Tuesday, December 03, 2019

A meandering meditation on "Losers' Consent" and other democratic virtues


People who read the blog are likely concerned about the health of U.S. democracy. The extraordinary, even bizarre, contortions British democracy is going through over Brexit may have some relevance to thinking about our condition.

I'm not going to try to dig into Brexit here; that's beyond me. The simplest narrative is that in a referendum in 2016 a small majority (52-48) of British voters opted to pull the country out of its over-40 year participation in the customs arrangements and governing structures of the European Union. Most Leave voters were older, white, rural, and traditionally English; most Remain voters were younger, urban, came from Scotland, Northern Ireland, or cosmopolitan London, and many were non-white. One way of looking at the referendum is that Britain's past voted against its future. Seem familiar? Britain has still not actually departed the EU; implementing Brexit has snarled British politics in previously unimaginable tangles ever since the vote. This may (or may not) be resolved in the upcoming election on December 12. Meanwhile the EU is frustrated and getting impatient.

Watching the Brexit mess and reading commentators, I've found myself pondering the concept of "Losers' Consent." This political science concept (outlined in a 2005 book) means what it says: democracy only works when losers accept the legitimacy of electoral defeats. This lament from a 2016 Remain voter who plans to vote this time around for a pro-Brexit party catches its essence:

“The vote was to leave, so you know, recognize the vote,” the man said. “To me, once you vote, that’s it — you either accept it, or if you don’t accept it, democracy means nothing.”

He's sticking up for democracy in his own way.

The current British election is being contested amid violent threats that are shocking in what believed itself to be a more restrained political polity. During the 2016 campaign, a young rising star Labour Party parliamentarian, Jo Cox, who stood against Brexit and for inclusion of immigrants, was knifed on the street in her district. Fears linger. Richard Wyn Jones of Cardiff University has found surprising levels of approval for political violence. He opines:

... one factor that may be contributing to the “industrial quantities” of threats is that those on the losing side haven’t accepted defeat. And they haven’t accepted defeat, he said, because they feel they were “lied to, cheated and that the referendum was held under false pretenses.”

He added that on the winning side, “there was no attempt to reach out to the very, very large minority who voted a different way to say, ‘I hear your concerns, this is how we will assuage them.’ … Instead they are called ‘saboteurs’ or ‘remoaners’ or ‘traitors,’ and Brexit is redefined in an evermore hard-line way.”

Again, sound familiar amid our present U.S. situation?
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When Losers' Consent follows from a democratic process, the political science literature says democracy is strengthened. In our domestic experience, it's hard to be convinced that it true. Al Gore affirmed losers' consent in the arguably stolen election of 2000; in 2016, Hillary Clinton gracefully affirmed losers' consent when a systemic curlicue (the Electoral College) denied her what the popular vote total would indicate was the democratic outcome. Winners -- George W. Bush and Donald J. Trump -- sought to brush aside or deny the questions about their lack of popular vote legitimacy.

Contemporary norms of democratic fairness -- an expectation that the candidate with the most votes wins -- have been violated, repeatedly. The shrinking old, white, rural base of the contemporary Republican Party can't win by attracting raw numbers -- more and more they have can only win through stratagems that disempower the voting strength of their opponents, that undermine popular electoral democracy.

And so we are living with an impeachment drama well described by scholar Danielle Allen in a recent oped.

For Democrats working their hearts out, on behalf of one or another candidate, the discovery that President Trump appears to have marshaled the unmatchable power of his office to conjure up investigations into a leading political rival is a heavyweight punch to the gut. The unfairness of having to fight against someone willing to fight that dirty, and with the power and resources to distort the election almost at will, is enraging.

For Republicans who worked their hearts out in 2016 on behalf of candidate Donald Trump, the relentless investigations into the president are equally enraging. The unfairness of having to constantly fight against what feel like efforts to undo a legitimate election result causes them to see red. Conservative media is full of angry denunciations of Democrats for failing to accept their humiliating political defeat.

We are all enraged, the entire polity. We are enraged because few of us believe the other side respects, and will protect, free and fair elections.

She's accurate of course; hardly anyone is in the condition of mind and heart to offer losers' consent to those with whom they differ.
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I'm reminded that this is a country founded in refusal of consent to governance that our founders believed to be illegitimate. I'm reminded that the Declaration of Independence grounds the colonial rebellion against the English monarch in the bold assertion that governments derive "their just powers from the consent of the governed." We still believe this, most of us.

And that "we" who demand a democratic right to consent is an ever larger fraction of the people of this land; there were a lot of "non-people" around in 1776 and 1787 -- women, native people, enslaved people, non-Christian people, and others with no property. Now we all want and expect to be insiders in our democracy, not just spectators. Hence rage and #Resistance.
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Political scientists who have elaborated the losers' consent concept suggest that there's an important fraction in a democratic polity who we overlook and who can tip the balance in a closely divided context.

[This is] the conventional image of the ideal citizen: informed, sophisticated, committed, and able to overcome their frustrations after a defeat. However, the findings suggest that the stability of democracies may also depend on other groups of voters rarely celebrated by analysts – namely some of the late deciders and those voters torn between contradicting considerations.

These two groups have a reputation for being less politically educated and deciding how to vote in emotional or expressive ways. We suggest that the ‘graceful’ losers amongst them are an indispensable component of the democratic majority in the aftermath of an electoral campaign, and that they contribute to the stability of democratic regimes.

This observation points to the necessary target of the grand democratic mobilization that will be the 2020 election. There are still a few people who are disengaged from contemporary politics -- and who don't want participate in the general rage. Their desire for social harmony is a healthy contribution the wider polity, even if infuriating to those of us feeling an existential threat to ourselves and our country's possibilities. There aren't many, but they can be won, but only if we organize ourselves to talk with them rather than just yell louder.

The LA Times interviewed such a voter. Christie Black is a 35-year-old stay-at-home mom who abandoned the GOP and voted independent in 2016 rather than support Trump. Now she might be open to voting for a Democrat.

“I think right now the most important thing is to get those principles of democracy tied down, get that return to regular order, and then we can worry and get back to squabbling about conservative versus liberal.”

That's not how I think, but the winner of the 2020 election needs to reach the Christies. To the annoyance and even fury of many, they may be what keeps this listing democratic vessel on an even keel.

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