Supporters of losing candidates tend to lose faith in democracy and democratic institutions, even after elections that aren’t particularly contentious. When your preferred politician or party loses, in other words, resentment is inevitable.
This is why the democratic bargain is so important: Winners do not suppress losers, which means losers can hope to be winners in the future. As a result, the losers’ doubts about the legitimacy of the political system gradually recede as they prepare for the next election.
But if the losing candidate doesn’t uphold his or her side of the bargain by recognizing the winner’s right to rule, that acute loss of faith in democracy among the candidate’s supporters can become chronic, potentially devolving into civil disobedience, political violence, and a crisis of democratic legitimacy. How the loser responds is especially critical because losers naturally have the most grievances about the election.
“[I]n the aftermath of a loss, there is plenty of kindling for irresponsible politicians to set fire to,” Bowler notes. “Most politicians who lose elections recognize this potential for mischief, and so they ordinarily make a creditable run at helping to keep matters calm.”
All losing presidential candidates in modern U.S. history have avoided the temptation to fan the flames of grievance, and have instead shown restraint and respect for the peaceful transfer of power.
Well, until November, 2016, anyway. The behavior of our political class in this regard since then has been deeply, criminally irresponsible and is in itself proof that it is unfit.