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Why is the 'Big Lie' proving so hard to dispel?

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

One year after the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, when mobs stormed in trying to stop Congress from certifying the election of President Biden, a new NPR/Ipsos poll shows that belief in the, quote, "big lie" that voter fraud helped Biden win is as widespread as it's ever been - and that despite mounds of evidence refuting that lie. NPR's Tovia Smith has this report on why the big lie is proving so hard to dispel.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Even though countless courts, commissions, committees and clerks, including Republicans, have all concluded the election was not stolen, the NPR/Ipsos poll shows two-thirds of Republicans and just over one-third of all voters still cling to the false claims that voter fraud helped President Biden win.

JERRY: Oh, of course. In the realm of possibility, just there's no way this guy got 81 million votes. It's not possible. It's not possible.

SMITH: This man, Jerry, from Wisconsin, asked that his last name not be used because he says he doesn't want to be targeted by what he calls those wacky liberals.

JERRY: I kind of think liberalism is a mental disorder. It's kind of like it's lost all grasp of common sense and logic.

SMITH: Jerry says his views are based on reason and the news, which, in his case, is mostly local conservative radio. But, he says...

JERRY: There's not usually a spin to it. It's what's right and what's wrong.

SMITH: He'd be the first to admit it, Jerry says, if he was wrong about the election being stolen, but he insists nothing has or will convince him that he is wrong.

JERRY: There is no complete 180. It just won't happen.

SMITH: That kind of intractability, however, isn't stopping folks around the nation from trying to reach their loved ones.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: It's just been difficult. I get frustrated and angry at my dad. I've always thought of him as so intelligent, but he's being misled. And there's no way to get him to see the light on that.

SMITH: Support groups like this one are filling up with people struggling to reach those who've fallen deep down the rabbit hole of disinformation.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I want things to go back to the way they were, and...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: And I want to see my mom. I want to see my mom.

SMITH: The participants asked that their full names not be used to protect their family members from retribution and so as not to jeopardize their reconciliation. One of them, 37-year-old Shannon, from Colorado, is trying to patch things up with her mother, who was at the Capitol during the insurrection and will barely listen to evidence that the election was not stolen.

SHANNON: I've brought up all kinds of information, and she dismisses it immediately. It's blind allegiance, and I've seen it get worse.

DIANE BENSCOTER: Yeah. That's extremely painful. I'm sorry.

SMITH: Diane Benscoter, a former cult member who leads the group, generally advises Shannon that trying to prove her mom wrong will likely cause her to just dig her heels in further. Instead, she says, just keep her close and watch for little cracks of doubt that might signal an opportunity. You need to tread lightly, Benscoter warns Shannon, with anyone who's so all in on the big lie.

BENSCOTER: Yeah. As time goes by, what happens is it becomes not just your political view, it is your identity. And so when someone confronts you, you're telling them who they are as a person is bad and wrong. And so on a psychological level, you have to keep in mind that what's being threatened is their very identity.

SHANNON: Yes. They are all in.

SMITH: Indeed, being a red or a blue these days or a fervent Trumper or anti-Trumper has become a kind of mega-identity, as it's been dubbed by Johns Hopkins University poli sci professor Lilliana Mason. Partisan identity, she says, has become so fully fused with cultural, religious, racial, gender and geographical identity that it's super high stakes for people to break with their party or party line.

LILLIANA MASON: To feel like they are losing those all sort of wrapped together, that's a devastating psychological harm. And people tend to react to that with a lot of not only anger, but really defensive mechanisms.

SMITH: So Mason says no recount is going to be convincing to those Trump supporters clinging to the myth that their side didn't actually lose.

MASON: They've sort of had this entire, you know, fever dream, where, you know, Trump is really stoking these ideas of, no matter what anybody else tells you, I'm telling you you're a winner. And that feels great, right? That's just, like, the most primitive human, you know, instinct is to follow the good feelings, not the bad feelings.

SMITH: It's also all too human, experts say, to dig in on a position that's seen as a moral one. Our NPR/Ipsos poll shows 70% of Americans believe the nation's in crisis and at risk of failing. So instead of just quarrelling about tax policy, for example, many partisans are engaged in what they see as an existential fight between good and evil, with each side believing they're saving democracy or saving America. Mason's research shows a clear majority of Republicans now see Democrats as a serious threat to the nation and downright evil. Democrats also feel that way about Republicans to a slightly lesser degree, but they're catching up.

JOSHUA TUCKER: We've now gotten to the point where you dislike the other party even more than you like your own party.

SMITH: Political sectarianism is what NYU politics professor Joshua Tucker calls it. He says such intense animus makes partisans impervious to facts and averse to compromise. But unfortunately, Tucker says, candidates like Trump have little political incentive to stop spreading their stop-the-steal storyline. The more inflammatory they are, the more rewarded they are.

TUCKER: There's a kind of vicious cycle here which, in itself, is fed by the nature of the electoral system in a lot of the United States.

SMITH: Politicians would have different incentives, Tucker says, if, for example, presidents were chosen by popular vote instead of the Electoral College system or if legislative districts were less gerrymandered and more competitive. But such major reforms are unlikely anytime soon. So instead of waiting for politicians to change their tune, many are pinning their hopes on the wide swath of centrist voters who are exasperated by extremists.

FRANKLIN RUFF: What you have to get is people that are willing to go against their own party in order to say, hey; could you give me better choices?

SMITH: Kansas Reverend Franklin Ruff, a Black pragmatic conservative, as he calls himself, did exactly that. He's a lifelong Republican who's in sync with most the party's principles, so it's not about trashing the GOP, he says, it's about rescuing it from the grip of pro-Trump extremists. When he couldn't bring himself to vote for Trump, he voted for neither party. And in the 2018 gubernatorial race, he voted for the Democrat.

RUFF: Because I felt that she was the best candidate for the state, and the person running against her was a mini-Trump.

SMITH: Moderate Republicans are hoping for more of that kind of crossover. If voters team up, they say, to support centrist candidates who may not be their ideal, they could, with bipartisan support, defeat what some have called the extremist insurgency within the party that's endangering democracy. They're aiming for voters like Joe Horcher, a lifelong Republican from Kentucky who's also had it with the big lie and the GOP.

JOE HORCHER: The Republican Party changed, and there are a number of times I've thought about tearing my card up and sending it to Mitch McConnell, telling him to stuff it.

SMITH: Ultimately, if more and more voters feel that way and fewer and fewer politicians peddle the big lie, that may be what finally creates those little cracks of doubt among the voters who've been buying it. Tovia Smith, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF JINSANG'S "LEARNING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.