Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Coping with Loss in a Democracy

Today Obama released his long-form birth certificate in an attempt to finally get the birthers to shut up. "We do not have time for this kind of silliness...I've got better stuff to do," he said.

Amen to that. I'm really worried at how lunatic-y this country is becoming.

But at the same time I'm wondering if the sentiment that's behind these allegations has actually become a constant part of U.S. democracy. Every time we've had an election in recent years, the losing side has always cried foul.

I remember three elections in my lifetime—2000, 2004, and 2008—and in all three cases, the losing side hasn't taken it lightly. If you google "bush 2000 election cheating" you get 23 million results, plus this Michael Moore video:

Similarly, if you google "bush 2004 election cheating" you get 21.4 million results—slightly less, but after all it was a less controversial election. The point is, a lot of people out there are convinced that there's no way Bush won fairly. One website, dedicated to exposing the myth that Bush won 2004 fairly, maintains,
Republicans can’t win straight up on the issues, because their policies are inimical to the best interests of 99% of Americans. To win, they have to cheat.
Sounds like the birthers know just how these people feel.

Losing in a democracy is paradoxical. The whole purpose and intent of the system is to make the rulers legitimate in the eyes of the citizens. But at the same time, each voter is asked for his opinion on who she thinks is right. If you're on the losing side, then you're forced to accept as legitimate a candidate that you don't think is right. But how legitimacy be separate from correctness?

To the extent that your belief in democracy depends on whether you think it gives the "right" results, it's uncomfortable to believe both that your candidate was the right choice and that he lost fair and square. One way of reconciling the conflict, as Rousseau did, is to drop the former assumption and stick with the latter—that is, to say that if I'm on the losing side, then I must be in the wrong:
Each man, in giving his vote, states his opinion on that point; and the general will is found by counting votes. When therefore the opinion that is contrary to my own prevails, this proves neither more nor less than that I was mistaken, and that what I thought to be the general will was not so. (On the Social Contract, Book IV)
But we're not inclined to think this way. Instead, most people would instead believe they're right (to the death perhaps; there's research that shows that incompetent people overstate their competence) and assume that the procedure was gimmicked in some way. The birthers, though they say they're just asking for evidence, really probably don't want it. As Prof. Redlawk put it,
It’s not the evidence that matters. Feelings come first, and evidence is used mostly in service of those feelings. Evidence that supports what is already believed is accepted, that which contradicts it is not. [link]
The Bush-deniers are, of course, not really as crazy as the birthers: they weren't nearly as distracting, and they're probably more justified. But both groups are strikingly similar in the way that they channel their resentment of the president by questioning his legitimacy. In a stable democracy like the U.S., where there's no hope of overthrowing the president, this is their way of coping with the loss.

As far as I know, this kind of denialism in the face of electoral defeats is a relatively recent phenomenon. If that's true, it seems to reflect one consequence of the undeniable growing polarization of U.S. politics. When people aren't so polarized, they're not so upset if their man doesn't win. But now it's become a matter of basic psychological integrity—and it's manifesting itself in bizarre ways.

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