"America is in deep trouble"

“America is in deep trouble,” André Blais, another co-author of Losers’ Consent and a political scientist at the University of Montreal, told me late last week, pointing to the country’s struggling democratic institutions and severe partisan polarization. Blais believes that “there are very few politicians of the Trump type,” which is why he remains “cautiously optimistic” about American democracy over the long term. But he noted that the essential dynamic of losers’ consent is obviously “not working well” in the United States, and not just because of the president’s reaction to the election result. “The principle that it’s your turn sometimes and not your turn other times—at least some people don’t seem to accept it” anymore, Blais said.

Bowler said it was important to avoid overstating the danger that Trump’s refusal to acknowledge defeat poses to the U.S. political system. But he appended a big caveat to that note of reassurance: There’s no direct precedent in modern American history, or even among other democracies, for what’s happening now in the United States. He ticked off a series of potential foreign analogs before dismissing each one. Mexico’s current president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, refused to accept the results of his country’s 2006 and 2012 elections, but he wasn’t yet president at those times and democracy in Mexico is far less entrenched than it is in the United States. Charles de Gaulle railed against France’s Fourth Republic for years, but its collapse in 1958 gave way to a Fifth Republic that remained democratic. “This really hasn’t happened before [to] this degree,” Bowler said. “An established democracy walking away from its own democracy, walking away from its own processes.”

And the thing about something unprecedented is that it sets new precedents. Many of the rituals that have helped heal a divided country after past elections—the concession call and speech, the meeting of the current president with the president-elect at the White House, the orderly transition—have been absent in the weeks since the 2020 election. Other rituals (the incumbent’s presence at the president-elect’s inauguration, for example) could vanish as well. Refusing to recognize defeat and attempting to reverse the outcome of the election even if there’s no sound basis for questioning the results could take root as new precedents. That might be especially true if Trump’s brand of populism remains a gathering force in the United States. The political logic of populism argues against acknowledging electoral defeat, because populists would rather attribute their losses to elite conspiracies than acknowledge that they lack popular support.