Our Political System is Not a Game: Real Leaders Know When to Accept Defeat

With just weeks until the American public chooses our next president, it is troubling to see headlines filled with dubious suggestions that our elections might be “hacked” or “rigged” when the likelihood remains so remarkably small. Even more disturbing is the possibility that these kinds of stories could undermine the election results if things don’t work out after election day.

The wonder of American democracy is that we resolve our conflicts with votes and laws, not tanks and guns. This tradition is possible only because we treat the other party as opponents, not enemies, and we respect the integrity of our democratic institutions.

If the margin is very close, we rely on our election system and our judicial system to use predetermined rules to bring the election to a settlement. The alternative to relying on elections and rule of law is unthinkable and should be rejected in the strongest possible terms. When the votes have been cast and ballots counted, we expect that losing candidates will make a phone call to congratulate the winner and then publicly acknowledge the will of the electorate.

Refusing to accept election results wholeheartedly and without reservation is not just wrong, it is un-American. Gracefully accepting defeat is one of the truly powerful moments in our nation’s political life. Both of the major party candidates should commit to doing so this year.

Before it’s too late, we must call on political, media, and civic leaders to make clear that this is not a game. When candidates lose elections, we expect that they will accept defeat and call for the American people to come together as a nation. Period.

Accepting Defeat with Grace

Despite winning the popular vote, Al Gore followed this tradition in December 2000 when he asked his supporters to move past the closely contested election and accept the outcome for the good of the country. He knew that the stakes were too high to do otherwise. He explained:

“This belatedly broken impasse can point us all to a new common ground, for its very closeness can serve to remind us that we are one people with a shared history and a shared destiny. Indeed, that history gives us many examples of contests as hotly debated, as fiercely fought, with their own challenges to the popular will. Other disputes have dragged on for weeks before reaching resolution. And each time, both the victor and the vanquished have accepted the result peacefully and in a spirit of reconciliation.” [emphasis mine]

Similarly, after a close election in 1960, Vice President Richard Nixon accepted defeat in a narrow loss to Senator John F. Kennedy; despite questionable election results in Illinois. Nixon promised Senator Kennedy his (and his supporters’) “wholehearted support.” While many of his surrogates and aids sought recounts in the immediate aftermath of the election, Nixon was clear in his public statements. “We unite behind the man we elected,” he said.

Through impeachments and pardons, nail-biters and landslides, our political system has worked as a conduit of our living American democracy. By definition, one side must lose after a hard fought campaign. And while no election is without its hiccups and problems, each “loser” of a modern presidential contest has always acknowledged his own defeat and congratulated the president-elect once the dust has settled (if not with great joy, then at least with some grace).

Ultimately, our common history and shared destiny demand leadership that seeks not to divide our country, but rather to bring all Americans together. As we approach the election in November, a contest between two unprecedentedly-unpopular candidates, it is more important than ever for Americans to believe in the process.

One practical way for our political leaders to help bolster Americans’ confidence in their election results is for those who have been defeated to speak out about their experiences, and their belief in the electoral system. To start, Al Gore should publicly talk about how difficult it was for him to accept defeat, but how important his concession was for the American political system.

Governor Romney, Senator McCain, Secretary Kerry, Senator Dole, and President George H.W. Bush should, too.

No one knows the bitter feeling of defeat more than those who have come in second. Nevertheless, when the time came, each of these candidates put aside personal partisan politics to recognize the winner as Commander-in-Chief. And, no one has a better platform or voice to share their experiences (and confidence) with the American people.

Making Every American Voice + Vote Count

Furthermore, current candidates must accept that American voices come first in our democracy, and their decisions will be accepted. As the candidates debate for the first time next week at Hofstra University, moderator Lester Holt’s first question to the candidates on stage should be a simple yes/no promise to accept the election results on November 8 and every day forward.

And, the media must be careful not to help propagate false narratives. Sacrificing journalistic integrity is simply not worth the clicks and the traffic. As journalists moderate debates, interview candidates, and write post-election stories, they should commit to dispelling false narratives about election security, rather than giving them a home to go viral.

Everyone has a part to play in establishing and maintaining faith in our elections, this year (and each thereafter) –

  1. The American voters must turn out and participate in the electoral process (or better yet, become a poll worker to help facilitate proper elections)
  2. Candidates — both the winner and losers — must convey trust in our electoral system to their supporters
  3. Members of the media must make it impossible for candidates and parties to play games with the American peoples’ understanding of our elections and their integrity.

Our Democracy Is Worth it

“The strength of American democracy is shown most clearly through the difficulties it can overcome,” noted Gore, even as he conceded to then-Governor Bush.

I am confident that American democracy will survive this election, no matter who wins this race by what margin, as it has through 57 contests before this. Regardless of the outcome — and whether or not we personally agree with the boxes our fellow Americans check — We the People must hold the candidates accountable to accepting the will of the people.

It’s the American thing to do.