I have been reading Making Our Democracy Work by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer (Knopf 2010). One passage may be of particular relevance to the struggle for democracy now underway in many parts of the world from South Sudan to Egypt. It is also a challenge to those in Washington whose reluctance to follow the basic operating principles of a two-party democracy has led to government paralysis.
In the 2000 presidential election, Al Gore won the national popular vote. But elections are decided by the electoral votes and everything hinged on Florida. Under Florida law (like most states) the candidate who receives the largest share of state’s popular vote also receives all the state’s electoral votes. In the original count, Bush led Gore by fewer than two thousand votes out of the six million cast, thus triggering an automatic recount. Bush still came out ahead but by a narrower margin and Gore challenged the count in four districts.
The Florida Supreme Court then ordered a recount of the entire vote. Bush’s legal team leapt into action and challenged the state’s decision. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case and in a highly controversial decision voted by 5 to 4 in Bush’s favor.
The process had been complicated by hand counting of machine-uncountable ballots due to various types of voter error. Subsequent studies produced conflicting conclusions on which candidate would have won, had the state been allowed to do a complete recount. For many the Court’s decision was a huge disappointment and many regarded it as unfair.
Justice Breyer, who was among the dissenters on the Court, writes: “Whether the decision was right or wrong is not the point here. If I and three other members of the Court thought the decision was very wrong, so did millions of other Americans. For present purposes, however, what is important is what happened next. Gore, the losing candidate, told followers not to attack the legitimacy of the Court’s decision. And despite the great importance of the decision, the strong disagreement about its merits, and the strong feelings about the Court’s intervention, the public, Democrats as well as Republicans, followed the decision. They did so peacefully, with no need for troops… without rocks hurled in the streets, without violent massive protest. The leader of the U.S. Senate Harry Reid, a Democrat, said that the public's willingness to follow the law as enunciated by the Court constitutes a little-remarked, but the most remarkable, feature of the case. I agree”
In a New York Times commentary on December 13, 2011, Scott Farris reflected on what some observers have called one of the great political speeches in American history: “In many countries, losing candidates do not peacefully accept defeat, and their obstinacy leads to political chaos, riots and sometimes civil war. Gore understood the risks to America from a prolonged dispute over an unresolved election. Our democratic political system works only when the losers give their consent to be governed by the winners. So, on Dec. 13, 2000, Gore chose to begin a process of healing. He did not merely concede, he gave a remarkably upbeat and friendly concession speech and quoted an earlier losing candidate, Stephen Douglas, who pledged to Abraham Lincoln upon losing the 1860 presidential election, ‘Partisan feeling must yield to patriotism. I’m with you, Mr. President, and God bless you.’”
In order to function, democracy requires a loyal opposition which puts country before political partisanship. Al Gore offered a lesson we all will do well to remember.