On Electoral Whataboutism and What it Means to Accept the Results of an Election

In the leadup to the 2016 election, a now-familiar specter stalked the halls of establishmentarian media circles: what if a presumably losing candidate Trump doesn’t accept the results of the election? While it was hard to term this as unfounded hysteria, given that this possibility was expressly raised by Trump himself, several federal Republican office-holders nonetheless rose to the challenge, brushing off the explicit threat to our country’s electoral legitimacy as “sarcasm” or “trolling the left.”

Of course, this “what if” remained a “what if”, as Trump in fact won the 2016 election in an infamous upset, winning the electoral college while losing the popular vote by a shocking margin for someone who then entered the White House. Trump lost the popular vote by a wider margin than George W. Bush in his historically contentious 2000 electoral college win, and even several electoral college losers, including Gerald Ford in 1976 and Richard Nixon in 1960. Additionally, Russian government agents engaged in an extended influence campaign to sway voters in favor of Mr. Trump throughout the election, including, but likely not limited to, circulating false viral social media posts, and hacking several arguably embarrassing emails from Clinton campaign staffers which they subsequently released to Wikileaks, as was detailed in the now-famous investigation by former FBI Director Robert Mueller and its attendant media coverage.

The result was predictable liberal dissatisfaction with this turn of events. Democratic voters and elected officials, outraged by the Russian interference in the election, have called for legislation targeted at ramping up election security. The scope of Trump’s popular vote loss also revived the longstanding, if temporarily sated by President Obama’s two electoral college wins, Democratic loathing of the anti-majoritarian effects of the electoral college, leading to calls for its abolition. This predictably led to jeers of “who isn’t accepting the results of the election now?” from the right side of the peanut gallery, though these faded out once this particular line-item fell out the bottom of our faster-than-ever-turning news cycle.

However, as the 2020 election draws near, the same specter has been re-awakened. In late July, Trump tweeted that he would consider the election results “rigged” if characterized by significant mail-in voting prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic. In a recent interview with Fox News’ Chris Wallace, Trump stated that he would “have to see” whether he would accept the results of the 2020 race. In early August, he stated that the only way he could lose the election is if it was “rigged.”

It may be easy for some to write off these comments as simply more examples of the President’s tendency to say inflammatory yet inconsequential things, whether simply off-the-cuff in the moment, or calculated only to cause a media reaction that he and his allies can later point to as hysterical. What was harder to dismiss was White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany’s response to a question from a White House press pool reporter as to whether he would accept the results of an election. From the hallowed roost of the Press Secretary’s podium, McEnany responded that the President will “see what happens and make a determination in the aftermath,” seemingly affirming Mr. Trump’s comment as official policy rather than a throwaway remark. It was once the case that the podium at the head of the White House press pool, rather than the president’s personal Twitter feed, was the primary fount of communication of the official White House position, inevitably lending McEnany’s justification a certain gravity which statements from the president himself have ironically come to lack.

The increased seriousness of worries that Trump may not concede in 2020 as compared to 2016 is his present status as the incumbent wielder of federal power. Despite establishmentarian hand-wringing, had Candidate Trump refused to concede in 2016, the result would have likely taken the form of impotent diatribes that the election had been “stolen,” delivered to the most die-hard of his fanbase through the hypothetical-President-Clinton-bashing political media channel he undoubtedly would have started. A losing President Trump in 2020 who refuses to concede has the potential to look more like the elections held in the small South American country of Guyana in March of this year.

After a brutally polarized election drawn substantially along racial lines, the tentative vote count appeared to show that opposition leader Irfaan Ali, of the largely Indo-Guyanese-supported People’s Progressive Party (PPP), had defeated incumbent President David Granger, of the largely Afro-Guyanese-supported People’s National Congress (PNC). However, President Granger refused to concede the election, relying in large part on a report generated by his own government’s Chief Election Officer, Keith Lowenfield, which made unfounded and roundly disbelieved claims of various kinds of electoral fraud. Several world powers and international organizations, including the United States, dismissed the report as fabrication. For months, Guyana’s government remained paralyzed, with their Parliament indefinitely recessed, by the breakdown in democratic legitimacy. Finally, after a recount and months of international pressure including U.S. economic sanctions, Granger conceded in late July, and Ali was sworn in.

Meanwhile, back in the Land of the Free, the predictable outrage from Democratic officials and media figures ranging from the left to the mainstream to Trump’s apparent preemptive refusal to concede in 2020 has elicited the same reaction as did Trump’s 2016 flirtation with refusing to concede in the event of an apparent loss. This, inevitably, also revived the conservative narrative that Democrats themselves never accepted the results of that election. It should, however, be readily apparent upon even cursory examination of the allegations that the liberal criticisms of the 2016 result are not remotely comparable to the current iteration of right wing whataboutism on the subject. To usefully address this comparison, however, there must be an understanding in common of what constitutes “whataboutism,” and what it means to “accept the results of an election.”

“Whataboutism” is a rhetorical tactic that involves accusing an opponent of hypocrisy without actually addressing or disproving their point. A derivative of the tu quoque (Latin: “you also”) logical fallacy, the tactic rose to particular prominence, and received its more common name, in Soviet propaganda. Rather than claim that the USSR was not so bad after all, the propagandist would rhetorically ask who the NATO powers were to say anything about it. For instance, the brutality of racism in the Jim Crow South was the most effective and most used bullet in the Soviet whataboutism gun, and was fired off in response to any criticism of human rights in the Soviet sphere. So ubiquitous was its use for that purpose that it spawned a subgenre of the popular “Radio Yerevan” jokes, whereby an imaginary propaganda radio host would respond to any question about the quality of life in the USSR with “I don’t know, but in America they are lynching [Blacks].”

It goes without saying that the legacy of American racism was, and continues to be, horrific, deserving of international condemnation, and in dire and ongoing need of redress, but this did not make Western criticism of Soviet human rights abuses less true. But Soviet propagandists were not interested in remedying American racism – only in changing the subject away from their own record. After all, whataboutism is aimed not at refuting an argument, but at undermining the speaker’s moral authority to make the argument, which at its logical conclusion devolves any discussion into a morass in which everyone is bad and nothing matters, thereby comparatively excusing a whole host of bad behavior. If everyone is a hypocrite, who is in a position to criticize?

But, is there any truth to the conservative media sphere’s whataboutism campaign about whether Democrats failed to accept the results of the 2016 election while bemoaning the possibility that first Candidate and now President Trump would not? After all, the Soviet propagandists were not wrong that the racism of Jim Crow America undercut American moral authority on human rights issues – it was just changing the subject away from the USSR’s own condemnable failings. To address that question requires settling on a universally-applied definition of what it means to “accept the results of an election.” This is no matter of inconsequential semantics either. An electoral loser conceding defeat is a necessary element of the legitimacy of elections, and the peaceful transfer of power. When a candidate is pressured by the public or the media to commit to accepting the results of the election, it is thus important to the maintenance of those hallmarks of a free society that everyone hears their answer in the same way and understands it to mean the same thing.

The most useful definition to that end, then, is that a losing candidate has accepted the results of an election when they concede that their opponent is the winner of the election which has occurred, within the laws under which that election was conducted, and thus is legally entitled to exercise government power. It does not mean to express discontent with the way those laws operate, or to call for reforms which will apply to future elections. It does not mean to lament the outcome, nor does it mean to disapprove of the winner. Many times in our country’s history, we have altered who may vote, and how the winners of elections are determined. We have rightfully expanded the franchise to those without property, lowered the voting age from 21 to 18, extended voting rights to women and racial minorities, and changed the determinant of senate seats from state legislatures to popular election. No one has suggested that this constituted a failure to accept the results of elections which occurred prior to those reforms, and it is critical that we don’t start now. If a call for future reform may be vilified as a failure to accept the results of an election, the need for electoral legitimacy can be used as a cudgel to squelch the most sacrosanct of political speech: free and open criticism of the government.

Under the above definition, it should be apparent that the dueling accusations flying across the centerline of American politics are not equivalent, and should not be treated as equivalent. Worries over Trump’s preemptive suggestions that any election in which he loses is “rigged” are worries of a Guyana scenario – only an obstinate American administration which refuses to leave office would be far less susceptible to international pressure than that of a tiny developing nation. Those who deflect away from these worries are deflecting to partisan dissatisfaction and calls for reform, which present no danger to the American democratic experiment. We should not let our attention be drawn away from the real danger – absent a provable case that votes have been changed or fraudulently cast in numbers significant enough to be a factor in the outcome, a losing candidate must concede that their opponent has the legal right to wield executive power. Discussing any other complaints about election outcomes as an equivalent refusal to accept election results is rank whataboutism.

By: Adam Strider

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