If we can’t believe the people we elect, what can we trust?

The other night, a few of my friends were shocked to learn I did not believe the presidential election was stolen. These are savvy professionals who aren’t about to dress like buffalo and attack the Capitol. I pressed them in an effort to understand where we parted company regarding the November election. The exchange pointed me to the deep lack of trust in America, the consequences, and ideas to address it.

Very few of us have direct access to the ballots from the last presidential election. The volunteers and officials in a given state only handled a fraction of the total ballots cast across the nation. Every election in America demands a full measure of trust at some point along the line. I’m not going to hand count and verify each vote cast in the United States and neither is anyone else. 

At some point, that necessary trust will be challenged. 

Take Georgia, for example, where President Donald Trump referred to the elections as “rigged.” Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, claims that “there is nowhere close to sufficient evidence to put in doubt the result of the presidential contest in Georgia.” On January 6, the same day as the attack on the Capitol, Raffensperger sent a 10-page letter to Congress with a point-by-point refutation of false election claims. 

Raffensperger does have direct knowledge of the election results in Georgia by virtue of his elected position. By maintaining that the election was conducted properly, he’s going against his own political interests which lends his voice a higher degree of credibility. My friends, skeptical of the election results, clearly disagree, and they’re not alone. 

In discussing the election, my confidants didn’t clash with me about principle or policy. We are all conservatives. We debated whether we could or should trust the elected officials in Georgia and other states to deliver credible results. It wasn’t because they viewed Trump as a “truth-giver;” they simply do not trust anyone in politics.

That really hit me. Trust is a choice. 

I put my confidence in the structures in the Constitution. I expect my fellow Americans to elect leaders who actually represent them. I trust those officials to follow the law to the best of their ability. I rely on judges to rule justly where conflicts arise. I bank on legislative bodies to craft laws which improve those processes. I have faith in a system of government that is sober about human nature, mitigates its weaknesses, and extols its virtue. 

It’s fundamentally belief in America itself.  I could easily look at the sad state of our modern politics and reject that position as little more than the romanticized naivete of a policy nerd who read too many books about American greatness. 

But at some point, the perpetual skeptic has to trust someone or simply admit he can’t build a functioning society let alone a vision for the future. If it isn’t governors, secretaries of state, or judges empowered by the people to conduct elections and adjudicate disputes, then exactly whom should we trust to tell us the truth? 

Any American who rejects the validity of an election must answer that question. 

Even if Georgia and the other contested states held another election for president, the same politicians and judges would be in place. If the results were different, what reason would the skeptic have to give them any more credibility? 

Trust is an inescapable reality in any society where people govern themselves. Either we support the processes of our federal, state, and local governments, or we do not. If we don’t, then our options are to address them within our existing structures or overthrow the government.

None of the gentlemen I discussed the election with supported violence or agitating for civil war. Most Democrats, on the heels of electoral success, certainly don’t want to upend America’s leadership. The vast majority of Republicans aren’t willing to shoot anyone over politics either. The few remaining insurrectionists are in the awkward position of wanting to forcibly take over a nation with a miniscule minority of the population. If successful, their ruling structure would look far more like North Korea than a functioning democracy.

I understand the practical options going forward don’t make Republicans any less upset about the election, but they do provide clear direction. We should focus on winning elections and pushing actual policy ideas. Democrats will develop a sweeping agenda; Republicans must develop credible alternatives that address the everyday challenges facing Americans. 

Political success isn’t a distant memory for Republicans who held the U.S. Senate, House of Representatives, and White House as recently as 2016. Democrats may narrowly hold that trifecta now, but that could quickly change in 2022.

Despite little empirical evidence that the 2018 Georgia governor’s race was stolen from her, Democrat Stacey Abrams maintained the process was unfair and refused to concede. She didn’t attack the Georgia capitol building. Instead, she filed lawsuits. She got out the vote. Now Georgia is a purple state with two Democratic senators. It’s a blueprint Republicans would be wise to emulate. 

Trust is hard to come by these days. Faith in individual politicians will disappoint us because they’re human. Confidence in the structures and processes which have brought our nation thus far is the difficult path forward. It is a choice, our choice, and one which we must make continually if we expect our republic to hold. 

Cameron Smith is CEO of the Triptych Foundation, a 501(c)(3) non-profit. The Triptych Foundation promotes a virtuous society through investments in socially impactful media and business. He was recently executive director of the Republican Policy Committee in the United States House of Representatives. You can reach him at cameron@triptychfoundation.org.

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