Grace is perhaps not the word that most readily comes to mind when describing this election season. Still, all is not lost as the most graceful moment is yet to come. Contrary to what one may think, this moment belongs not to the winner of the election, but to the loser. It is a moment that is reflective of the maturity of a democracy -- one that conservative moderator of the third presidential debate, Chris Wallace, called a great "pride" of our nation: When the defeated candidate humbly concedes to the winner of a free and fair election, and paves the way for a smooth transition of power.
In the lead up to November 8th, there has been doubt cast as to whether this golden moment will arrive, at all. Among the many eyebrow-rising pronouncements made by Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump, there were two red flags that emerged over the course of the debates that shed light on his fundamental misunderstanding of how a democracy works:
1) During the second debate, in a statement more fitting of a corrupt dictator, Trump threatened to prosecute and jail his political opponent, Hillary Clinton if elected president. (This followed months of the infamous chant, "Lock her up!" -- dubbed the unofficial campaign slogan of this year's Republican National Convention.)
2) When asked in the third debate if he would accept the results of the upcoming election, he replied in a startlingly non-committal manner: "I will keep you in suspense, okay?" The next day at a rally in Ohio, he declared he would accept the results of the election -- but only if he wins the election. Bizarre statements that prompted harsh criticism from political scientists on both sides of the aisle, including pulitzer-prize winning conservative columnist, Bret Stephens, who furiously pounded out a tweet, "Trump's answer on accepting the outcome of the vote is the most disgraceful statement by a presidential candidate in 160 years."
These two statements, put into the historical context of US presidential elections are unprecedented. No presidential candidate in modern (or historic) memory has ever threatened to jail the candidate of another major political party for office. Authoritarian regimes of Russia, Iran, North Korea, Syria, or Egypt are more likely to be guilty of such repressive actions. Furthermore, the last time the results of a US presidential election were disputed without substantive grounds was back in 1860 when the Southern states seceded from the union in opposition to a Lincoln presidency; a move that ultimately triggered the Civil War. Put simply: Trump is not exactly in good company here; nor is he on the side of accepted democratic norms.
Here's why an adherence to these basic principles matter:
To threaten a candidate with prosecution is to threaten the democratic process
The underlying principle of any democracy is the pluralistic ethic, in which diverse views are given free and unfettered access the national platform for expression. These diverse viewpoints take their physical embodiment in the party's candidate for office -- the legitimate spokesperson for a large segment of society. As long as these views do not incite hate or violence, they are afforded access to the national platform. When a political leader threatens imprisonment of their opposition, the consequences are subversive to the democratic process. Since opposition leaders serve as legitimate representatives of a social vision, they along with their vision get put on trial. Alternative views are thus are disincentivized from engaging in the national dialogue, and legitimate viewpoints that would otherwise find free expression in the marketplace of ideas either dissolve -- or worse -- move underground where they become resentful and prone to radicalization.
For the democratic marketplace of ideas to thrive and move society forward, political leaders must be allowed to operate without threat of prosecution. The ramifications otherwise, are detrimental, and serve only to destabilize the democratic framework. This is an all too common narrative in many parts of the developing world where despotic regimes intimidate political opposition with draconian measures to ensure their grip on power. It is a tactic employed by weak and insecure "leaders", and their nation ultimately suffers for it.
Thankfully, this has not been a significant issue in the US because of its general adherence to pluralist values; and because Federal regulations limit the president's ability to leverage special prosecutions as a political tool. That said, we ought to be vigilant against such threats -- especially when they are made by the candidate of a major US political party running for presidency.
A smooth transition of power ensures unity and continuity
One of the hallmarks of a mature democracy is the smooth transition of power. Every four years the losing candidate -- whether the incumbent or a presidential hopeful -- graciously acknowledges, and concedes the election to the president-elect. We have, up until the present, taken this for granted.
A poignant example was this hand-penned letter from George Bush Sr. to president-elect, Bill Clinton, that has since gone viral. The letter beautifully embodies the spirit of continuity and unity that the transition hopes to achieve, "You will be our President when you read this note...Your success now is our country's success. I am rooting hard for you," it concludes. More recently in 2008, Sen. John McCain took to the national podium in front of an emotionally charged crowd of supporters to concede the historic election to Barack Obama. "Join me in not just congratulating him, but offering our next president our good will and earnest effort to find ways to come together; to find the necessary compromises to bridge our differences."
These examples are not the exception -- it is the elegance with which the American electoral process generally concludes. At the end of a hard-fought campaign, candidates rise above their platform differences, rally behind the will of the people, and put the unity of the country first. So, when Trump says that may not accept the results of the election, it undermines the critical phase of unification and transition in the following ways: It casts doubt upon the legitimacy of the electoral process; disregards the voice of the people as reflected in the ballot outcome; and foments dangerous political divides that the transition is designed to bridge and overcome.
The only justifiable reason to question the results of an election is if there is evidence of widespread voter fraud and irregularities that would substantially impact the outcome. Trump has been making this case over the last few weeks, but the facts just don't add up to support his claims. For example, the same 2012 Pew Research study from which he cited voting irregularities, found no evidence that such irregularities contributed to significant voter fraud, and focused its recommendations on more improved and efficient voting processes. Additionally, a 2014 Loyola University study found only 31 cases of impersonation fraud out of 1 billion votes cast over the last 14 years. Let's be clear: If your chances of winning the lottery are significantly higher than finding a single case of voter fraud, then it's safe to say that, however important these findings are, they will not sway the results of the election. Not even in the remotest. Most experts agree here.
Despite these assurances that prove otherwise, Trump's claims have resonated with his base: a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll revealed that 70 percent of polled Republicans believe a Clinton victory would be the result of vote rigging or illegal voting. Moreover, only half of the surveyed Republicans would accept Clinton as their president. These polarized numbers underscore just why a smooth transition of power is so important at this time. And while there are policies in place to help ease the transition between an outgoing and incoming president (ie the President Transition Act of 1963), there is no legal mandate that forces a candidate to concede the election and support the legitimate outcome; it is generally expected that they simply do so.
With November 8 just a couple weeks away, the latest polls show Clinton ahead by as high as 12 points. Even still, since Trump and Clinton were both nominated to lead their respective parities to the White House, Trump has almost never found himself ahead of Clinton in the major polls. The writing on the wall is clear: Trump will likely lose. When he does, the most graceful moment of American politics will belong to him. For the good of the nation, the opportunity to rise to the occasion will be his -- should he claim it.