After heady decades of being the world’s beacon of self-governance, human rights, and freedom, our wonderful country seems to have lost its way. During and after the Cold War, we not only provided a role model for burgeoning democracies, we actively engaged in training newly formed political parties in developing countries on how to organize party structures, wage winning campaigns, and most importantly how to govern once victory was achieved. We used simple metrics: a nation like Mexico was successful if it could show that it could transfer power peacefully from one governing party to the next. Once countries fell back into waging a coup d’état, then it was back to the classroom and the recipient of sanctions and United Nations censure. The U.S. was charged with relying on uneven and selective standards depending on whether or not the results of free and independent elections were consistent with the U.S.’s national interests. (Thus, in 2007 when the US funneled one million dollars into Gaza to defeat Hamas, we rejected the results once Hamas won). This is always a challenge when a nation formed on principles also needs to protect its selfish interests as a geopolitical state. As an Arab diplomat once told me right after the horrors of September 11, 2001, “We love America. It’s the United States we have a problem with.”
But today it seems that many of us Americans are having a problem with our own United States – and with “America” (the ideal we aspire to represent). It appears that more and more Americans are not fully prepared to accept the results of an election. This is not necessarily a new thing. In the controversial and nasty election of 1800, two giants from competing parties – John Adams and Thomas Jefferson – vied for the Presidency. Because of technicalities in the Constitution, the race landed in the House of Representatives where both the three-quarters majority-controlled Federalist House of Representatives and Senate had to choose between two Democratic-Republicans. They delivered on behalf of their hated opponent, Jefferson, and thus allowed the new democracy to prove to itself that it could achieve a peaceful transition of power from one party to its opposition. “We are all Republicans. We are all Federalists”, said President Jefferson in his Inaugural Address. Whew!
Despite decades of battles over states’ rights and secession, rejection of an election’s results did not actually happen until 1860. Republican Abraham Lincoln received only 40% of the popular vote but won a majority of the Electoral College by virtue of winning northern and (today’s) mid-western states. Secession by 11 southern states immediately followed, as did the bloodiest and most costly war in American history. Since then we have had our beautiful moments and our ugly ones. But we have accepted our elections without question.
Until recently. In the election of 2000, Al Gore won the popular vote but ultimately “lost” the Electoral College 271-269. I did a poll for Reuters three weeks after the election and found that among Gore supporters, 21% would not consider a Bush ascendancy to be “legitimate”, but to Bush voters, 67% would not accept a Gore victory as “legitimate”. We are not talking about dissatisfaction or lack of acceptance but the essence of democratic governance – legitimacy. There was no question in my mind that Gore simply could not govern this country had he become President.
In 2008 Barack Obama won a solid majority of both the popular vote and Electoral College, yet Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell still felt he was empowered to declare that his first priority would be to ensure that Mr. Obama not be re-elected to a second term. Obama won an equally big victory in 2012 but received next to no support throughout his 8 years in office from the other side.
All of which sets the table for 2016. During the election, Donald Trump announced to cheering crowds that if he lost it would be because the election was rigged. The problem for him is that he won. But that appears to not be sufficient for Hillary Clinton and her supporters who now declare that her loss was the result of intervention of the FBI director, Russian hacking, and everything imaginable except that she simply was awful as a candidate and people were tired of her (and her husband’s) endless ambitions. Otherwise sane people are trying to persuade potentially “rogue” electors to stop a Trump election.
Whether or not I like the results of the election, and personally I was not impressed with either candidate, the fact is that people voted, the election results were not even close, the Russians may or may not have hacked and intervened but did not manipulate votes, and while there may have been fake news – the election was held, Trump won and Clinton lost. (Incidentally, talk about fake news, I am old enough to remember the whisper campaign in 1956 suggesting Adlai Stevenson wanted “school on Saturdays”, which certainly led to his loss among 8 year olds but apparently no one else).
Even worse we now have the incumbent Republicans in North Carolina using this interim period to severely reduce the powers of the succeeding Democratic governor.
Get over it. Practice what we preach. Accept the election and move on. Try harder next time. Instead of exporting American democracy, maybe we have to import it from countries like Mexico who have shown that they can successfully transfer power.