Saving Democracy by Losing

I have been thinking about the 2024 election. What is the worst that can happen. Could we see a repeat of Jan 6th, or worse. Which side is more inclined to protest if they lose? If another Romney, Bush, McCain, or other mainstream candidate becomes the Republican nominee, likely nothing will happen under a loss. No one is going to put their life and reputation on the line to protest the loss of a boring, ‘establishment’ candidate.

Trump is a departure from this trend of losing candidates being scuttled away: his supporters have a sort of emotional and spiritual connection to him that was not seen with past losers, that only grows stronger. After Romney and McCain’s losses, voters could not expunge either of them from their memories fast enough, like a bad relationship. But Trump is arguably as important and relevant now as he was in 2020. If he was to run , which he probably will, he will be an even bigger force to be reckoned with. Like a messianic or biblical figure, the legend of Trump keeps growing with passing time.

The democratic process itself is not going anywhere. But democracy is broken in the sense that the losing side is no longer able to accept the legitimacy of the winner, and I don’t see any reason for this to change, but I expect the problem to get worse. Democrats in 2016 overwhelmingly believed that Trump’s win was illegitimate due to ‘Russian interference’ and other factors. Likewise, many Trump supporters believe that Biden’s win was due to election fraud. Had Biden lost, certainly democrats would cry foul again, blaming Russia.

In sports, it’s easier for a losing team to blame unfair/biased refereeing if the score is very close, than attributing such a loss to just ‘the other team being better’ if the score is much more lopsided. The same applied to politics: closer elections means that disparity of skill or quality of candidates is of secondary importance to who is officiating the results.

I don’t see any way that this changes. For one, the stakes for presidential elections are too high, and elections have become too close, especially in the popular vote. Higher stakes means more campaign spending, and better, overly-optimized campaigns and candidates. And an increasingly divided public, too, means that elections will be closer. Clinton and Regan enjoyed much higher bipartisan public support compared to more recent presidents such as George W. Bush, Trump, or even Obama. Politics has become too personal. It’s not just about issues, but political positions have become inseparable from the values or moral worth of whoever holds them. Being anti-vaccine doesn’t make you only wrong on the issue, but a bad person overall who should be excluded from public discourse.

Although democracy cannot be saved, the illusion of a ‘fair’ democracy can be preserved by both sides mutually agreeing to take turns losing, much like how professional wrestling matches are predetermined. The difference would be that, unlike wrestling matches, in which there is suspense by pairing wrestlers of similar skill, the outcomes would be intentionally lopsided, so that the legitimacy of the win cannot be called into doubt. Both sides would take turns deliberately running bad campaigns and uncharismatic candidates, ensuring a significant loss in the popular vote and the electoral college for whichever party’s turn it is to lose.