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Can we all accept the result of the election?

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Ever since our first contested presidential election in which John Adams bested Thomas Jefferson in 1796, Americans have taken comfort and pride in the regularity of their constitutional transition from one presidential term to another, according to the provisions in Article II of the Constitution. The bitterness of the second contested election, a rematch between the same contenders in which Jefferson defeated President Adams in 1800, marked the beginning of the decline of the Federalist Party.

But the peaceful passing of power from Adams’ Federalists to Jefferson’s Republicans established the tradition of a loyal opposition, which could oppose the policies of the government without trying to overthrow it by force or having to face charges of treason on account of that opposition, taking patience until the next election. Jefferson’s famous conciliatory words in his inaugural address that “We are all federalists; we are all republicans” helped smooth the way to peaceful party competition. 

After Alexis de Tocqueville visited America in the late 1820s, he observed in Democracy in America that once every four years, “the election becomes the greatest and so to speak sole business preoccupying minds.” The president “no longer governs in the interests of the state, but in that of his reelection; he prostrates himself before the majority and often, instead of resisting its passions, as his duty obliges him to do, he runs to meet its caprices.…The entire nation falls into a feverish state.” Afterwards, he admitted, “this ardor is dissipated, everything becomes calm, and the river, one moment overflowed, returns peacefully to its bed. But should one not be astonished that the storm could have arisen?”

Looking back on American history almost 200 years later, the continuity of our constitutional provisions for electing the president is remarkable. Even when a civil war was imminent in 1860, the presidential election was followed by a peaceful change of administrations, and in the midst of that war, the next presidential election took place on schedule four years later. 

Despite constitutional amendments in the 20th century changing the president’s inauguration day from March 4 to Jan. 20 and limiting presidents to two terms in office, presidential elections and the transition from one administration to the next have followed the provisions laid out in the Constitution without any interruption.

Among the more notable features of this unusual quadrennial election is speculation on the part of Democratic partisans about the possibility that President Trump might resist giving up the presidency if he were to lose the election. There is not much basis for such fears, despite incautious remarks he has made about how the Democrats might steal the election. One of the best features of the electoral college established by the Constitution to elect the president, which requires candidates to win a majority of electoral votes to win the election, is its usual propensity to identify a clear winner.

It is fanciful to suppose that a losing American presidential candidate would fail to concede to the winner unless the election were so close that no one could be sure who had won. In any case, the Constitution provides an alternative method whereby Congress chooses the president and vice president. There would be no legitimate basis for the president to resist the transition to a new administration after losing the election.

This makes one wonder whether the speculation about President Trump’s intention is raised by his opponents primarily to renew their claims, dating back all the way to the 2016 presidential election, that he is not a legitimate president. 

Hillary Clinton, his opponent in 2016, has denounced him as an “illegitimate president,” a judgment shared by many who supported her. Those claims, which often accompany a wish that America’s Constitution provided a different method of electing the president, are an attempt to deny the result of the last election and to discredit President Trump’s administration.

It is one thing to regret the result of a presidential election and to rue the effect that the winner’s administration will have on the nation. It is quite another thing to refuse to accept the legitimacy of the election. 

Those who never accepted the result of the last presidential election and afterward adopted the language of resistance, rather than loyal opposition, now stir up apprehension by suggesting that President Trump might indulge in an illegitimate kind of resistance himself. They figure that the best defense is a good offense, distracting the public by accusing their opponents of the same abuse they have engaged in themselves for the last four years. It is not a healthy turn of events for the republic.

James W. Muller is a professor of Political Science at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He served as a White House Fellow in 1983–84.

Tags Constitution of the United States Donald Trump Federalist Party Hillary Clinton President of the United States United States Electoral College Vice President of the United States

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