What happens if elections are no longer legitimate?
by Thomas Pepinsky, TomPepinsky.comNovember 2018
Two years ago, just a couple weeks before the 2016 presidential election, I asked what does it look like when citizens don’t trust elections?
Perhaps more than anything that he has said through his campaign, Donald Trump’s charge that the upcoming presidential elections will be rigged have frightened political observers, and especially political scientists. The reason is that elite and public acceptance of electoral procedures is essential to democratic politics. Political scientists understand that the foundation of democratic political order is the acceptance of the rules of the game. The only way that we really know that losers accept those rules when they lose and respect the outcome. The politics of a losing presidential candidate rejecting the election itself is almost unimaginable. It would risk a crisis of systemic legitimacy.
But what would such politics look like, now that we must imagine it? American history is no great source of information. There is the case of the Civil War, which began when southern states seceded from the union. But this was a cleavage first and foremost over policy—slavery—and the political order that it required. And as such, the Civil War had a clear regional divide over that policy. Trump’s allegations about vote-rigging are not regionally defined, and they are not about specific policy. They are channeling mass dissatisfaction with the entire political system, refracted (as is often the case with Trump) through the candidate’s own self-obsessions. No state could, or would, secede from the union over Trump’s electoral defeat. The crisis of systemic legitimacy would be national, within the states, between supporters of Trump and his opponents.
The answers are not good, and I used the examples of Thailand and Madagascar to make my point. In the event, President Trump did not question the legitimacy of the 2016 election because he won it. But this morning, things have changed.
Breaking down democratic systems through obsessing over their flaws is classic authoritarian behavior.
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