Every year right after an election, I’d find a small pile of requests waiting for me from journalists. They wanted some sort of comment on what it all meant. “What are the voters telling us?” they’d ask.
It’s human nature to want to make sense of such a complex picture — to draw conclusions from many millions of individual decisions. But it is also politically important, because how elected officials interpret the results — or seek to convince others to interpret the results—goes a long way toward shaping the impact of the election.
The key thing to recognize in the wake of November’s voting, and this will not come as news, is that we live in a sharply divided country. When the votes are all counted, projections suggest Joe Biden will wind up with about an 8 million-vote, 4 percentage-point lead, hardly a landslide but still a decisive margin. At the same time, Republicans retain a narrow margin in the Senate and made gains in the House.
What all this adds up to is a governance challenge. Without Republicans and Democrats agreeing to find common ground, it will be hard for the US to exert strong influence around the world and to get ambitious things done. When voters are as on edge as they still appear to be, building a broad and sustainable consensus in favor of difficult policy decisions is arduous.
It’s also worth remembering that our election is watched all over the world, and not casually: ordinary citizens and political leaders in country after country pay close attention. Because the U.S. plays such a critical global role, they worry when they see us conducting an election that the losing side characterizes as corrupt or in some way faulty. That’s why the statements of the outgoing president and his Republican allies have been damaging. They feed into the false narrative Vladimir Putin has been trying to peddle about our system, that it is falling apart.
In the runup to the election, my chief concern was about efforts to suppress votes. Yet despite the obstacles thrown in their way, millions more Americans voted this time around than ever before. Their determination to make their voices count despite long lines and other inconveniences was inspiring.
Similarly, the remarkable efforts by state and local elections administrators of both parties to hold a free and fair election in the middle of a pandemic with more turnout than they’d ever experienced ought to be recognized and celebrated. It was a heartening display of dedication to American values. It is not a perfect system; we always have islands of misconduct. But I used to spend election day going around to visit precincts, and always was deeply appreciative of the seriousness of election day workers from all walks of life and backgrounds. They understood what was at stake and wanted to make sure our system worked and was fair and honest.
So, to see one party mounting an all-out attack on the integrity of the countless Americans who view running elections as a sacred trust is, to put it mildly, disturbing. We’re all pleased or disappointed with the results of elections, depending on our preferences, but win or lose, our civic duty as citizens is the same. We should take pride in our country and its ability to conduct these elections fairly. The dangerous game of questioning the validity of the vote could have reverberations for years to come, and sow even more division than we already face.
The point is a lot of candidates lose in an election. Half of them, roughly. A vital part of our democracy is how we and they come out of it — that we accept the result and continue to support and improve the system, always working toward a more perfect union.
This is what makes it possible for us to govern in this great and diverse country. Americans can accept differences of opinion and not condemn the people who voted for a different candidate. We accept the results of the election and move on. To behave otherwise is to weaken our democracy, perhaps beyond bearing.
Lee Hamilton is a senior adviser for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.