One mark of liberal-democratic government is the smooth, regularized transfer of power from one party to another after rule-based free and fair elections. This achievement is made possible by broad-based trust in democratic institutions and the widely shared perception of the legitimacy of the electoral process. No party wants to lose to its opponents and give up power to them. But each goes along with it on the understanding that another opportunity to prevail will soon come along — and because both sides agree that refusing to accept the outcome and attempting a permanent power-grab would yield results far worse than having to endure a temporary defeat.
In the polarized hothouse of American politics today, this process has begun to break down. Republicans now routinely talk as if the prospect of a Democrat winning the presidency is an existential threat to the country — which surely sounds worse than doing anything and everything to ensure a Republican remains in the White House. To this explosive ideological cocktail has now been added Donald Trump’s reckless lies about voter fraud rendering any outcome other than a victory for himself illegitimate. Taking these provocations very seriously, many Democrats have begun to worry that the president may well refuse to accept the results of the upcoming election if they show him losing to Joe Biden.
It was concerns like these that led me to write a recent column in which I speculated about possible bad Election Day scenarios, the worst of which involved Trump declaring victory before all the mail-in ballots were counted and then rejecting the outcome if Biden pulled ahead several hours or days later. Before reaching that conclusion, I mentioned a few less-bad alternatives, including one in which Trump prevails in the Electoral College while losing the popular vote, much as he did four years ago.
But now Shadi Hamid at The Atlantic has written a column of his own in which he treats this latter scenario as the one most likely to push the country into full-on democratic breakdown and civil unrest. That’s because it’s the Democrats, Hamid claims, who may find it impossible to concede the election if Trump manages to win by carrying the Electoral College. As Hamid points out, many Democrats have never managed to accept the legitimacy of the 2016 election. To lose in the same manor again — for the third time in 20 years — and to someone they so despise and fear, would be too much to bear. It would be interpreted by many as evidence that American democracy itself is fundamentally broken and therefore illegitimate.
I have no idea if Hamid is right about this, and very much hope we never get to test the prediction. But a glance at the political militancy of left-wing protesters on the streets of American cities this summer, not to mention the conspiracy-addled speculations and hyperbolic warnings of incipient fascism emanating from self-described members of the “resistance” on cable news and social media, shows that the scenario is at least plausible, if not exactly likely. (On Monday, Vox‘s Ian Millhiser underscored Hamid’s point by tweeting, “I believe that, if you did not win the popular vote, your presidency is illegitimate,” while poll results showed that members of both parties are likely to attribute their own side’s loss in the election to it being “rigged.”) And that means that threats to America’s democratic order really do come from both parties — from the Republican president Democrats loathe and fear, but also from the Democrats themselves, who might well be driven by political anger, disgust, and frustration to lash out against the rules that have governed American presidential elections for more than 200 years.
Doing so would be incredibly foolish.
This isn’t to say that a Democratic presidential candidate losing to Trump while winning the popular vote yet again would be no big deal. It would be a very big deal indeed — and very bad, both for the country and the Democratic Party. The president is broadly and enduringly unpopular. We’re living through the worst pandemic in a century, and the administration’s response has been chaotic and inconsistent. The economy is a mess. Violent crime and urban unrest are spiking in American cities. Incumbents usually win, but all of this is an extraordinary opportunity for the Democrats.
So a loss would be incredibly painful for the party. But would it be illegitimate? Evidence that the system is rigged against the Democrats? Justification for going outside the system by refusing to concede? No. What it would be justification for is starting a movement to abolish the Electoral College or institute a work-around to ensure that the candidate who wins the popular vote receives the requisite electoral votes to win the presidency. I support all of that. But strongly favoring those reforms is quite different than saying that in the meantime Democrats get to reject the outcome of elections when the rules they’ve accepted for more than two centuries deliver results they don’t like.
The Democrats’ problems are contingent, not systematic. In 2000, the issue was that the outcome of the vote was a statistical tie and then the Supreme Court intervened to stop what could have ended up being an interminable series of indeterminate recounts under clashing rules approved by lower courts. This left Republican George W. Bush with a tiny lead that was sufficient to prevail in the Electoral College.
In 2016, the problem was different. Now the Democrats ran up the popular vote with lopsided victories in a handful of very liberal high-population states while falling just short of carrying a handful of more culturally conservative states in the rust belt and upper Midwest. If Trump manages to win in 2020, it will likely happen in the same way.
If the Democrats had reason to believe that this scenario would automatically be repeated forevermore, they would be justified in rejecting the country’s electoral system on the grounds of systematic bias against them. But we all know this isn’t the reality. As recently as 2008 and 2012, when the party was led by a broadly popular candidate who motivated all of its many disparate factions to show up on Election Day, the rules worked just fine, delivering solid (and in 2008, resounding) victories in the Electoral College.
What’s happened since is that the distribution of Democratic votes has become much less efficient while the distribution of Republican votes has become much more efficient. In 2016, the Republicans won just enough votes to prevail in several states they hadn’t carried in many years, while the Democrats won a handful of states (and especially very progressive California) by millions of votes. If the country had a national system for electing presidents instead of a state-based one in which electoral votes are allocated (in almost all cases) on a winner-take-all basis, the Democrats’ popular vote blow-out in 2016 would have translated into a victory. Instead, millions of votes in California and other deep-blue states were superfluous and thus effectively wasted.
This points toward a way for the party to improve its likelihood of winning — by trading some of those wasted votes for votes it needs far more in other (more culturally conservative) regions of the country. They could do this by soft-peddling positions on the left side of the culture-war, finding, for example, 21st-century equivalents to Bill Clinton’s pledge to make abortion “safe, legal, and rare.” That is a winning path forward for the Democrats within the current system. And indeed, Joe Biden’s record of moderation and capacity to appeal to more culturally conservative voters than Hillary Clinton managed to do four years ago could well turn out to be key to a Democratic victory in November.
But if it doesn’t quite work out that way, that doesn’t mean the system is so irredeemably broken that the Democrats would be justified in plunging the country into the gravest legitimacy crisis since the Civil War, while also ceding the moral high-ground of civic responsibility to Donald Trump’s Republican Party. What it would mean is that the Democrats need to do more to rethink the contours of their electoral coalition.
I grant that the aftermath of the second shocking and wounding electoral loss in as many presidential cycles wouldn’t be the best or easiest of times to undertake such a postmortem. But reason would nonetheless require it. Losing twice to Donald Trump would be bad. But an outright breakdown of American democracy would be much worse.
Originally published: 2020-09-15 05:00:03