Legitimate opposition makes our political system work. It is the idea that those in government should treat their political rivals with respect even as they seek to defeat each other electorally. On this view, political contestation is healthy. And it requires electoral losers to accept their defeat. This practice distinguishes our form of government from electoral autocracies like Russia — where Putin always wins.
President Trump’s refusal to acknowledge that the election has been called for Joe Biden or even to allow Biden to receive the customary security briefings given to the presidents-elect has generated broad concern about the state of our constitutional system. His actions, and his supporters’ response, raise especially grave worries about public support for legitimate opposition.
When large numbers reject the idea that elections are a contest whose results must be honored, cynicism may result. Many may wonder why they should participate in electoral politics. If our fellow citizens simply ignore election outcomes, what is the point?
Unfortunately, disdain for the legitimacy of opposition is not limited to President Trump. His efforts have been cheered by many in his party and by large numbers of his supporters. GOP Senate candidates in Michigan and, for a time, Arizona, also followed the President’s lead, refusing to concede races they have obviously lost. But this problem cannot just be laid at the feet of Donald Trump. And it is unlikely to be resolved on the day he leaves office.
When GOP incumbents lost governors’ races in North Carolina in 2016 and Wisconsin in 2018, legislatures in both states stripped incoming Democratic governors of many of their powers, undermining the value of the office and undercutting the work of the voters. This was legal and stopped short of denying victors their posts. But these post-election maneuvers demonstrated an absolute disdain for any outcome in which one’s own side does not win. Perhaps most importantly, voters did not rise up against those who masterminded these efforts, demanding they respect their rivals. Instead, they re-elected them.
We cannot assume all Americans support legitimate opposition. But we must not allow this practice to wither away. Too much is at stake.
When political rivalry is not accepted and those in office reject the possibility of defeat, voting becomes largely meaningless and citizens no longer exert much influence over their government. Elections occur in regimes without legitimate opposition, such as Singapore and Venezuela. But those governments constantly tilt the rules of the electoral game in their favor. And they use their resources to divide and intimidate their opponents. As a result, their elections are a sham; everyone knows the outcome in advance. Citizens in those countries are not treated as political actors but as pawns.
Moreover, legitimate opposition is ours, and especially American practice that has long defined our constitutional system. Its modern, partisan form first emerged in the United States, shortly after the passage of our constitution. It powers our system of checks and balances. Members of the same party, whether in Congress or in the White House, have an incentive to work together. By contrast, actors from rival parties man the ramparts against the misuse of influence, carry out investigations and raise the alarm when that is needed. Tempered partisan contestation is arguably the most important political innovation we have provided to the rest of the world. Relinquishing this American innovation would be particularly galling.
Organized and accepted political rivalry is not a panacea. It guarantees neither political equality nor fairness nor freedom. This practice structured American political life before the abolition of slavery and before African-American citizens were allowed to exercise fully their political rights. Nonetheless, it has provided the institutional backdrop against which efforts to improve and strengthen our constitutional system have been made. And it can do so in the future.
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It is deeply unsettling that we cannot count on each other to acknowledge political losses or the legitimacy of our rivals. But the practice merits our attention and defense.
American history is replete with examples of those who acted to sustain our constitutional system and extend the democratic character of our political institutions. The post-Watergate effort to constrain and improve the functioning of the executive branch and generate public support for a more open and responsive form of government is one of the best-known examples. A similar effort may be required today to preserve legitimate opposition. Our form of government may depend on it.