Disputes Over the Election Don't Serve Either Side
A friend on Facebook suggests that the recounts in the Rust Belt, and similar strategies that challenge the legitimacy of Donald Trump’s election, are a “canny” strategy to provoke the president-elect into spending all his time on Twitter, issuing thin-skinned tweets like this weekend’s unlikely claim that if you subtracted the number of illegal immigrants who voted, he would have won the popular vote as well as the Electoral College vote.
One of those bedrock institutions is the legitimacy of election results. It is often observed that the true test of democracy is not whether an election is held; it is whether the loser accepts the outcome. If elections lack legitimacy, then our officials, and the laws they make, are always up for contest. No one can make plans, because they don’t know how long the current regime will last. Worse still, the opponents of that regime will have few qualms about resorting to violence to hasten that end -- nor will the regime hesitate to use terror and extralegal tactics to hold on to power.
We’ve had such incidents in the U.S., but rarely, and so we have come to view the legitimacy of the democratic order as a sort of natural law that can be taken as a given. It isn't so. Consider the unpleasant results when people stop nurturing that hard-won legitimacy. That’s why Al Gore conceded in 2000, even as his supporters were muttering “President Select.” And that is, most especially, why the president-elect should not casually allege widespread voter fraud.
By the same token, however, Trump's opponents should not be questioning the legitimacy of his election. Our election rules may not be the ideal ones, but he won by those rules, and come Jan. 20, he will be the rightful holder of the Oval Office.
Quite a lot of energy has been expended since the election in trying to call that core premise into question. Tweetstorms were devoted to warning against “normalizing” his presidency. Money has been raised to contest results on flimsy pretexts. Protesters poured into the streets before he’d done much more than give a rather banal acceptance speech. Yes, yes, I know he lost the popular vote, but let’s be honest: How many of those protesters would have stayed home if he’d won the popular vote too?
I’ve written some very strong words about Trump; I am deeply worried by the prospect of his presidency. But I am worried even more deeply by the fact that both the people who protested Trump and the supporters who defended his outrageous tweet are so willing to slander any election result that displeases them.
I understand that both sides believe themselves to be in a vitally important fight for the future of this country. I applaud their willingness to fight for what they believe in. But they should bear in mind at every step the pit of doom that awaits any country that cannot figure out how to settle its disputes by politics. In that pit lie all the human rights abuses, the lawlessness and autocracy and misery, that ensue when people get fed up with the injustice and unsatisfactory compromise of democratic politics. Beware.
As bad as our politics may be, what we’d have without those politics would be far worse than any economic program of left or right, any immigration policy, any health-care system or campaign-finance law. What's keeping us from descending into that pit? The tenuous safety net of civic institutions, like the legitimacy of election results. No cause is worth hacking at that net, because that net is what has made it safe to attempt to climb higher still.
Does that mean that people should keep silent when Trump is unjust or unwise? Absolutely not. A vigorous loyal opposition is itself a civic institution. They key is to oppose Trump’s statements and actions, when they warrant opposition -- not to oppose his election or his presidency, which are legitimate. Whatever bright future either side is seeking, the first step toward it is to avoid falling into the pit.
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