Here is my full column from the Washington County Daily News that ran last week.
One of the many strengths that has sustained our great nation through the centuries is the peaceful transition of power. What makes this possible is that the people whose candidate did not win are willing to accept the legitimate governance of the winner and channel their energies into winning the next time. My fervent hope is that this presidential election will continue our nation’s history of peacefully transitioning power irrespective of who wins.
In any civic society, the stability and success of the government requires that the vast majority of the people consider the government to be legitimate, but legitimacy is an elusive concept that is largely in the mind of each citizen. Some argue that democratic governments are inherently legitimate because democracies are designed to enact the will of the majority of the people. Democracy, however, is a method of making decisions. It is not, in and of itself, a basis of legitimacy.
Thomas Jefferson got to the root of it in the Declaration of Independence when he echoed John Locke’s contention that governments are instituted, “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” The word “consent” is the basis of legitimacy and can be just as easily given or withdrawn in a democracy as in an autocracy. A relatively free society like ours relies on almost everyone agreeing to abide by the laws enacted by government of their own free will — even when they disagree with the law or the means by which it was enacted. Unlike a totalitarian government, democratic societies purposefully lack the police power to enforce widespread disobedience and face stiff resistance when they try. For order and stability to prevail, almost everyone must generally consent to the laws. They will only do so when they think that the government is legitimate and that there is a general sense that we are all in this together.
There are many things that can rend the sense of legitimacy in a democracy. Marxists rely on dividing people by class and race to delegitimize the government by convincing people that the government is not working for them. Democracies can devolve into mob rule where a substantial minority is subjugated to the majority. Technocracies can develop in democracies where the public will is subverted by unelected experts. Human history is replete with the rise and fall of governments. They always fall when the people no longer think they are legitimate and, therefore, no longer feel a need to obey them.
I began dwelling on legitimacy while enjoying a delicious fish fry at one of Wisconsin’s myriad supper clubs. Like many people, I have accepted that COVID-19 will be with us for the long term and that when I get it, it is exceedingly unlikely that I will suffer long-term effects from it. I am going about living my life with reasonable precautions that I would make to avoid catching any virus. As I have gone to stores and restaurants, it is clear that most Wisconsinites are doing the same thing and are largely ignoring the various orders flowing out of the Madison bureaucracy. While it is good to see free people behaving as such, it is a warning sign that the legitimacy of state government is waning.
When the presidential election is over, either Donald Trump or Joe Biden will be our next president. Many people are questioning the integrity of our election process and casting doubt on the legitimacy of whoever wins. The Marxists who have been burning cities are intentionally working to undermine the legitimacy of our government. They can be isolated for the insurgents they are, but only if the vast majority of the people can accept the election results and our next president as the legitimate president.
My heartfelt hope is that all of the people working in this election do so with the utmost integrity. The American people have a long history of accepting the results of elections even when their side loses. But if the election is fraught with errors, fraud, distrust, allegations, and other malarky, the result will be more and more people refusing to accept our government as legitimate. If even 15% or 20% of the people no longer accept our federal government as the legitimate government of the people, then civic society breaks down and becomes ungovernable. America becomes Portland.
People often suffer from recency bias or historical ignorance when they say things like “this is the most important/ contentious/dishonest presidential election in our history” (I would say it was the 1796/1860/1876 elections, respectively), but every election is an inflection point. History will tell us if this was just another peaceful transition of power or a step in our nation’s decline.