The Politics of Defeat.

John Ellis
3 min readSep 1, 2020

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One of the essential requirements of a functioning democracy is the consent of the losers. Or as Shaun Bowler, a professor of political science at the University of California Riverside, put it in an essay four years ago:

“In every contested election there are winners and losers. While lots of attention, money, and power flows to the winners, it is really the losers who are key to keeping democracy healthy.

More specifically, it is important that the people who lose elections recognize that they lost fair and square — assuming that that is indeed the case — and that they convey that truth to their supporters.

…..(G)raceful concessions by losing candidates constitute a sort of glue that holds the polity together, providing a cohesion that is lacking in less-well-established democracies.”

The “cohesion that is lacking in less-well-established democracies” has eroded, markedly, in the United States. The legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election is already under attack, most vocally by President Trump, who two weeks ago asserted: “….the only way we’re going to lose this election is if the election is rigged.”

Mr. Trump has been banging on this “the fix is in” drum for some time now. He will continue to do so. His campaign operatives believe it energizes his “base.” It also “prepares” them for a protracted legal battle over the elections returns.

The more Trump bangs the drum, the harder it gets for his more fervent supporters to accept an adverse outcome. “We’ll only lose if the election is rigged” doesn’t beget “we lost fair and square.” It begets grievance and litigation. Mr. Trump is famously and relentlessly litigious.

So there’s that, which (properly) garners press attention But there’s also this, which will get more attention as Election Day approaches:

In 2000, then-Vice President Al Gore defeated then-Gov. George W. Bush in the national popular vote by roughly 540,000 votes. Mr. Gore conceded defeat after a controversial Supreme Court decision “resolved” the election’s outcome in Mr. Bush’s favor. In 2016, Hillary Clinton defeated Donald Trump by roughly 2.9 million votes. She conceded almost immediately after it became clear she would lose in the Electoral College. In both cases, the consent of the losers was given.

In 2020, it seems all but certain that Joe Biden will defeat President Trump in the national vote count by at least 5 million votes and perhaps one or two or even three million more votes than that. (My guess would be a seven million vote margin, nationally).

I have no idea what the breaking point is for the leadership of the Democratic Party, but winning an election by 5-to-7 million votes and not winning the election is going to make “consent” a very hard sell to the party’s “activist base.”

Democratic leaders and elected officials who try to sell it will find themselves under immediate attack from that “base,” which collectively contributes vast amounts of money and energy to advance the party’s interests in both elections and policy matters. Alienate the base and those office holders will be outcast, challenged in primary elections and denied funding to wage future campaigns. At some level, the Democratic Party’s leadership has to contest an adverse Electoral College outcome. The base will insist that it do so.

So either way, even with a relatively clean election outcome (Biden wins with 300+ Electoral College votes or Trump does the same), the results will come under fire.

Now imagine what November will look like if: (a) the margins in key states are razor-thin (as they were in Michigan, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin in 2016) and (b) the results in six or eight key states aren’t fully tabulated (because of the avalanche of “mail-in/absentee voting”) until Thanksgiving or later.

How big will the national “avalanche” be? The New York Times plausibly estimates that “roughly 80 million mail ballots will flood election offices this fall, more than double the number that were returned in 2016.” Roughly 150 million people are expected to vote in the presidential election. Which means that more than half of the total vote could be mail-in or absentee.

80 million ballots take a long time to count. Time is the enemy of political cohesion.



John Ellis

Founder and Editor, News Items. Political analyst. Founder of and contributing editor to Bird News Items. Former columnist for The Boston Globe.