The power of losing

For two consecutive American presidential elections, many of the losers have seen the winner as illegitimate. Putting aside the merit of the claims, that broad fact speaks volumes.


To whom are you willing to lose? That could be one of the most important questions to the future of democracy.

Democracies, naturally, focus a lot on the winners. In the United States, the Founders spent much of their time setting up guardrails for those who won elections. The majority could rule, but not at the expense of the liberties of the minority. When people today express concern about the rise of populism, this is a primary worry: a breakdown of those guardrails and a tyranny of the winners.

The other side of the coin is much less talked about yet equally important in many respects. Losing is an essential part of democracy. Indeed, one could argue that effective democracies ensure that we all lose a lot. If someone wins all the time, that’s called a dictatorship. The best democracies create conditions that encourage the losers to consent willingly and confidently to the government of the winners.  

Yet for two consecutive American presidential elections, many of the losers have seen the winner as illegitimate. Putting aside the merit of the claims, that broad fact speaks volumes. Slowly, in recent decades, the losers have begun consenting to the government of the winners only with the greatest reluctance and almost no confidence. Even within the Republican Party itself, there’s a wing that refuses to consent to the president’s leadership, as Linda Feldmann writes in her story "As midterms approach, conservative ‘Never Trumpers’ find allies outside the lines

What’s going on? Consider what happened in the Swiss canton of Appenzell Innerrhoden less than two decades ago. In Appenzell Innerrhoden, women gained the right to vote in local elections only in 1991. Moreover, that right was granted only when a federal court intervened to demand it. As recently as 1990, the men of Appenzell Innerrhoden had voted not to give women the right to vote. If the court had not stepped in, “We Appenzellers would still reject that today,” one local told a Swiss paper in 2015.

Stated baldly, the men of Appenzell Innerrhoden did not trust the women. It is an extreme example. But it holds a universal lesson. Do conservatives trust minority and LGBT voters to set law and policy? Do liberals trust evangelical Christians? Do “Never Trumpers” trust rank-and-file Republican voters?

Without question, trust must be won. People lock their doors when they feel unsafe, just as they protect themselves through politics when they feel their liberties are threatened. Democracy is not about capitulation. It gives peaceful structure to our fight.

Yet there is also no escaping that democracies stumble without trust. In many ways, this is the genius of democracy. In order to work, it forces its citizens to find some governable sense of “us” that crosses partisan, ethnic, religious, or linguistic lines. As author Marilynne Robinson has said, “the basis of democracy is the willingness to assume well about other people.”

Can that principle survive and even expand amid the seismic demographic and cultural forces reshaping the world? That is what Western democracies must prove.

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