What is this wild panic over Donald Trump’s refusal to say he will accept the election results? It’s as if his comment – which at first seems innocuous by any run-of-the-mill ideological rebel – is a fundamental threat to our well-being as a nation.
Guardians of our public culture are unusually concerned.Let’s consider the backdrop. The election this year has exposed American democracy as fundamentally fractured. Guardians of our public culture are unusually concerned.
As a result, throughout 2016, candidates have been asked whether they are willing to accept the results of a democratic election even if he or she loses. They have all said, yes, of course. They will accept the results of whatever people decide and support the winner. The idea of this line of questioning is to get candidates on record in swearing a greater allegiance to the process of democratic government than to their own power.
This all changed in the third debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. He was asked whether he would accept the election results regardless of what they are. He proceeded to indict the media, the voter rolls, and even his opponent, who he said “should not be allowed to run.” He added “I say it’s rigged.”
The moderator, slightly shaken, asked more precisely: “Sir, there is a tradition in this country — in fact, one of the prides of this country — is the peaceful transition of power and that no matter how hard-fought a campaign is, that at the end of the campaign that the loser concedes to the winner…. Are you saying you’re not prepared now to commit to that principle?
And Trump answered: “What I’m saying is that I will tell you at the time. I’ll keep you in suspense. OK?”
To which Hillary Clinton responded: “That’s horrifying.”
Why the Horror?
The vote does not magically confer on anyone the right to run other people’s lives.It might not be obvious to many people why this should be shocking. After all, close to two thirds of the public report being deeply dissatisfied with their choices. The new president, regardless of the election outcome, will immediately be ranked among the least popular in American history.
Moreover, most people I know have never liked the president or the government he rules. It’s not entirely clear what “accepting the legitimacy” of an election means, but surely part of freedom means the freedom to dissent from rulers, and even say they shouldn’t be ruling at all. The vote does not magically confer on anyone the right to run other people’s lives.
I can remember the first election in which I participated. After all the votes came in, various media figures responded with hymns to the glories of democracy, and how wonderful it is that we can debate and argue but, in the end, we must all acquiesce to the results, in the interest of sustaining our great system. I never found these homilies compelling. I didn’t believe in the civic religion.
It always struck me that these lectures on the glories of election outcomes were little more than pleas to the public to go along with a system of government that did not serve them. And surely the demand that all candidates join hands in a celebration of democracy is nothing but performative piety. No one actually means it.
Democracy vs. Violence
In the commentary that followed Trump’s announcement, pundits continued to deploy the phrase “peaceful transition power.” To get why, let’s do a deep dive into the history of liberalism broadly understood. Along with the spread of human rights in the late middle ages, the theory of government began to change. The king or head of state did not possess legitimacy as a result of divine right; instead, the legitimacy of rulers is derived from the support given to them by the people. It is the social usefulness, and not some mystical magic, that grants them power.
As the peasant in Monty Python’s Holy Grail says: “You can't expect to wield supreme executive power just 'cause some watery tart threw a sword at you!”
The end result of this way of thinking is, of course, democracy, which gradually came to dominate governmental transitions between the 16th and the 20th centuries. It was widely believed that the more democracy you had, the less civil war and violence would interrupt the development of civilization.
The gradual acceptance of democracy did not happen without fierce debate and resistance, and nearly all of it came from people and institutions that favored some form of despotic rule. If we want to leave the old-world rule of violence and tyranny behind, the way forward was through peaceful transitions of power.
Ludwig von Mises, a reluctant defender of democracy despite all the flaws he readily pointed out, explains the thinking:
There can be no lasting economic improvement if the peaceful course of affairs is continually interrupted by internal struggles. A political situation such as existed in England at the time of the Wars of the Roses would plunge modern England in a few years into the deepest and most dreadful misery. The present level of economic development would never have been attained if no solution had been found to the problem of preventing the continual outbreak of civil wars. A fratricidal struggle like the French Revolution of 1789 cost a heavy loss in life and property. Our present economy could no longer endure such convulsions. The population of a modern metropolis would have to suffer so frightfully from a revolutionary uprising that could bar the importation of food and coal and cut off the flow of electricity, gas, and water that even the fear that such disturbances might break out would paralyze the life of the city.
Here is where the social function performed by democracy finds its point of application. Democracy is that form of political constitution which makes possible the adaptation of the government to the wishes of the governed without violent struggles. If in a democratic state the government is no longer being conducted as the majority of the population would have it, no civil war is necessary to put into office those who are willing to work to suit the majority. By means of elections and parliamentary arrangements, the change of government is executed smoothly and without friction, violence, or bloodshed.
The real issue concerns how people will act on their dissatisfaction. Mises did not claim that democracy would result in government without corruption. Nor did he say that it would always yield the best outcome. This has nothing to do with the belief that voting somehow conjures up Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s general will.
Mises’s case for democracy is much more practical and realistic. It asserted a single idea: in order for humankind to progress, peace is a first condition. It is better to have peace, even when it means dealing with bad policy, than to unleash the violence of a coup d'etat, a civil war, or endless insurrections that result in a succession of strongmen.
How might democracy limit government, according to this view of democracy? It was supposed to concern only the management of the regime, not the law or regime type. Even if democratically elected leaders attempt a power grab, no people will suffer under despotism in a regime with rulers they hate for long. Government must always seek, and, to some extent, elicit, consent in order to have security in power. If government is oppressive, and the people have the right values, they will act to restrain the state. The real issue concerns how people will act on their dissatisfaction. Will they go to the polls and “throw the bums out,” or will there be some violent upheaval that results in bloodshed and violence followed by dictatorship?
Democracy and Liberalism
In the broad sweep of history, the alternative to democracy is not a more perfect freedom, but the violence of the ancient world.This is the question that democracy sought to settle in the interest of the commonwealth. This is why democratic forms of government have long been seen as integral to liberal forms of civic culture. It is of the same fabric with human rights, free speech, free association, property ownership and accumulation, trade, and the commercial society. In the broad sweep of history, the alternative to democracy is not a more perfect freedom, but the violence of the ancient world, the religious wars of the middle ages, the revolutions of the 18th century, and the tendency of all these anti-democratic forms to result in all-out tyranny.
And this is why Trump’s refusal to say he would accept the results of the election triggered so many people in the wrong way. His rejection of democracy is interpreted as an implicit threat of violence. Will he urge his followers to use violence rather than voting as a way of signalling their discontent? What role could he play in actually bringing to American life something we have managed to avoid for 150 years? Did his passing comment amount to a threat to seize power through non-democratic means?
Regardless of your politics, this is an ominous prospect. And before libertarians find themselves tempted by the prospect of that kind of upheaval, consider the lessons of history. The results of such an episode has rarely – if ever – been more freedom.
The Real Trouble with Democracy
Democracy becomes a veneer that the ruling class uses to entrench the status quo.It’s one of the bitter ironies of history that the most-freedom loving champions of democratic government failed to anticipate the downside to the stability they celebrated. Democracy with a huge and entrenched permanent bureaucracy, a deep state that is impervious to election outcomes, a thicket of laws and regulations created by people long dead that still exist on the books, and spending commitments that do not change regardless of who is in charge, is not really providing peaceful transition at all. It becomes a veneer that the ruling class uses to entrench the status quo.
In other words, the problem has less to do with the elected than the problem of the unelected. And this realization is a part of what fueled Trump’s rise and will continue to empower others like him in the future.
The right method to combat this tendency is to pursue radical reforms that make democracy work the way it was originally supposed to work, with real, as opposed to artificial, transitions of power, preferably away from government entirely and toward the people in their capacity as peaceful actors within a free and evolving free society. That is a far better choice than all forms of political violence.