Back in September 2020, as we lurched toward the Presidential election, I wrote a piece for this blog on the peaceful transfer of power. In it, I warned of the dangerous path followed by the former inhabitant of the White House, who was already sowing doubts about the integrity of the vote and laying the groundwork for his unsuccessful coup attempt in January 2021.
My warnings were well-founded, of course, but I fear I was terribly naïve about how to combat the threat our former president posed. When I wrote the piece, I believed that once he was defeated and removed from office, his pernicious influence on American politics would fade. I was wrong.
Tomorrow is Election Day, and as of this date, a staggering number of Republican candidates at all levels of government have, like the former guy in 2020 (and 2016), refused to promise that they will honor the voting results in their races. To draw upon a turn of phrase used by President Biden in a speech last week, they have decided that they only love this country and its founding principles when they win.
If you will allow me to slip on my historian’s cap for a moment . . . . The most important date in the history of our republic is not July 4, 1776 or October 19, 1781 (the effective end of the War for Independence) or March 9, 1779 (the date on which our new nation started operating under the authority of the Constitution). To my mind, the most important date in our history is March 4, 1801. That was the day on which President John Adams relinquished power to his political rival, Thomas Jefferson, who had defeated him in the election of 1800.
Here is what I wrote in 2020 about that moment in our history:
This acquiescence to the people’s will, this statement of belief in the greater good, turned the ideal of a democratic republic into reality.
Over the past 220 years, our nation has repeated this ritual literally dozens of times. Democratic-Republicans have given way to Whigs, who have given way to Democrats, who have given way to Republicans, who, in turn, have given way once more to Democrats. And so on. The peaceful transfer of power lies at the very heart of our system of government. Declaring and winning independence was important. Creating a foundational document, flawed though it was, that spelled out how our government would work was crucial.
None of it would have meant a thing, however, if in actual practice America’s election losers refused to accept defeat, to acknowledge the legitimate claim to power of America’s election winners.
It was bad enough that a defeated President, driven by ego and pique and an insatiable appetite for affirmation and power, should imperil this foundational imperative of our system of government. But it is truly chilling to see one of our two major parties mimicking his behavior, adopting his model of petulance and self-interest as an across-the-board election strategy. Make no mistake: The future of our nation is under threat.
Our republic has endured for as long as it has because, with very few exceptions (Rutherford B. Hayes, Richard Nixon, and now Donald Trump), our leaders on both sides of the aisle have chosen to abide by the rules as laid out in the Constitution. Yes, politicians cheat. They wage dirty campaigns. They look for every advantage. This has been true for as long as our nation has existed. In the end, though, they have accepted voters as the final arbiters of their electoral fates. As soon as candidates refuse to do this, they expose the fragility and brittleness of our system. If enough politicians on either end of the political spectrum decide the only legitimate outcome of a race is their own victory, the entire system will collapse. Outcomes matter, of course. But the integrity of the process itself is what preserves democratic institutions. Take away that integrity, leave election outcomes to be determined by who can scream “fraud” loudest and longest, and we are doomed.
This is the future today’s GOP is embracing. They have chosen to place themselves and their party over the will of the people, and if they are rewarded for doing so, the American Experiment is over.
Let me be clear: When elections are close, there are going to be recounts. That is part of the process as well. No one disputes that. (It is worth remembering that in 2020 the Trump Campaign demanded and was granted multiple recounts in Georgia, Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. And while a handful of votes shifted one way or another, not one of these recounts altered the final result.) One can demand a recount and then honor the decision of voters once the process is complete
What we are seeing this year is not the expression of legitimate concerns about close election results. The elections haven’t been held yet. Rather, this is a systematic attempt to sow doubts about the elections ahead of time and thus justify whatever shenanigans they intend to try next. It’s disgusting. It’s immoral and corrupt and corrosive.
There are other issues on voters’ minds this year, obviously. I would argue that the preservation of our republic outweighs all of them. Vote like democracy itself is at stake. Because it is.
Have a good week.