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Elections have consequences

US President George W. Bush (R) with former US Vice President Al Gore.
US President George W. Bush (R) with former US Vice President Al Gore.
Pool/Getty Images

Kathleen Parker writes at the Washington Post that regardless of what happens on Election Day, we will all be fine. On one level, we can only understand this piece as genius for the response it's provoked; it is the inverse of concern trolling, reassurance that despite what we are seeing, calls for alarm are premature.

There are three reasons we might need to think again before we decide to dismiss the consequences of Election 2016.

First, recent elections have been more consequential than expected, not less. This is true in a way we could not have predicted for George W. Bush, whose presidency was expected by many to be a quiet rejoinder to the Clinton years — some education reform, some tax cuts, some compassionate conservatism, a less active foreign policy agenda. But the thing about the presidency is precisely that: This will be the person who is in office when something major and unexpected happens, when big decisions will need to be made, and when a shift in governing philosophy is poised to occur.

Barack Obama's presidency is rarely characterized as more consequential than expected. After all, he was supposed to change how Washington worked and have a transformative policy agenda. Political forces, it turns out, are a bit more stable than that. But Obama's major policy initiative, the Affordable Care Act, has certainly reshaped politics despite its best efforts to keep interest groups happy, maintain rather than replace the private insurance system, and work within the boundaries of federalism. It has instead put new pressures on federalism, provided Republicans with a central talking point, and, not least, changed the health insurance market in significant ways.

Obama's statements, for all the political science claims that presidential rhetoric doesn't matter, have opened up new conversations about race, brought equality for LGBTQ Americans into the Democratic Party mainstream, and taken aim at new targets. The impact of these words and actions isn't all on Obama, of course. It's also in how others respond to him. But that dynamic in presidential politics — the extent to which others will rally around or oppose what presidents do and say — is more of a constant than a variable. The beliefs, values, and — at the risk of getting kicked out of political science — temperament of the president all matter.

This phenomenon is not limited to presidential politics. The 2010 and 2014 midterms reshaped politics too, not only bringing significant opposition to Obama's policy agenda but also significantly gumming up the works for Republicans. Paul Ryan's position as speaker of the House is the result of this political movement; Trump's presidential bid may be traceable to Tea Party politics as well.

The second caveat to any claim that we'll all be fine is that a lot of the time, things aren't fine. Parker's claim that, if elected, Trump won't engage in the sort of mass deportation or profiling that he promises is especially stunning. As Americans, many of us enjoy the protection of rule of law, and practice our freedoms of speech, religion, and assembly without interference. But it's not always true. Especially chilling is the memory of Japanese internment camps, a decision made by a president who is otherwise considered a liberal hero.

But this particular blemish on our record is not the only one, nor is it the most recent one. We are still wrestling with the past legacies — and current realities — of how Native Americans, African Americans, and other communities have been treated. To write that the election will leave us all "fine" obscures the amount of work we have to do.

Finally, we should not assume that our institutions will work just because they have always done so. As I wrote last week, the idea of legitimate opposition in particular is a delicate and complex one. When people disagree deeply and even ascribe dishonest motives to their political opponents, while simultaneously denying the legitimacy of our shared institutions, then all bets might be off.

What the next president does with regard to the opposition will likely have especially far-reaching consequences. We've heard quite a bit about what Donald Trump thinks about Hillary Clinton and about his willingness to concede and respect the process if he loses on Election Day. Many have already noted the authoritarian streak in not just the nominee but also some of his supporters. Whether other Republicans can persuade him to approach opposition differently remains to be seen; the track record for reining in their rogue nominee is pretty thin at this point.

But this is an important question for Clinton as well. If she wins, she could take Obama's line that Trump doesn't really represent what Republicans stand for, and treat her opponents in Congress as if Trump and his wing of the party were the exception rather than the rule. Or she could confront this strain of the party directly, but this approach leads to even more questions.

In the event of a Clinton victory, it will be a very delicate balance. She'll need to respect the process and the voters who cast their ballots for her opponent, and acknowledge their right to have done so, while simultaneously casting the election as a rejection of the anti-democratic ideas that have come to be associated with Trump.

It's easy for Democrats, for elite journalists and academics (who lean Democratic) to condemn the other side for not respecting legitimate opposition. It's much harder to figure out how to do it in this situation. Dismissing the plurality of Republican primary voters who chose Trump as uneducated or misguided will have profound consequences for how we understand opposition. Yet affording them too much understanding risks further marginalizing a long list of historically excluded people.

In a sense, Parker is right: Once you set aside major policy differences, it doesn't matter who wins on Tuesday. Whoever is elected will make unexpected decisions, set the tone for governance, and face plenty of resistance from opponents. He or she will have to decided how to react to these realities. Those decisions will be consequential for all of us, catastrophic for some, and last well beyond the length of a presidential term.