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How to coexist, after defeat, with citizens whose views you despise

Democracy means accepting shocking outcomes.

A protester is removed from a Trump rally, in October.
A protester is removed from a Trump rally, in October.
David Greedy / Getty

In characterizing the problem of intolerance within a republic, Rousseau wrote, “It is impossible to live in peace with people one believes to be damned.” Although Rousseau was arguing for (quite limited) religious toleration, the basic claim travels to a secular context: How can one live in peace with fellow citizens whom one believes to be, if not damned, then deplorable? In the wake of a desperately divisive, unpleasant election, how do we move forward as a nation?

The challenge of ensuring that electoral outcomes are accepted is far from new. But when one side believes that a considerable number of the victorious candidate’s supporters are “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, you name it,” and the other side believes the opponent is a vessel for the “’corrupt’ global establishment,” the problem becomes all the more vexing. Further, the surprise nature of this electoral outcome makes it all the more difficult for Trump and Clinton supporters alike to transcend the elation or devastation of the electoral results.

Nonetheless, a few commitments should guide our thinking about democracy in the wake of bitter elections.

First, every enfranchised citizen in a democracy can identify — or should be able to identify — the role she played in producing the outcome. She is extremely unlikely to have been “pivotal,” of course, or to have played a causally significant role in the election results, but she can identify herself in the final tally of her state’s popular vote as either a supporter of a winning or losing candidate (or as an eligible nonvoter). She has helped to constitute the margin of victory or defeat.

“Don’t blame me; I voted for Bernie” is no answer

As a first step toward ensuring electoral legitimacy, this means that no one can disavow responsibility for electoral outcomes. Refusal to own a collective decision with which one disagrees — “Don’t blame me; I voted for Bernie,” for instance — constitutes a step toward challenging the legitimacy of the election. It also harms the prospects of reconciliation across the political spectrum. The joke about immigration to Canada similarly promotes disengagement from a political community’s decision and deflects the fact that most citizens — particularly the most vulnerable among us — cannot exit: We are bound by the consequences of this election.

Second, voters of both the winning and losing sides should approach the outcome with epistemic humility, recognition that one’s own judgment is fallible, although the form this humility should take will differ. From the minority’s perspective, humility first constitutes acceptance of electoral defeat. We need not believe, as Rousseau suggested electoral losers should believe, that we must have been mistaken in our vote (having wrongly identified the general will) and grateful that our erroneous opinion did not prevail. Nor must we immediately understand the exact reasons for the loss. Many post-mortems of a losing candidate’s fundraising, campaigning, and mobilization efforts will be offered in the months following the election.

We the people fell short — not the media or the pollsters

Yet those of us in the minority must own the defeat, acknowledging that we — not the voters as a whole, not the pollsters, not the media — somehow fell short. We need — almost reflexively — to acknowledge that the electoral results express voters’ preferences mediated by the institutional rules. Indeed, many, supporters felt anxious even at the prospect of her victory because of the threat that Trump would not accept the outcome. Clinton’s willingness to concede privately even prior to the final tabulation of the popular vote is a model in this regard, as was her invocation of the importance of accepting the legitimacy of the election and the rule of law in her concession speech.

Although the burdens of acceptance fall unevenly on the losers, winners of elections — particularly of close, hard-fought elections — must also acknowledge the strength of the opposition. The critical move is to identify, and where possible, to empathize, and to try to address, the claims of those who were defeated, or who withdrew from the contest.

This might entail the consideration or adoption of signal policy proposals from competing candidates (as attention by Trump to the issue of student debt might demonstrate, for instance). Whether the victors seek compromise or common ground in the context of unified government, however, will depend not only on their humility, but also on the strength of their coalition. Unfortunately, humility and power often do not go together.

We should identify and oppose racism, but not let that be the end of the discussion

The hardest, and likely most intractable, problem is to recognize the validity of claims — claims for recognition of hardship, claims for redistribution of benefits and burdens — when they have been cloaked in language that we rightly regard as indefensible: racist, sexist, xenophobic, anti-Semitic, classist, or ableist.

An exemplary guide in this regard is the sociologist Arlie Hochschild’s book, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. Hochschild seeks to understand political views among residents of southwestern Louisiana, which they articulate in terms of “line cutting”: the sense that the existing members of the community had waited for years for their shot at the American Dream, and perceived others — particularly immigrants — as having been benefited over them.

One might worry about scapegoating, while nevertheless acknowledging with sympathy that the working class in Louisiana has felt, not without justification, that their interests have been neglected in favor of others’ needs, and that they too have claims that should be addressed. Indeed, whatever the ultimate diagnosis of Trump’s victory, one reason to feel some muted enthusiasm for his election is that working-class citizens who felt widely disenfranchised by political elites were mobilized. And from the perspective of democracy, an increased sense of political agency on the part of ordinary citizens can be seen as attractive, even if the substance of some of their commitments should remain subject to serious criticism and contestation.

That said, the effort to uncover valid claims from a position of empathy does not obviate the need for the community as a whole to combat racism, sexism, and abuse of marginalized groups more generally. Our first and primary concern should be the very real threat that the profoundly troubling rhetoric of the Trump campaign will yield policies that will further harm the cause of racial equality and just treatment of immigrants, Muslims, and other vulnerable groups.

The importance of restraint by the winner

For this reason, third, and most importantly, the institutional protection of dissent is paramount. Trump’s pledges to jail Hillary Clinton are distressing in that regard, but they obscure the wider institutional changes he could usher in. The power of incumbents, even in democracies, is vast, and extends to changing the rules that make electoral contestation possible.

Winners may be tempted to diminish the capacity of the opposition, either for ideological reasons or as a means of securing their own authority against challenge, through strategically implemented changes to electoral rules or laws that protect freedom of the press (e.g., libel laws). They must resist that temptation.

This will entail ensuring that the worst features of the campaign cannot bleed into governance — in order to ensure that constitutional rights of dissent are protected and to focus our energy on mobilizing in support of the welfare and safety of racial minorities, immigrants, and vulnerable groups who may be harmed by Trump’s policies. It also may generate a movement to change the institutional rules — for example the Electoral College — although the motivation should be untethered from partisanship. Scrutiny both of proposed policy and institutional changes will be necessary to ensure that the democratic process remains robust against encroachment. This scrutiny should be accompanied with political engagement and action that respects democracy’s rules.

The chance to effectively compete in the future, however, will not come from continued disparagement of Trump’s supporters as ignorant racists, or disavowals of our country’s decision as not our own. Clinton supporters have the power to ensure that the election of Donald Trump does not portend end times — as long as they do not succumb to bitterness and alienation.

Melissa Schwartzberg is professor of politics at NYU and Laurance S. Rockefeller visiting faculty fellow at the Center for Human Values at Princeton University. She is the author of Counting the Many: The Origins and Limits of Supermajority Rule. Jennifer Gandhi is associate professor of political science at Emory University and the author of Political Institutions Under Dictatorship.


The Big Idea is Vox’s home for smart, often scholarly excursions into the most important issues and ideas in politics, science, and culture — typically written by outside contributors. If you have an idea for a piece, pitch us at thebigidea@vox.com.

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