For the last year, we’ve heard one commentator after another tell us that American democracy is in crisis. The source of that crisis, we are told, is a hard core of the Republican Party that believes the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump and that Joe Biden, therefore, is not a legitimate president.
It’s true that a significant number of Americans do not accept the results of the election. But is that something new, as the Trump-focused analyses would have us believe? No, it is not. Yes, these days, it is Republicans who doubt the results of a presidential election. But just a few years ago, it was Democrats. Lots of Democrats.
As a matter of fact, Americans today have more faith in the results of the 2020 election than had faith in the results of the 2016 election. More Americans believe Biden’s election was legitimate than believed, at the same point in Trump’s presidency, that Trump’s election was legitimate.
This is not a new problem.
Just look at the latest poll from The Washington Post and the University of Maryland. The pollsters asked this simple question: “Regardless of whom you supported in the 2020 election, do you think Joe Biden’s election as president was legitimate, or was he not legitimately elected?” Sixty-nine percent of respondents said Biden’s election was legitimate, while 29% said it was not legitimate.
Compare that to a poll from the same group with the same wording in October 2017, eight months into Trump’s presidency: “Regardless of whom you supported in the 2016 election, do you think Donald Trump’s election as president was legitimate, or was he not legitimately elected?” Back then, 57% said Trump’s election was legitimate, while 42% said it was not legitimate.
Which means that a few years ago, more people refused to accept the results of the election than today! In the new poll, the problem is Republicans — 58% of them say Biden was not legitimately elected. But back in 2017, the problem was Democrats — 67% of them said Trump was not legitimately elected.
Do you remember 24/7 commentary bemoaning the refusal of Democrats to accept the election of Trump as legitimate? Neither do I.
The situation in which Democrats refused to accept Trump as legitimate was far different from a few years earlier, when huge majorities saw Barack Obama’s election as legitimate. But it was reminiscent of 2001, when a significant number of Democrats said they did not view the president as having been legitimately elected — back then, it was George W. Bush.
What’s going on? Perhaps it is a sore loser effect. If your candidate loses, you don’t accept the loss as legitimate. If that is the case, the sore loser effect is somewhat selective — for example, it did not apply in Obama’s case.
Maybe there is more going on. Beginning in the middle of the 2016 race, the Hillary Clinton campaign sought to tie Trump to Russia and plant in the public’s mind the idea that Russia was trying to rig the election for Trump. “Over the course of the final month, the [Clinton] campaign would try a variety of methods to force the media into giving more airtime and ink to the idea that Russia was trying to throw the election than to the contents of Podesta’s emails,” wrote Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes in their Clinton-friendly campaign account “Shattered.” “They thought Russia’s meddling would have better legs.”
Boy, did it. Fed not just by the Clinton campaign but by leaks out of the nation’s intelligence and law enforcement agencies, in 2017 and 2018 the media ran with the idea that Russia and Trump colluded to fix the election for Trump. How else to explain Clinton’s shocking loss to a candidate many Democrats dismissed as a clown? (Of course, there were plenty of reasons, most of which centered on the Clinton campaign’s deficiencies, but many Democrats, and some in the media, did not want to face that, even after special counsel Robert Mueller could not establish that collusion ever occurred.)
The problem is all that “Russia Russia Russia” talk fed public distrust of the 2016 election results. And that led to a more generalized decline in faith in the idea of free and fair elections. In 2016, Clinton and some Democrats spread distrust. Then, in 2020, Trump and some Republicans weaponized it. A terrible cycle has set in. It needs to stop. But don’t try to blame it on just one party.