I enjoy reading Shadi Hamid at The Atlantic — not least because, although we disagree a good deal, he’s a genuine “liberal” who believes in free speech, American institutions, and the importance of real pluralism (that is, in respecting real differences rather than in assembling people with different immutable characteristics and demanding that they all think the same things). Nevertheless, I think that Hamid misses the mark a little in his piece this morning.
Hamid’s essay is titled “The Democrats May Not Be Able to Concede,” and its subtitle is, “If Trump wins, especially after losing the popular vote, the left may draw the wrong conclusions.” Specifically, Hamid contends that “liberals had enough trouble accepting the results of the 2016 election”; that “in some sense, they never really came to terms with it”; and that, if they were to lose again in 2020, elements within the Left may become so disillusioned with America that they declare the system illegitimate and take violently to the streets. There is no misunderstanding Hamid’s meaning here, nor is the direction of his concern unclear. Despite considering that Trump is unfit for office, he does not “believe Donald Trump is a fascist or a dictator in the making,” or that “America is a failed state,” and he is “truly worried about only one scenario: that Trump will win reelection and Democrats and others on the left will be unwilling, even unable, to accept the result.”
Some have interpreted this as a threat or as excuse-making. But, as a long-time reader of Hamid’s, I think this is unfair. That’s simply not who he is, or how he sees the world. And yet, well-intentioned as I am sure it is, I cannot help but see Hamid’s conclusion as something of a non sequitur. He writes that, as a result of the possibility that the “left will be unwilling, even unable, to accept the result” of the election, “strictly law-and-order Republicans who have responded in dismay to scenes of rioting and looting have an interest in Biden winning—even if they could never bring themselves to vote for him.”
To which one must ask: Why?
As a matter of general principle, I have no time whatsoever for the argument that anyone — let alone a voter — should hope that his opponent wins as a defensive measure against his opponent being a bad loser. Indeed, to follow Hamid’s advice here would be to permit the heckler’s veto to reign within our politics. If there is any action to be taken in response to the behavior that Hamid anticipates, it must surely be taken against the perpetrators of that behavior, not against its victims? “Donald Trump may refuse to concede, so we’d better hope he wins” is not an argument we’ve seen advanced. Its opposite is no better.
Later in his essay, Hamid focuses in on the Electoral College, which he believes would serve as the primary target of anger in the case of a Trump victory. Were Trump to win the election but not the “popular vote,” he suggests, the outcome might “fuel disillusion not just with the election outcome but with the electoral system.” I will not rehash my support of the Electoral College here, and nor will I point out that the Electoral College is, and always has been, at the core of the American system, and that everyone has known this in advance since 1788. Rather, I will simply observe that Hamid’s conclusion seems off here, too. If it is the case that “the left” will refuse to accept the outcome because it has decided that it doesn’t like the system, then those “strictly law-and-order Republicans” who “could never bring themselves to vote for” Biden should hope that Trump wins the “popular vote,” shouldn’t they? That, not the alternative, would be the course of action that defends both “law” and “order.” Moreover, if the primary threat to the Republic is that “Trump will win reelection and Democrats and others on the left will be unwilling, even unable, to accept the result,” then non-Republican voters should surely be lining up to help, too?
This, I should make clear, is not my preference. My preference is that every voter votes freely for whomever he wishes, that the system is used as it is constructed, and that everybody respects the result. But if, as Hamid suggests, one side is unlikely to play ball, it seems a touch unfair to suggest that the responsibility for preserving order falls to that side’s opponents.