Bad Politicians Think Elections Are Illegitimate if They Don't Like the Winner

Democracy means accepting results you're not happy about.


President Joe Biden probably met the low bar set for his rare press conference this week by not face-planting into a pudding cup, but he also uttered a few eye-openers during his meandering performance. Among them was the claim that the 2022 midterm elections might be illegitimate if his party's voting bill doesn't pass. It was yet another reminder that former President Donald Trump has plenty of company in accepting the political process only if things go his way. So, if you're looking for a respite from disputed vote tallies, don't hold your breath.

Asked about the possibility of disputed elections this year, Biden first raised the danger of Republicans discarding votes. But then he set his own conditions for accepting results.

"I'm not going to say it's going to be legit," he added. "It's — the increase and the prospect of being illegitimate is in direct proportion to us not being able to get these — these reforms passed."

Of course, the voting bill Biden favors failed later the same day. So, without his preferred rules in place, does he think the midterm elections are likely to be rigged? "Rigged," after all, is the word thrown around by another prominent Democrat who cast doubts on vote tallies that delivered unwelcome results. Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams famously refused to concede the 2018 election she lost to Brian Kemp.

"I will not concede because the erosion of our democracy is not right," she announced in 2018 as she dropped her legal challenges only because "the law currently allows no further viable remedy."

"The game is rigged," she insisted the following year.

That's not as dramatic as a riot and invasion of the Capitol by political cultists attempting to prevent the certification of presidential election results, as happened on January 6, 2021, by Trump supporters. It's hard to top that (at least in the United States) for refusing to respect the process unless you have a modicum of competence. They didn't succeed, but they also didn't drop the claim of corrupt shenanigans. Two weeks ago, on the anniversary of the riot, the former president fumed at the legislators investigating that day's events for not "discussing the rigged Presidential Election of 2020."

(Do Trump and Abrams share a public relations team? You decide!)

But a denial of election results unless they go your way is a political temper tantrum over unwelcome democratic outcomes whether it's carried out in the streets or through sniffy pronouncements. It frames legitimacy as defined only by a win. It appears to be working for them, too. Trump keeps drawing in the crowds to hear his tall tales about the high office that was stolen from him, while Abrams wins plaudits for her planned repeat run for Georgia's top office.

Denying the legitimacy of elections is obviously a crowd-pleaser in modern America.

Disturbing as that is, rejecting election tallies isn't the end of challenges to normal processes. Unhappy with (some) decisions by the United States Supreme Court, Democrats propose to pad the bench with as many new justices as it takes to assure themselves wins on hot-button legal issues.

"With each move, the court shows why it's important to restore America's faith in an independent judiciary committed to the rule of law," Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) argued last month after the court showed signs that it might revisit the Roe v. Wade abortion rights decision. "To do that, I believe it's time for Congress to yet again use its constitutional authority to expand the number of justices on the Supreme Court."

While the idea of adding sympathetic justices to the court is traditionally termed "packing" and considered shady, Warren insists it's nothing of the sort because such "concerns do not reflect the gravity of the Republican hijacking of the Supreme Court." Basically, she argues that packing is OK if it involves the right people. Besides, "this Supreme Court has hit record lows in the eyes of the public."

It's true that approval for the Supreme Court fell to a new low of 40 percent, according to Gallup. But Chief Justice John Roberts has the highest numbers of any federal official at 60 percent. And that "record low" 40 percent support for the court overall is roughly double the approval Americans voice for Warren and her fellow lawmakers. Unpopular members of Congress aren't going to improve the standing of better-respected justices with a politically motivated court-packing scheme.

Meanwhile, Trump supporters are keeping their eyes on ballot boxes—literally in the case of the candidates who endorse the former president's bogus claim of a stolen election and are vying for positions that put them in charge of counting votes.

"In addition to statewide roles, Trump's acolytes are pursuing local election posts, even trickling down to the precinct level, and seeking to gain more prominent roles in state GOP parties and state legislatures ahead of the 2024 presidential campaign," CNN noted in December. "In Michigan, for instance, several new Republican appointees to county canvassing boards who have said they wouldn't have certified the 2020 election are replacing the GOP members who did certify the election result."

Even before we get to a do-over that few people want (70 percent of Americans dread a rematch between Biden and Trump) the two major political factions have already positioned themselves as ill-disposed to accept outcomes from the process that don't go their way. Republicans reject disappointing results loudly, through riot, lawsuit, and bluster. Democrats more quietly deny that the system can ever legitimately go against them, insisting that rules and institutions be reshuffled until they're guaranteed the outcomes they're convinced they deserve.

And now the president of the United States joins his predecessor and possible future opponent in election denial. Biden sounds an awful lot like Trump when he insists that the midterm elections may be illegitimate if they aren't conducted according to his preferred ground rules.

The idea that a system is legitimate only if it hands you a win every time isn't much of a basis for running a functioning democracy in which power is supposed to change hands on a regular basis. But that's what passes for principle with America's dominant political tribes.