes such as the attack on the Capitol are part of the polarization that dominates politics. According to his analysis, the different groups live within "information bubbles" that lead them to believe they are "owners of the truth" and do not recognize when others do things better than them. However, Cantú disagrees with those who see denial as irrational: "Not acknowledging defeat is also a political mechanism and a political strategy," he says.

In January 2021, a group of Trump supporters burst into the Capitol with allegations of fraud against Biden. Why do voters distrust the election results?

Well, the most common explanation is this cognitive dissonance. You always think you are on the right side of history. When results do not turn out as expected, one of the ways this dissonance is resolved is by blaming the process. In other words, if my team did not win the match or I did badly in an exam, it is the referee's or the teacher's fault.

I think that when someone supports a candidate and he or she loses, they become more reticent or less confident in the process. Even more, when the same candidate is the one who begins to generate suspicions of fraud. Such was the case of Trump, who long before the election, and also after it, generated suspicions about the electoral process.

Why do you think that scenes of violence were seen in this case?

I think there are two reasons. First, the environment of political polarization, a phenomenon that exists not only in the United States, but in many countries in Europe and Latin America. It is impossible - or very difficult - for people to recognize someone else's victory in such highly polarized settings. It seems to me that the same thing could have happened even four years earlier with the Democrats. In 2016 election, the Democrats were willing to interrupt the process and challenge the result. Many of them were challenging the count, the electoral college system, asking people to reveal and saying they were not going to support Trump.

Second, in these times we live now, everyone is in their own information bubble. We only have certain kind of information and that makes us be in an environment very isolated from... I don't want to say from reality... but from other points of view. So we cannot really verify what happened and we all feel a bit in control of the truth. With this abundance of information, it is increasingly difficult to be humble and say "I don't know." People feel very secure in the information they receive.

In 2016 election, Democrats were willing to interrupt the process and challenge the result. Many of the were challenging the count, the electoral college system, asking people to reveal and saying they were not going to support Trump.

And the leader appeared, this person who finally stood up for them or faced the consequences, after so many years, and told them that there had been fraud in the election and that they had to defend the country. And they saw him as the last chance they had for him to stay in power. That he was someone who had finally turned these people relegated by the system.

"In Tribal Politics, not acknowledging defeat is a political mechanism"


What is the leaders' role and why is the loser's consent important for democracy?

I really like a phrase from Julio Sanguinetti, a former Uruguayan president: "Democracy is the ethics of defeat." He defines the concept of knowing when you have to go home. But it is increasingly difficult to accept that the other person did a better job than you: because accepting that also implies accepting that there are other costs beyond the result of the election. There are costs in terms of public policies and ideologies that have less and less in common.

On the other hand, not acknowledging defeat is also a political mechanism. A political strategy. Today the costs of not accepting the results are lower than they were 20 years ago, when the party would punish you. Or voters, let's say without any party identification, they could punish you. Nowadays it is more of a tribal policy. And the leaders want to keep their tribe happy. At least happy with their leader. And that is one way to keep them.

Today the costs of not accepting the results are lower than they were 20 years ago, when the party would punish you, or voters without any party identification would.

When you say tribe, do you refer to voters of a party as a whole or to a subset of them?

I don't really like to make these analogies with soccer. In Political Sciences we always think this is rational and we are going to compare profits and expectations, and things like that. But every time we realize that this is closer to how you live your favorite sport. In soccer, it is not really that you like a team because they play better. There is an emotional reason, or not rational, because you grew up like this, that made you go for that team. The reasons to be a fan of that team come after your attachment with the team. So there are the fans who go to the stadium every eight days. And there are the aggressive people supporting everyday. And I would see them as Trump supporters. Those who are willing to kill each other and kick other people to defend the team's colors, the flag, whatever.

But beyond that group there are those who follow the game on television, those who watch it from the stands, beyond where the aggressor is, who still want their team to win, and who find it difficult to let the rival win. So, they are also motivated by these kinds of emotions, rather than sitting down and saying, the best man won or we lost because we played worse. More than identifying these groups within a single point in time, it is looking at how partisan identification or political support has changed in the last 30 years.

"In Tribal Politics, not acknowledging defeat is a political mechanism"

Do you think this is a phenomenon of majority systems where the winner takes all? Or these phenomena are proportional systems, like parliamentary systems?

Candidates are more reluctant to accept the electoral result in majority systems, so let's say that in presidential systems there is even more rejection of the results. And that has to do with why you cannot use a proportional rule there, when there is only one seat available. In Peru they reached the same consequences to dispute the result of the second round. Ecuador would be an example of that. So, I think that the electoral system does matter, but it would be secondary to seeing how the government system is. I imagine that in parliamentary systems there is less opportunity cost. Let's say that what you lose in each election is less at stake, because you only lose one district, no matter how many seats are there in the district. You only lose one district. Whereas in a presidential election, you lose the only available seat.

When you mentioned the tribes, you referred to something that in Political Science we usually call party identity, but there is what you call negative party identity. Could you explain what it is?

In Latin America there is the conception that people are not interested in political parties because they do not identify positively with any party. But well, we know that sometimes what we don't like defines us more than what we like. In a work I did together with the political scientist Agustina Haime, we thought about partisan identity, not only with the party you feel most identified with, but also with the party you feel least identified with, and that is already telling you something about your attitudes and your ideological position. So what we are saying is that once you include this spectrum of negative partisanship, partisanship in Latin America truly has the same level rates that you can see in other parts of the world.

Do you see this phenomenon of negative party identity also present in the United States?

Well, the United States is almost the archetype of this negative identity. What we see is that the number of voters who consider themselves independent is increasing and the number of people who identify themselves with one party is falling. But at the same time, straight ticket voting rates, when people vote for one party for all offices, are at levels never seen before. In other words, the number of people who vote for only one party and at the same time identify themselves as independent is growing more and more. So this has to do a bit with negative identification. It is not so much that you identify yourself with the Democrats or the Republicans. What leads you the most to behave like that is that you do not want to see the Democrats or the Republicans in power. Again, it is more the repulsion than the attraction to a certain party.

The United States is almost the archetype of this negative identity. You do not want to see the Democrats or the Republicans in power. It is more the repulsion than the attraction to a certain party.

However, Political Science models predict that, despite the polarization, parties move to the center in search of the median voter...

Yes, that's right. A party will always find the median voter in the center. He or she will always be there, in the middle, no matter how polarized the scene is, and public policies will tend to the center. The policies or decisions, or the profile of the representative continues to be attractive to the median voter. What happens is that in a system like the one in the United States, the one you try to please is the median voter in each district. And what is happening is that there is a kind of polarization in the districts. What happens is that there has been a kind of grouping or adaptation among the voters, which caused voters who think very similarly to be in the same district. And that is what makes it so that although the representatives attend to the needs of the median voter in each district, this grouping of voters according to the districts generates very polarized politics.

"In Tribal Politics, not acknowledging defeat is a political mechanism"

In your research agenda, one of the central topics was fraud. Can there be, or has there been fraud in the United States elections?

There is no great evidence. There are anecdotes of elections that changed with certain kinds of electoral irregularities. The one that comes to my mind is that of Lyndon B. Johnson becoming the Democratic Party's nominee for the Senate in Texas. He lost the first time and the second time he was head to head with the contender until, three days after the election, they suddenly found a box with about 200 votes for Johnson and that changed the result. There he started the political career that led him to be president. There is a good book by the historian and journalist Robert Caro on the subject. Beyond those anecdotes, there really isn't much evidence of electoral irregularities in the country.

There is a recent study on the possibility of people voting twice and the probability is very small. Even if there were, and assuming that everyone who can do it, do it, it wouldn't change the electoral result at all. It is more the fear or threat of electoral fraud than what really happens.

What do you think of the measures that are being promoted in several states, but particularly in Texas, to prevent fraud, such as requiring identification of people to vote?

The American case is very curious, because it is like the world turned upside down. Leaving the United States, you would expect the left would advocate for a cleaner and more reliable electoral system and that everyone could have a unique identification system, where they can register and thus avoid double voting and that everyone can have access to. You arrive in the United States and it is the other way around. The liberals are the ones who want to remove any kind of identification so that people can vote and the right-wing people want to put restrictions. Not necessarily restrictions, but they want registration, voting to be very efficient and maybe very excessive. It is like the world turned upside down and due to polarization it has not been possible to reach a middle point, where it is accepted that perhaps one step to reduce suspicion of fraud is that we all must have identification to vote.

At the same time, it must also be recognized that it will be difficult for some sectors of the population to have their identification to vote. But I think that an agreement can be reached there or it can be discussed what has been done, or what is the experience of other countries. I know that in Bolivia between 98 and 99 percent of people are registered and there are many people who have fewer resources on average than in the United States. In Mexico it is a bit like that, but I think there are local interests in each district or in each country, which prevent this kind of centralization of the electoral system.


Translator: Bibiana Ruiz. 

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En una entrevista exclusiva con LPO, el politólogo Francisco Cantú analiza la era del negacionismo y los ataques a las instituciones demócraticas como parte de una escena donde todos se creen "dueños de la verdad".