The Other Big Lie

Western States Center
4 min readJan 12, 2022

By Eric K. Ward

“Thank you for sharing. I was on the Hill and didn’t see these vigils on the news. You have lifted my spirits.” ~ response to our Twitter thread spotlighting pro-democracy actions on January 6. (Photo source: Senator Chuck Schumer’s Twitter)

Last week, as we welcomed a new year that felt too much like the one before and observed the anniversary of the January 6 insurrection, there was appropriate attention paid to the durability of the Big Lie. The high numbers of Republicans, in particular, who continue to voice support for the thoroughly disproven notion that President Biden was not elected by a majority of American voters is disturbing, and dangerous.

I am as concerned as every other person working hard to defend democracy about this Big Lie and the appetite for political violence it is aiding and abetting.

But I am even more concerned about what I’m coming to think of as the Other Big Lie. The idea that we have already lost. That the next civil war is inevitable. That we are helpless and hopeless in the face of all the bad news.

There are variations of this Big Lie of Defeat. The lie that democracy is irrevocably wounded and can’t be defended or strengthened. The lie that the anti-democracy right is marching across America unopposed. The lie that that we can’t protect each other from COVID. The lie that discussing racism in schools is dangerous or harmful to people who are white.

Imagine if my enslaved ancestors had conceded defeat and believed that chattel slavery would last forever? Imagine if the Indigenous peoples of North America had not found ways to protect the embers of their cultures to seed the resilience in Native communities across these lands today?

The helplessness and hopelessness that too many of us are struggling with is fed by these lies. But we might also call it a sin. The sin of despair. It is one we cannot afford to indulge.

My hat is off to the thousands who gathered in pro-democracy vigils on January 6, to organizations like Integrity First for America that are pursuing accountability from those who undermine democracy, and to the health care workers, educators, neighborhood and civic leaders, artists and others who live their values every day in the way they promote democratic practice. (I’m sharing some links below that showcase some of this work.)

Let’s be clear: The threats to democracy are real. The threats to physical and mental health are real. But despair is not a solution. It only strengthens these Other Big Lies.

We must believe in our ability to defend democracy. We must wake each day excited to continue to advance the ongoing historical push for equity and respect for all people. We must envision and organize for the abundance that could be available to all with governance systems that are structured to work for all.

That’s why Western States Center is doubling down on our commitment to getting tools into the hands of all civil society leaders who are committed to democratic practice.

As we said in our statement on President Biden’s January 6 remarks:

With allies across the country, we’re building a broad pro-democracy movement to defend the institutions that make up our inclusive democracy. It will take all of us to make that happen.

Please check out and share the tools we’ve released or supported, to strengthen this burgeoning pro-democracy movement:

As I told SPLC, we have to prepare ourselves mentally for a hard time, but we can’t get into despair. We’re going to see lots of highs and lows in this period, just like in the midst of the civil rights movement.

Let’s keep our eye on the prize, reject all of the Big Lies — especially the ones that commit the sin of despair — and continue to lift up everyone who is working hard to defend democracy.

Countering Despair

Five written pieces reflecting on January 6 to read and share:

  1. How Worried Should We Be About Our Democracy? Jeremy Engle and Michael Gonchar, New York Times.
  2. After the Insurrection: How Domestic Extremists Adapted and Evolved After the January 6 US Capitol Attack. Jared Holt, Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab) at the Atlantic Council.
  3. One Year After Jan. 6, the Hard Right Digs In. Michael Edison Hayden, Hatewatch.
  4. The American polity is cracked, and might collapse. Canada must prepare. Thomas Homer Dixon, The Globe and Mail.
  5. Jimmy Carter: I Fear for Our Democracy. Jimmy Carter, New York Times.

The greatest sin is embracing despair as a value. This is a serious moment but we are resilient. Recharge with these stories:

  1. US jury awards $25m in damages over Unite the Right rally. BBC News.
  2. Oregon House expels state Rep. Mike Nearman, plotter of state Capitol incursion. Dirk VanderHart, Oregon Public Broadcasting.
  3. Kentucky Nights: A Story of Unexpected Endings. Eric K. Ward.

Defending democracy means examining lessons at home and abroad. These stories provide inspiration and concrete examples for your community:

  1. Defeat of extremism in Greece holds lessons for the US and other societies. Social Change Initiative.
  2. Militias, MAGA activists and one border town’s complicated resistance. Tay Wiles, High Country News.
  3. Portland Business Alliance calls for an end to ‘political violence’. Joseph Gallivan, Portland Tribune.

Eric K. Ward is a Senior Fellow with the Southern Poverty Law Center and Race Forward and Executive Director of Western States Center.

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Western States Center

Based in the Pacific Northwest and Mountain States, Western States Center works nationwide to strengthen inclusive democracy.