Democracy is like one of those Magic Eye 3D pictures. They’re both headache-inducing, multicolored and absolutely baffling to me from a personal standpoint.
But they also share the same fatal flaw — the more you focus on them, the less stable their image becomes.
Government, by its very nature, is full of complex ideas and not much else. It exists because we choose it, unstable but supported through either mandated laws or historical precedence.
With the delegation of Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes, Joe Biden succeeded the vote threshold of 270 and became president-elect, defeating incumbent President Donald Trump on Nov. 7. Despite the loss, which has been established by major credible news organizations on all sides of the political spectrum, Donald Trump has apparently refused to concede.
This is not startling or out of character. However, from a larger standpoint, his inability to do so weakens the ideals we have set not on concrete laws, but on precedence and tradition.
Concession has never been a required action. But from the first defeat, it has played an important role in the unification of our country and the legitimization of our government.
To retain our basic democratic principles, we have to protect the traditional norms of our government.
Concession is no exception.
Since his apparent defeat, we have seen action from the Trump campaign, but not anything in the realm of concession. Monday, senior campaign advisor Jason Miller announced in an interview with Fox Business that concession “is not even in our vocabulary right now.”
The president’s administration has launched lawsuits into several battleground areas, including areas of Pennsylvania, even though the chance of an overturn is slim.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also made headlines on Tuesday by stating he would ensure “a smooth transition to a second Trump administration” when asked when his department would begin working with Biden’s team.
When asked more about his statement, Pompeo doubled down, stating on Fox News’ “Special Report” that, “We will achieve this [election result] in a way that’s deeply consistent with the American tradition.”
While Pompeo claims this, his administration’s leader is actively avoiding an important post-election American tradition.
Concession, and in particular the public action of a concession address, has been around for most of our country’s history, beginning with the defeat of John Adams in the election of 1800. As political theorist and historian Paul Corcoran describes for Time, these speeches are built in a deliberate way to quell anger while continuing to promote civic engagement and enthusiasm for politics. It’s a speech about hope, dignity and respect.
One of the United States’ most impressive features is that, for all our bickering and moaning, we transition power with relative ease, even when switching to a completely different side of the political spectrum. Concession addresses subdue potential retaliation and renew the public’s faith in the American democractic system.
More than ever before, that unity is needed. It’s a message Biden has heavily preached since the election’s end. It’s a message that Trump could benefit from after an administration that was often criticized as grating and harsh.
But beyond personal gain, Trump must concede to respect American political traditions and the unwritten rules of our democracy.
We are a nation entrenched with tradition. From the insignificant Thanksgiving turkey pardons to each inaugural address, many of our presidential practices are not commanded by the Constitution. However, if we lose them, we undoubtedly lose parts of our national heritage.
Throughout recent years, we’ve seen these traditions fall apart. In 2017, Trump refused to attend the White House Correspondents' Dinner due to attacks on his character, a dinner presidents had attended since the Coolidge administration in 1924. The last president to miss such an event was Ronald Reagan in 1981, who was recovering from an actual attack. Like, the man was literally physically shot in an assassination attempt. And he still managed to pay them a phone call.
The State of the Union, though briefly outlined in Article II, Section 3 of our Constitution, is also based heavily in tradition. This was a tradition Trump was complacent in, and if any criticisms of its erosion should fall, they should go toward Nancy Pelosi for her childish act of ripping up Trump’s address in February. However, the point is that the State of the Union is another massive piece of our view of the presidency. If we continue to dismantle our traditions, we are left with little to go on.
These traditions give our institutions legitimacy. They empower our nation. Without them, what are we united behind?
Of course, this isn’t to say rules are never broken. Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave us the greatest example in 1940, dismissing George Washington’s two term presidential precedent and running — and winning — two more. This was eventually rectified with a constitutional amendment in 1951, a rather simple solution to the precedent infraction.
The problem is, we can’t solve concession issues with a constitutional amendment. Only in our most Orwellian nightmares would a government demand the election’s loser to broadcast a forcibly produced and recited speech of unity and conformity. That’s not our answer here.
Instead, we have to protect our American democratic traditions organically. That has to come from public support and the general decency of our own politicians. They must step up and act with the future of our nation in mind.
In the end, through his refusal to concede or present a concession speech, Donald Trump is placing his individual pride over his respect for American tradition. This is not out of character. This is not shocking. But it is disappointing nonetheless.
The democractic principles we value as Americans are fragile, and we cannot simply protect them with laws. Instead, the political culture we foster with American tradition and precedence secures an uncertain future.
Without it, we may dismantle the pieces of our puzzle and lose the picture altogether.
Emma Krab is a sophomore English and journalism major. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.