The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
Accepting the Election Results
We are now four days out from election day in the US. Polls have shown the presidential race narrowing recently, so anxieties and hopes are surging.
My thoughts today deal with the legitimacy of elections, and with morally responsible actions when things don't go your way. But I must admit that the election is not the only matter of importance these days. To highlight just a few:
The election that concludes next Tuesday is not the only thing of importance going on in our families, our communities, and the world -- but it is of great importance.
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A few weeks ago, during the final debate between the two major presidential candidates, Donald Trump dropped a bombshell. When asked directly, he refused to commit to accepting the election result if he loses. "I will tell you at the time," he said.
Amid his ongoing statements that the election is "rigged" against him, Trump's statement seemed to go beyond a 2000-style Bush vs. Gore intention to seek recounts and challenge debatable ballots. (Remember "hanging chads" and the Supreme Court?) It sounded like Trump might refuse to accept the legitimacy of finalized election results.
It isn't just Trump. A CBS poll published yesterday asked, "If your candidate isn't declared the winner, will you probably ...?" Among all registered voters, 76% said that they would accept the results. The answers were heavily skewed by which candidate is favored. 86% of Clinton voters will accept the results, but only 63% of Trump voters will do so. The poll says that 27% of Trump supporters said that they will not accept the election results if Trump loses.
The New York Times (Oct. 27) quotes one Trump supporter who said a stolen election could lead to "another Revolutionary War." The Wisconsin man added, "People are going to march on the capitols. They're going to do whatever needs to be done to get her out of office, because she does not belong there."
I am deeply concerned -- even frightened -- by this kind of rhetoric. In stark contrast to our nation's long tradition of peaceful transfers of power, I can see the possibility of social breakdown and violence if the election results are not perceived to be fair. And those perceptions would come after months of divisive campaign messages that have not always been well-grounded in reality.
None of us like to lose, and a lot of people are not going to be happy on November 9. But there is a huge difference between being upset, and refusing to acknowledge the outcome of the election as legitimate.
Within the last year, we've had a small taste of armed extremists who repudiated governmental authority. The 41-day takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon was a localized case of ideologues who tried to deny all federal authority. A week ago, all seven defendants in that takeover were found not guilty of conspiracy charges. After the verdict, the executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity told a reporter, "People are going to get killed because of this verdict because this jury has just given militias the green light to go after federal facilities with rifles."
What does it look like if some substantial number of people in the US refuse to accept the legitimacy of elections, or respect the authority of established governments? The image that comes to my mind is of Middle Eastern nations in the process of collapse -- Afghanistan, Iraq, or Syria -- where armed militias battle each other, where warlords claim control of territory, and where those who don't agree with you are exiled or killed. When multiple factions each claim to be the only legitimate power, there can be no acceptable resolution. A report on the multi-faceted turmoil in Syria put it bluntly, "Simply put, no one is in charge."
The most likely alternative to a civil society is widespread violence and warfare.
If things go haywire in the United States in the next week, and the crazies start to talk of revolution, we cannot accept that as just another political opinion in a pluralistic country. Those of us who value democracy must speak out -- in our neighborhoods, in pulpits, in the media -- and renounce any who would try to take the law into their own hands.
And, to be most credible and most effective, we should make our statements about the legitimacy of election results before the returns start to come in on Tuesday evening.
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Well, I have just written myself into a bit of an awkward position.
At the top of today's Notes, I celebrated the ongoing Standing Rock protest in North Dakota, and the hundreds of clergy who renounced the Doctrine of Discovery as an illegitimate expression of exploitation. But the "water protectors" at Standing Rock have been (almost entirely) peaceful. They are challenging law and government action through prayer and protest, not revolution.
Last spring, I pondered whether I would take part in an act of civil disobedience, trying to block the federal government's sale of oil and gas leases. I wrote then that risking arrest as a public witness against unjust policies is a legal expression of withdrawing consent, of refusing to accept the legitimacy of government actions. But our protest in May was absolutely non-violent. We rejected US energy policies, but acknowledged the authority of the police who could have arrested us, and the courts that could have tried us. We did not repudiate the legitimacy of the entire system of governance.
When things don't go the way we like, we don't have to be passive in accepting the outcome. We can -- and often, we must -- be bold and confrontational is fighting for justice.
Decades of well-organized activism have characterized movements for civil rights, women's rights, and gay rights. Black Lives Matter is an uncompromising voice for respect and justice. The fight for climate justice in countless settings is challenging laws and policies that propagate the Earth-destroying use of fossil fuels. In that great tradition, we do not have to be passive, but we do have to be non-violent.
If we want to have any claim to being civilized people, if we want to be a land where democracy is the foundation for laws and governance, then we must hold together our national respect for elections.
In the coming days, as people committed to justice and peace within a democratic society, may we be outspoken and clear in demanding respect for this year's election results. Let us insist that this election -- as with every US election -- the transfer of power be peaceful.
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