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Anxiety is steadily mounting as Election Day draws nearer. One particular worry, unfamiliar from previous bids by presidents for reelection, is this: If Donald Trump loses, will he accept defeat at the polls? Should he be voted out, he is not likely to leave quietly. After all, he alleges that there was massive fraud in a vote he actually won four years ago and now faces the prospect of criminal charges upon leaving the White House. In a tweet just last Thursday, he floated the possibility of delaying the election under the pretense that mail-in voting will lead to the “most INNACURATE AND FRAUDULENT” election in history.
This concern is not unique to Trump. Questioning election results is a standard strategy employed by authoritarian populists. It undermines one of the primary functions of elections: to deal with disagreement in a non-violent manner. In theory, voting should make for peace. As hard-nosed a realist as political scientist Adam Przeworski has described elections as a means to settle the question of who is stronger without a shot being fired. However, that expectation is unsettled by authoritarian right-wing populists, whose political business model is in effect to create culture wars, exacerbate conflicts, and deepen divisions within society. Even when he was winning, Trump would tweet at his followers: “The losers all want what you have, don’t give it to them. Be strong & prosper, be weak & die!”
Like so much Trumpian rhetoric, this can be dismissed as ranting and raving to fire up his base. But it could also make us more attentive to the fact that, in a democracy, losing is actually complicated business. For, on the face of it, losers in a democratic contest have to hold two seemingly contradictory views: that the policies of the winners are misguided and that these policies should be implemented (after all, election winners have been authorized by the majority to do so). Meeting this challenge requires a particular attitude. I don’t mean just the kind of gentlemanly civility that Al Gore displayed when he graciously conceded to George W. Bush in 2000. Rather, losing the right way should strengthen democracy as a whole. And, in the long run, it can also help the loser’s political fortunes.
Some forms of losing strengthen democracy, while others actively undermine it. Today populist leaders often wield a strategy of losing that harms the political process, regardless of whether they ever actually get elected. Populism, in my understanding, is a matter of leaders—whether of the left or the right—appealing to a “real people,” claiming to be their sole and genuine voice. As a result, they argue that all other contenders for power are fundamentally illegitimate: corrupt and, to coin a phrase, “crooked.” Less obviously, they also insinuate that all those citizens who do not support them do not belong to “the people” at all. It is not an accident that, rather than defending his policies with argument, Trump denounces critics as “un-American” and makes it plain that some Americans don’t truly belong. The formulation “MAGA loves the black people,” for example, made it clear enough that “the black people” are alien Others.
Today populist leaders often wield a strategy of losing that harms the political process, regardless of whether they ever actually get elected.
Populists who stumble at the polls appear to face an obvious contradiction: How can a party that claims to be the only legitimate representative of the people fail to win a majority at the ballot box? A common route out of this contradiction is the deployment of a favorite populist term: the silent majority. By definition, if the silent majority speaks, then populist leaders will be in power. If they lose, this rhetoric suggests, it is not because there is no majority backing them; it’s due to the silencing of the majority. Something or someone must have stifled the voice of the majority. Thus, populists often insinuate that they didn’t lose an election at all, but rather that corrupt elites manipulated the vote behind the scenes.
Trump is an obvious example. In 2016 he publicly mused whether he would accept a victory by Hillary Clinton. Plenty of his supporters understood what he was really getting at. According to one survey, 70 percent of his followers thought that Clinton could only become president due to illegal voting or vote rigging.
To be sure, anyone can criticize the U.S. election system—after all, there is an awful lot to criticize, from voter suppression to out-of-control campaign finance designed to maximize plutocratic influence. Such criticism can strengthen democracy. What is not compatible with democracy is the populists’ claim that a system in which they lose must, necessarily, be corrupt or dysfunctional. By pushing conspiracy theories and questioning the integrity of anything that doesn’t deliver them victory, populists subvert citizens’ trust in democratic institutions and thereby damage political culture—even if they never get close to the actual levers of power.
There is also a more concrete way for dethroned incumbents to evade the consequences of defeat. Consider the party of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, which lost the municipal elections in Istanbul last year to an opposition candidate from the main secular social democratic party. Initially the authoritarian leader complained that the defeat had resulted from “irregularities” or outright “theft at the ballot box.” In the end, his party lost a repeat election with even wider margins. While this was celebrated as evidence that even Turkey’s elections could survive manipulation, what happened next was hardly noticed by newly optimistic international audiences: Ankara systematically reduced the Istanbul mayor’s control over resources and access to financing.
A similar scenario unfolded in Hungary last fall. A left-liberal alliance of parties won in the capital in a significant blow to Viktor Orbán, the country’s right-wing authoritarian prime minister. The national government proceeded to take away funds and powers from the local administration in an already heavily centralized country, effectively sabotaging the city’s new ruling coalition.
One need not look abroad. In U.S. states where Republicans have lost, legislators have stripped offices—primarily governorships—of specific powers to weaken the incoming party. By so doing, they amend the rules of the game to effectively turn winners into losers, or, at the very least, into actors who are forced to play a different game than that they were originally competing in. Such abuses are often employed in the dying days of a U.S. legislative session.
Sabotage of this kind is never justified: as the political scientist Danielle Allen has pointed out, willing sacrifice—that is, an acceptance of loss for the sake of the continuity of the game and the polity’s union—is indispensable for democracy. Sabotage also smacks of a kind of desperation that would only be comprehensible if losers really lose everything. But in a well-functioning democracy, that is not the case. And, less obviously, losing the right way can pave the path to winning, and set new terms for life in the polity as a whole.
Losing the right way can pave the path to winning, and set new terms for life in the polity as a whole.
What does that mean, concretely? Losers may at least partially succeed by forcing the winners into major concessions—either during an election campaign or as a result of a strong showing at the polls. They might also turn a loss into a demonstration of integrity. Barry Goldwater got trounced by Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1964 U.S. presidential election—he only carried the Deep South and his home state of Arizona—and yet, as political scientists Jeffrey Tulis and Nicole Mellow have pointed out in an important study, he lost with integrity. Goldwater kept his political principles intact and built a platform for the conservative movement—one so successful that Ronald Reagan, masking some of the crueler parts of this platform with sheer charm, could eventually succeed. Just as it matters how one wins, it also matters how one loses. Even devastating losses can turn into long-run victories, if only one loses in the right way.
The right way might be best described as a democratic art of losing, an art that makes defeat acceptable. This appears when democratic losers concede—when they say that the rules of the game were fair enough, and everyone had a meaningful opportunity to make their case. When losers do not lose democratically, they effectively claim superiority to the majority at the polls. Concretely, one demonstrates one’s commitment to democracy by forming a loyal opposition: loyal, that is, to the principles underlying the procedures of democracy. For example: “we don’t denigrate the system just because we lost.” Losing democratically also means being loyal to the outcome of the political process, as in: “we obey the laws, even if our opponents crafted them and we are convinced that our political program remains far superior to theirs.”
One demonstrates one’s commitment to democracy by forming a loyal opposition: loyal, that is, to the principles underlying the procedures of democracy.
The distinction between particular procedures and underlying principles is important. Contrary to the thinking of political observers who fetishize adhering to reigning norms, losers don’t have to abide by the status quo at all costs. Republicans often deride Democratic proposals to reconfigure existing institutions—such as granting statehood to Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, and dismantling barriers to voting—as left-wing power grabs. But such changes can be justified on the basis of principles that everyone accepts: no taxation without representation and the basic right to vote.
One of the major innovations in modern democracy, as opposed to the ancient Athenian type, is this notion of a loyal opposition: one that is against the government for principled reasons, but not against the political procedures for partisan reasons. In other words, a democratic opposition might criticize the government but should not deny the government’s legitimacy. A governing party, in turn, must recognize this special role of the opposition.
It is essential that a loyal opposition not oppose the democratic system as such. When the loyalty of the opposition is institutionalized through engagement and concessions, winners also demonstrate their loyalty to the political system. Institutionalizing the opposition can take many forms: allowing immediate replies by opposition leaders in a legislative chamber to highlight differences and alternative policy ideas; maintaining low thresholds for establishing committees of inquiry; accepting opposition days, where the losers of an election set the agenda of a parliament’s business; or even installing opposition leaders as the chairs of important committees (where, after all, much of the real work of a parliament gets done). Here, government and opposition are forced to engage with one another in some capacity. This understanding of a mixture of principled conflict and collaboration contrasts with a cruder perception of democratic rules as “hydraulic mechanisms designed to move society in the direction of the greater force,” as one of my colleagues, the political philosopher Charles Beitz, has written.
Nevertheless, while an opposition must have its say, a majority must ultimately get its way. Without this understanding, a creative opposition can turn opportunities to contribute into a power grab. For example, they might attempt to obstruct the legislative program of the winners—usually by insinuating that the government is illegitimate. U.S. Senate leader Mitch McConnell’s tactics are legendary in this respect. After proudly announcing that his ultimate goal was to make Barack Obama a one-term president, he created a whole playbook of ways to use legislative procedures—violating their very spirit—to halt the efforts of the head of state. McConnell is a bad loser in two senses: for one, he refuses to accept defeat, and, for another, he distorts the political system in ruthless pursuit of partisan, or quite possibly personal, goals. One consequence of the rise of right-wing populist parties and other anti-system groups is the disappearance of the institution of a loyal opposition.
In an effort to keep right-wing populists and anti-system leaders out of office, parties across the spectrum—from far left to center-right—might have to join forces. This is especially true if these parties receive fewer votes, as happened in the German federal state of Thuringia in 2019, when the far-right Alternative for Germany party did extremely well. But this approach—all-against-one, one-against-all—can have pernicious side effects. When diverse parties band together to halt right-wing populists, they confirm the rhetoric of populist politicians: the notion that the old-style parties are trying to preserve their illegitimate privileges and ill-gotten gains by forming a cartel to disempower the only truly authentic representatives of the people.
Another, less obvious side effect emerges when large coalitions reinforce the perception that no clear political choice remains. Populist leaders will remind their supporters of their warnings that “establishment parties” ultimately care only about plundering the state. For instance, who would have thought that in Italy the nominally left-wing prime minister Matteo Renzi—who had promised rottamazione, literally the “scrapping” of the old system—would make a deal on a new electoral system with the deeply corrupt Silvio Berlusconi? In doing so, he perfectly validated populist Beppe Grillo’s fulminations about the corrupt casta of traditional politicians.
But this move has an even more dangerous side effect. If the only parties in government are those of the supposed establishment, and if only anti-system parties are excluded, there will be no loyal opposition left, only an anti-system opposition. (The Nazis called their opponents the derogatory term Systemparteien, and today Germany’s far-right Alternative brandishes the word verbatim.) The idea of a systematic, but not anti-system, alternative is a crucial element of representative democracy, but it is erased in such scenarios. This is not so much a loss for individual parties; it wreaks havoc on democracy itself.
Jan-Werner Müller is Professor of Politics at Princeton University. He is currently a fellow at the Berlin Institute of Advanced Study. His next book, Democracy Rules, is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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