Did Joe
Biden win the election fair and square? 
Or was there voter fraud sufficient to tip it in his direction?  I won’t be addressing those questions
here.  I want to consider the more basic
epistemological issue of whether asking them is even reasonable, or instead the
mere entertaining of a crackpot conspiracy theory.  At The
Catholic Thing
, philosopher Mike Pakaluk opines that it
is reasonable
, and two
other philosophers, Rob Koons and Daniel Bonevac, evidently
agree
.  I think they are
right.

Trump’s
fiercest critics are hardly in any position to disagree.  For years they insisted with shrill
confidence that Trump “colluded” with Russia to steal the 2016 election – even though,
as honest lefties like Matt
Taibbi
and Glenn
Greenwald
vainly tried to warn them, that was a conspiracy theory
for which there never was serious evidence.

As longtime
readers know,
I
have been very critical of conspiracy theories
.  But it is important to be clear about exactly
what one means when using the expression “conspiracy theory” in a dismissive
way.  No one denies that there are
conspiracies of some kinds – they
happen every time two or more criminals work together to rob a liquor store,
plan a murder, embezzle from their employer, or commit a terrorist act.  What are seriously problematic – and what I
have criticized – are theories that posit conspiracies so vast that they implicitly subvert the epistemic foundations of
the theory itself.  They are
philosophically problematic in the way that other forms of radical skepticism
and the “hermeneutics of suspicion” are.

Claims about
election fraud significant enough to tip an election needn’t be like that.  They needn’t assert that “everyone is in on
it.”  In fact, they don’t even need to
posit a conspiracy at all – at least
not one involving coordination between, or even mutual knowledge of, all those
who were involved.

Let’s look
at it from the point of view of the classic trio of means, motive, and opportunity.  Where all three are present, they don’t
establish that a crime did in fact occur,
but they do suffice to show that it could
have occurred, so that it is reasonable to look for evidence that it did.  And I submit that all three are present in
the current situation.

Means

One of the
problems with conspiracy theories of the crackpot type is that they posit
crimes and collusion that are simply way too intricate to pull off.  For example, if your favorite JFK assassination
conspiracy theory requires just the right people, in high places and low,
spread across the CIA, the FBI, Army intelligence, the mafia, the Time-Life corporation,
the anti-Castro Cuban community, Texas oilmen, nightclub owners, etc., doing just
the right things at just the right times in just the right places from Dallas
to New Orleans to Washington, D.C. – well, it simply strains credulity.  It simply could not have happened, given the
way human nature and human society work. 
The means are absent for such
a vast conspiracy (unlike, say, a theory that requires just a few Mafiosi).

Now, is a
voter fraud scenario that could tip a major election as implausible as
that?  Not at all.  We know this, because we know that such fraud
has in fact happened in the past, or at
least plausibly has happened, as even sober mainstream observers agree.  For example, a
strong case can be made
that Al Franken’s victory over Norm Coleman
in the 2008 Minnesota Senate race resulted from voter fraud. 

To be sure,
the margin in that case was very small – on the order of a few hundred
votes.  However, fraud also plausibly
took place in an election that involved much larger margins, namely the 1960
presidential election.  Kennedy won
Illinois by about 8,800 votes, mostly owing to results in Mayor Richard Daley’s
Chicago.  He won his running mate Lyndon
Johnson’s home state of Texas by about 46,000 votes.  Had he lost both of those states, Nixon would
have won the election.  And some mainstream
historians and journalists, including liberal ones, think that these states
were indeed stolen from Nixon.  For
example, Kennedy biographer Seymour Hersh judges
that the election was stolen
.  Historian
Robert Dallek thinks
that at least Illinois was stolen
, via Daley’s political machine.  Historian William Rorabaugh thinks that Nixon
may have been cheated out
of as many as 100,000 to 200,000 votes
in Johnson’s corrupt Texas.

Whether the
1960 election really was stolen is a matter of controversy, but the point is
that mainstream historians agree that it could have happened.  The scenario does not require the kind of
conspiracy theory that can be ruled out a
priori
as impossible.  And it should
be noted that it does not necessarily require a centralized conspiracy
coordinating efforts across state lines. 
The Democratic political machines in Chicago and Texas could act completely
independently, each having an interest in doing what they could to make the
national election come out in the Kennedy/Johnson ticket’s favor.

Now, the
states in dispute in the current election involve similar vote margins – around
11,000 votes in Arizona, 14,000 in Georgia, 20,000 in Wisconsin, 37,000 in
Nevada, and 54,000 in Pennsylvania.  Even
the 146,000 vote difference in Michigan is comparable to what might have been stolen
from Nixon in Texas.  You’d just need
there to be enough corrupt like-minded Democratic operatives in these different
states to do the kinds of things that Democratic operatives in 1960 may well
have done in Chicago and Texas.  And
again, they needn’t have been coordinating their efforts.  You’d just need enough people in each state
independently judging that voter fraud was a good way to get their favored
candidate to win.

Do the
mechanics of elections make such fraud less likely now than in 1960?  That’s far from obvious.  Some of the key cities, such
as Philadelphia
, are notorious today for political corruption, just like
Daley’s Chicago was.  There are also new
methods of voter fraud made possible by modern voting machines and software – as
mainstream outlets were warning
back when they feared that Russia might steal the 2016 election for
Trump.

The bottom
line is that fraud on a scale that could tip the election Biden’s way could plausibly have happened.  The idea cannot reasonably be dismissed out
of hand as a “conspiracy theory.”  And
again, left-wingers who take seriously the idea that the 2016 election was
stolen for Trump are the very last people who have any business dismissing it.

Motive

This one’s
easy.  Consider a super-“woke” Democratic
operative who is convinced that Trump stole the 2016 election with Russian
assistance, and remains a Russian asset. 
Suppose he also believes that Trump and his supporters are vile fascists,
racists, sexists, and homophobes, and existential threats to racial minorities,
LGBT, women, and the Left.  He believes that
“systemic racism” thoroughly permeates U.S. institutions in the interests of upholding
“white supremacy,” and that Trump’s defeat is crucial to defeating these evil
forces.  He believes that the rioting,
looting, and burning perpetrated by Antifa and BLM activists is justifiable or
at least excusable, despite the suffering it inflicted on innocent business
owners.  (No omelets without broken eggs,
and all that.)  He believes that
institutions like the police are so thoroughly corrupt that they must simply be
“defunded,” regardless of the harm this will do to neighborhoods no longer
protected from criminals.  (Again, omelets,
broken eggs.)  He thinks court-packing
and other schemes that would destroy American democratic precedent and secure
one-party rule are fine and dandy.  He
has such an expansive conception of “violence” that he seriously believes that
politically incorrect language and other “micro-aggressions” make others “unsafe.”

Might such a
person draw the conclusion that voter fraud to secure a Trump defeat is justifiable
– perhaps even a kind of self-defense,
indeed, maybe even one’s duty as a “progressive”?  To ask the question is to answer it.

Are there enough
people like this to perpetrate the amount of fraud necessary to alter the
outcome of the election?  Well, there are
certainly a helluva lot more of them
now than there were in 1960.  Do the
math. 

Opportunity

This one’s
easy too.  There is no less opportunity
for fraud now than in previous elections. 
On the contrary, this year’s novelty of having massive numbers of voters vote by mail (as opposed to the relative
few who have done so in previous elections) has greatly added to the opportunities for fraud, as many warned
months ago
. 

So, the
means, motive, and opportunity for voter fraud significant enough to tip an
election are at least as present now as in 1960, and arguably more so.  Again, that doesn’t by itself show that such
fraud has actually occurred, but it does make it reasonable to investigate the
matter.  Those currently insisting on
doing so before declaring a winner are not only within their legal rights, they
are within their epistemic rights.

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