The 2020 Election Was Nothing Like Bush-Gore
The 2020 Election Was Nothing Like Bush-Gore
In today’s exercise in whataboutism, it turns out that (as some pundits are keen to remind everyone) there are Democrats who have claimed that the 2000 election was stolen, which presumably is important to bring up because it somehow turns the behavior of Donald Trump and his apologists into normal politics and those who are worried about the future of democracy into partisan hypocrites.
It’s worth thinking about this a bit, in part because it shows we don’t quite have the vocabulary for what’s happening now and why it’s so different and dangerous.
There’s a long history of partisans complaining that an election was stolen. Many Republicans, to this day, will refer to the 1960 election as obviously stolen because of irregularities in Texas and Illinois. I’m aware of accusations about (at least) the 1968, 1980, 1992, 2004, 2008, 2012 and 2016 elections as well. Oh, and of course 1972, when Richard Nixon and his supporters did all sorts of illegal things to disrupt the election, although it turned out that he won by one of the largest landslides in history only in part because of the effects of this misconduct. In the others, there were accusations of everything from campaign perfidy to plots to alter vote counts to claims that a candidate was ineligible for office.
To begin, I’d note that all the elections before the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were stolen in the important sense that Black citizens and many others were disenfranchised. Which reminds us that not all talk of election theft is partisan. Nor is all of it based on lies.
How can we talk about this stuff then? I can think of several important criteria to consider. How much evidence is there for the claims that are made? To what extent would the accusations, if true, actually affect the election results? How did the aggrieved party as a whole, and any particular member of that party, act? Did they just whine a lot, or did they take concrete actions to attempt to alter the results — and if the latter, were these actions consistent with the Constitution and the rule of law?
By these standards, we might say that those Democrats who thought the 2004 election was stolen based on dubious theories about voting-machine conspiracies acted badly, although the party as a whole did a pretty good job of marginalizing those actors and the whole thing was forgotten by almost everyone fairly quickly. We could say, about 1960, that Nixon’s decision to publicly accept the outcome while disputing it in various court cases, then to accept defeat and recognize John F. Kennedy as a legitimate president in January 1961, was not bad at all — but that subsequent assertions over the years that the election was stolen were not good at all.
When it comes to the 2000 election, between George W. Bush and Al Gore … well, it’s complicated, right? And here’s where we get into trouble. The vote was essentially a tie. The winner was determined by what sure seemed like ad hoc decisions by various different officials. The ones who ultimately prevailed — correctly or not — were Republicans in the Florida state government and Republican-nominated Supreme Court justices. Complaints from the losing party were more or less inevitable. Yes, some of those complaints used intemperate language. But that’s hardly the same thing as those 2004 allegations about voting machines or the even more preposterous claims that Barack Obama wasn’t eligible for the presidency. And of course while some Democrats still bring up those complaints, just as Republicans still bring up the far less convincing ones about 1960, we also know that Gore and other party leaders accepted the results in all the ways that mattered at the time.
Is it a threat to democracy for some visible party actors to call the 2000 election “stolen” well past January 2001? I’m open to the argument, I suppose, but we do need to have some room for the losers of such elections to talk about them too. As I said, I think we’re limited by the vocabulary, in that legitimate complaints (such as those about 1972!) can sound very similar to illegitimate, system-undermining accusations. Bush-Gore is simply a difficult case.
But to whatever extent some have failed to properly honor the results in these cases, the reaction by Trump and his allies to the 2020 election is way off the scale on basically every dimension. It matters that they continue to repeat thoroughly debunked claims; it matters that Trump tried to subvert the election in several ways even after he lost in the courts and the results were certified; it matters that Trump refused to participate in the ceremonial transfer of power; it matters that he continued to campaign for his lies long after President Joe Biden was sworn into office; it matters that it’s the former president who still leads the charge on all of this; it matters that he’s targeted Republicans who followed the law for electoral defeat. It matters that his allies, including in Congress, have supported all of this. Off the scale, on every dimension.