Bernie Sanders isn’t losing. Just ask many of his backers or listen to some of his own complaints. He’s being robbed, a victim of antiquated rules, voter suppression, shady arithmetic and a corrupt Democratic establishment. The swindle includes the South’s getting inordinate sway and the poor none at all. If Americans really had a voice, they would shout “Bernie! Bernie! Bernie!” until too hoarse to shout anymore.
Donald Trump isn’t winning. Just ask Ted Cruz, by whose strange and self-serving logic it is “the will of the people” (his actual words) that he and John Kasich collude to prevent Trump from amassing a majority of delegates so that some runner-up with less demonstrable support can leapfrog past him to become the Republican presidential nominee. Democracy in action!
I agree that Trump’s nomination would be frightening. I disagree that Cruz’s would be better. It certainly wouldn’t be more justified, but such rational thinking has gone missing in this year of losing gracelessly.
And in this era of irresolution. All too often, contests don’t yield accepted conclusions and a grudging acquiescence by those who didn’t get their way. They prompt accusations of thievery, cries of illegitimacy and a determination to neuter the victor, nullify the results or reverse them as soon as possible.
Elections don’t settle disputes, not even for some fleeting honeymoon. They accelerate them, because there’s a pernicious insistence that they’re not referendums on the public mood but elaborate board games in which the triumphant player used the wickedest skulduggery.
When you honestly believe or disingenuously assert that you’ve been outmaneuvered rather than outvoted, why declare a truce, let alone cooperate, in the aftermath?
The process has never been smooth and the defeated seldom docile. To pluck just one example from the annals of acrimony, Teddy Roosevelt formed the Progressive Party in 1912 as a revolt against the Republicans’ nomination of the incumbent president, William Howard Taft, rather than him.
But an epoch of unrelieved mutual suspicion between competitors – and especially between Republicans and Democrats – took hold somewhere on a timeline that runs through Watergate; the confirmation hearings of Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas; the serial investigations into the Clintons; and Mitch McConnell’s vow to thwart President Barack Obama at every turn.
In the midst of that came Bush v. Gore, in which a majority of Republican appointees on the Supreme Court decided a presidential election in the Republican candidate’s favor.
All trust, most etiquette and many rules went out the window. And while Republicans have been more audacious than Democrats, the manifold accusations made by Sanders supporters show that the effort to delegitimize winners is a pan-partisan tic.
Pro-Sanders actor Tim Robbins fired off a tweet this week with the charge that “this election is being stolen,” the hashtag #VoterFraud and the insinuation that The Times and CNN were essentially conspiring with Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
The Sanders camp is right to raise questions about voting irregularities in a few places, including New York, where there’s an investigation underway, and about the odd patchwork of closed and open primaries across the country.
But all of the candidates knew about that patchwork going in, and Clinton’s successful navigation of it – she has a multimillion-vote lead over Sanders – is more persuasive than any dark claims of dastardly tricks.
On the Republican side, Trump and Cruz have each bellowed about the other’s supposedly unfair advantages at a volume that’s hardly constructive. It’s self-promotion with a side of cynicism.
The graceless losing of 2016 owes something to this election’s particular characters. When you’re not just a man but a revolution (Sanders), you can never quit the fight or flee the front.
When you’re the Don Quixote of extreme conservatism (Cruz), you can never ditch your armor. And it’s easy to tell yourself – because it’s easy for all of us to tell ourselves – that surrendering to Trump is surrendering your patriotism.
But there’s more at work. The refusal to grant victors legitimacy bundles together so much about America today: the coarseness of our discourse; the blind tribalism coloring our debates; the elevation of individualism far above common purpose; the ethos that everybody should and can feel like a winner on every day.
Our system for electing presidents is indeed a mess. It estranges voters and is ripe for reform. I explored that last week.
But pushing for change is different from rejecting any unwelcome outcome as the bastard fruit of a poisoned tree. If grievances are never retired, then progress has no chance. If everything is rigged, then all is fair, not just in love and war but on the banks of the Potomac, where we can look forward to four more years of inertia and ugliness.