By Robert Reich
One of the most horrific legacies of Trump is the unwillingness of Republican candidates to commit to being bound by election results.
Senate candidates who have refused to commit to accepting the results are Republicans Ted Budd in North Carolina, Blake Masters in Arizona, Kelly Tshibaka in Alaska, and J.D. Vance in Ohio, according to news reports.
Two candidates for governor have also refused to be bound: Tudor Dixon, the Republican nominee for the governor of Michigan, and Geoff Diehl, the Republican nominee for governor of Massachusetts.
It’s one thing to reserve the right to call for recounts if elections are close and irregularities are evident and to appeal the results through the courts.
But that was not Trump’s circumstance in the 2020 presidential election. Recounts were taken but showed the same results; Trump’s appeals through the courts were rejected.
And that’s not what these Republican candidates are asserting now, in Trump’s shameful wake.
But tell me: If these Republican candidates are not bound by the election results, what are they bound to? These candidates are in effect issuing open invitations to their supporters to contest electoral losses in the streets.
American democracy is based on our commitments to be bound by the outcomes of elections. These are commitments we make to democracy over any specific outcomes we may want. The peaceful transition of power depends on these commitments.
Before Trump, these commitments were assumed. And at least since the Civil War they have been honored.
When losing candidates congratulate winners and deliver gracious concession speeches, they demonstrate their commitment to democracy over the electoral victory they sought.
And that demonstration is itself a means of reasserting and reestablishing civility. It sends an unambiguous message to all the candidate’s supporters that the process can be trusted.
Think of Al Gore’s concession speech to George W. Bush in 2000, after five weeks of a bitterly contested election and just one day after the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of Bush:
“I say to President-elect Bush that what remains of partisan rancor must now be put aside, and may God bless his stewardship of the country …. Neither he nor I anticipated this long and difficult road. Certainly neither of us wanted it to happen. Yet it came, and now it has ended resolved, through the honored institutions of our democracy. Now the Supreme Court has spoken. Let there be no doubt, while I strongly disagree with the court’s decision, I accept it. … And tonight, for the sake of our unity as a people and the strength of our democracy, I offer my concession.”
Gore made the same moral choice made by his predecessors who lost elections, and for the same reason: The democratic process (even one that included the judgements of Supreme Court justices) was more important than winning a specific election.
This all changed in September 2020 when Trump refused to commit to be bound to the results of the upcoming 2020 presidential election.
“Well, we’re going to have to see what happens,” he said when asked whether he’d commit to a peaceful transition of power. “You know that I’ve been complaining very strongly about the ballots and the ballots are a disaster,” Trump added, presumably referring to mail-in ballots — which he baselessly claimed would lead to voter fraud.
This is when his poison began seeping directly into the bedrock of American democracy.
That poison spread deeper and faster after he lost the election, when he refused to concede – claiming, again without any basis in fact, that it had been “stolen” from him.
The poison came to the surface on January 6, 2021, when a group of his supporters – wielding weapons of war – invaded the U.S. Capitol and threatened the lives of members of Congress. Five people were killed.
The same poison has now spread to senatorial and gubernatorial candidates who refuse to commit to November’s election results.
Candidates who refuse to commit to being bound by the results of elections should be presumed disqualified to hold public office.
The commitment to be bound by the results of an election is the most important commitment in a democracy. It is also the most important qualification for public office. It is the equivalent of an oath to uphold the Constitution.