The latest link in a long chain of electoral drama, Hillary Clinton and Donald J. Trump sparred mercilessly in Wednesday’s debate and following press conferences over whether the losing side would “accept the outcome” of the national election.
What exactly does that mean?
Usually, accepting the outcome of the election means you concede the election graciously when it’s clear that you lost. When moderator Chris Wallace asked Mr. Trump during the final presidential debate of the 2016 election cycle, Trump said he would think about it when the time came.
I will venture a likely unpopular view that Trump and Wallace may not have meant the same thing by that question.
What Chris Wallace probably meant was somewhere between “Will you graciously admit defeat and congratulate then President-Elect Hillary Clinton” and “Will you acknowledge the lawful authority of the new Administration and submit to the government.”
In all probability, given the recent controversy surrounding allegations of election fraud, Trump probably meant something more like “Will I acknowledge she won if I have any reasonable doubt of the legitimacy of the results? Well, I’ll wait until I see it. I’ll consider whether there is any evidence of wrongdoing, and I’ll concede if my defeat was fair and square.”
Now if you’ve followed me for long, you’ll know I haven’t held back criticism of Donald Trump’s candidacy. But there’s nothing I can stand less than inconsistency and hypocrisy, which means I won’t criticize him or any other candidate when I think the criticism is unfair.
And as more than a handful of pundits and social media trolls who think they’re pundits have pointed out, Donald Trump wouldn’t be the first losing candidate to hold back a full endorsement of the winner, even in modern history.
Al Gore won the popular vote and came close enough to winning Florida that nobody should blame him for being a tad sore about the Electoral College outcome. Allegations of wrongdoing stayed in the limelight for years and still haven’t completely gone away, stymying the reputation of George W. Bush’s mandate to govern. This, much less the question that that election raised about the arbitrary nature of the election system at large, but we’ll get to that in a moment.
The difference between “Yes, I’ll support the winner” and “I’ll wait and see” is probably a difference of semantics more than anything else. Unless, of course, Trump meant something else more sinister by his answer, which we currently have no reason to think.
But for me, it raises an even more interesting question.
I don’t just want to know whether a particular losing candidate in a particular election should concede the legitimacy of the outcome when the results are in.
I want to know, in principle, whether a losing candidate is obligated to submit to the winner. Even more so, I want to know whether the supporters of the losing side are obligated to submit to the governance of the winning side. So let’s address the root issue.
What makes an election outcome legitimate?
We would generally say that a majority vote makes the outcome of an election legitimate. After all, the few must yield to the interests of the many in a democracy, must they not?
But of course, this argument doesn’t carry us very far.
Plenty of Presidents have been carried to office by less than a majority of the vote. Abraham Lincoln won just over forty percent in a rough four-way race and in no way represented a consensus of the majority. George W. Bush lost the popular vote hands down to Al Gore. Yet the magic of the Electoral College guarantee that to the victor goes the spoils, no matter how tenuous their claim.
Even this leaves intact the assumption that a majority of the VOTE corresponds to the majority of the PEOPLE, which is itself something shy of ironclad. Does a voter who sits out the election forfeit their right to be heard? What if they meant it as a vote of protest in its own way? What if they just had no satisfactory candidate to vote for? What if they were cynical of any ability to make a difference? What if they were not legally qualified to cast a vote, precluded by age, criminal record, nationality, residency, or any of a number of disqualifications?
Clearly, there is more at work than the will of the majority, if we leave unspoken the assumptions that the majority may, in fact, must, govern the minority.
If the majority has a right to govern the minority, then our goal should be to craft the system as effectively as possible to represent the accurate wishes of the majority, while preserving certain rights of the minority to the extent the majority will suffer.
But if the majority has no right to govern the minority, I’m left asking what it matters. Why does it matter whether the system represents the majority well or efficiently or in accordance with their wishes? That’s just building a system that’s very good at doing something that shouldn’t be done.
There is ultimately no principle embedded in the laws of nature that the wolves have the right to vote themselves rulership over the sheep. Our ancestors in caves knew no such obligation, nor did any God I would want to worship instill in some people the inherent virtue that qualifies them to rule over others.
But if, in the words of Thomas Paine, the palaces of kings were built upon the paradise of Eden, then there’s only one place people can find the authority to rule each other.
Some people must give to others the power to rule them, unless of course, that rule is to be based solely upon force. So I’ll ask you the question I would ask myself, as well as the same question Chris Wallace asked Donald Trump, and implicitly his loyal supporters.
What must a winning party do to earn your obligation of submission?
For me, as distasteful as I may find the alternatives, I am willing to submit to the winner of a legally legitimate election, if for no other reason in the interest of maintaining the collective benefits of stability and order. Something Thomas Jefferson said about suffering while evils are sufferable as prudence will dictate and all that jazz.
Bringing it back to the point, I think most of us generally should submit to the outcome of a valid election. But that doesn’t mean they’re entitled to our obedience by virtue of their numbers. The submission of a free people has to be earned.