A Yankee Notebook

NUMBER 1842
November 7, 2016

DEMOCRACY…WIN SOME, LOSE SOME

MONTPELIER – I’m writing this on the eve of election day, so I don’t know – though I can hope – how that’s going to turn out. By the time you read this, we’ll all know. The voters will have spoken; John King of CNN will have displayed his kaleidoscopic map of red and blue states (all the while speaking so fast that only the visual aids will be of any value); and we can get on to the business of transition between an existing administration and a new one. This last year has felt like running in mud. It’s possible that after the results have been certified, and if the margin is sufficient to squelch accusations of electoral shenanigans affecting the outcome, perhaps we’ll be able to knock the muck off our shoes and get on with it.

Such has long been the tradition of our republic: that no matter how bitter, hard-fought, and even vile the campaign for the Presidency, we accept the changes without violence. It’s what has distinguished us, along with many of our democratic allies, from nations in which newly elected regimes have had to battle to realize the intent of the people, or have been denied their rights altogether. We tend instead, in defeat, to retreat into grumpy plotting for the next time, like a beaten football team. Andrew Jackson, for example, who won a plurality of the popular vote in 1824, was denied the Presidency by a vote of the House of Representatives. He organized assiduously for the next four years, and was finally elected. Those were a bitter four years; but if there were pitched battles over the first result, they were confined largely to the saloons.

Perhaps the most important feature of a democracy, in which ideally everybody is afforded a voice, is the need for compromise. It’s not realistic to expect that those who disagree with us, for example, will just shut up, should they lose an election, and go away until the next round. If we’re to get anything done, we often have to accommodate the priorities of our opponents. It’s a delicate art, one often not comprehended by the electorate. You would think that after over 230 years, we would have gotten the hang of it, but this year’s campaign suggests that we may instead be losing it.

Even our Congressional leaders – Senator McConnell springs immediately to mind – seem to be fighting tooth and nail to get what they want and prevent what they don’t. The current impasse over the Supreme Court is symptomatic: Offered a compromise in the form of an eminently qualified olive-branch candidate, the Senate has refused even to speak with him, in the faint hope of later being offered a candidate committed to “restoring American values,” or, if you’re on the other side of the issue, “separating religion and ideology from the intent of the Constitution.” Congress is locked in a standoff, like two rutting moose with entangled antlers, and it’s difficult to hear any cries from many constituents to resolve the tangle – except on the said constituents’ terms.

Some countries in which we or the United Nations have attempted to replace autocracy by “exporting democracy” have instead collapsed into chaos and sectarianism because of ancient grudges or because their citizens naturally assumed that, given the vote, they’d all get what they wanted. Democracy doesn’t work that way, of course; but if they look to us to see how it’s supposed to work, they won’t.

It’s about twenty-fours now from the time at which the networks will begin to forecast the results based on partial returns, and it’s about thirty-six hours from the beginning of the public reaction to them. Many people – including some popular media – are holding their collective breath to see what that may be. Given that the elections have been preemptively labeled “rigged,” it may not be pretty. According to news reports, a group of self-styled “militia” have been rehearsing in body armor and camouflage clothing in the woods of Georgia for an armed insurrection in the event of what they consider a “stolen election.” It’s a safe bet that their maneuvers are being pretty carefully monitored, but that’s got little to do with their basic mischaracterization of the electoral process, or even their lousy sportsmanship. They’re true believers.

Many years ago I was a member of a secondary school cross-country team that had a reputation of rarely losing a meet. It was a difficult and often painful tradition to uphold, but defeating tough teams was worth it. Our coach, Fred McVeigh, one of the most laid-back and understated men I’ve ever experienced, never gave pep talks or hollered at us from the sidelines. He just watched, with his hands in his mouton-collar coat pockets. We’d have died for him.

He took us aside one day after a successful meet and gave us a little lecture, as unexpected as it was effective. “All your lives,” he said, “you’ve heard that it’s not nice to be a poor loser; that you should take your medicine graciously and resolve to get better. But there’s something else that’s harder: being a gracious winner. Remember that, while you’re there in your circle celebrating your win, there’s another group of boys, not far away, who are not feeling very good. It’s up to you to tell them how tough they were – not in a condescending way, but sincerely. Because they were tough. They pushed you to exert your best.”

Mr. McVeigh’s lecture will be uppermost in my mind this week, because win or lose, we must be gracious to those who have so long and so vehemently disagreed with us. It wouldn’t hurt to overlay it with some snippets of Lincoln’s second inaugural address: “With malice toward none, with charity for all...let us strive on to...bind up the nation's wounds, to ...do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace....” Lincoln had no way of knowing then – and he was dead a month later – that his vision would go unrealized for so many generations to come. It’s probably too much to expect that it will be now; but as I said at the start, I have hope.

Photo by Willem lange