The politics of illegitimacy

I think the WaPo editorial board has it right that pre-emptive cynicism painting any decision that does not uphold the Affordable Care Act as being illegitimate is not great for the country. I confess to being bored by the legalese about the individual mandate since I am a policy guy, think the ACA was a good step that was the best that could be gotten, understand that Republicans have no track record on health reform, and am fully confident that if that changes in the future, they will construct something that looks a lot like the ACA.

The justices may well render an opinion that is fairly viewed as overly political and also not good for them as an institution, or the country, but we should read what they say before reaching this conclusion.

The politics of illegitimacy–branding any outcome “my side” doesn’t like as illegitimate–is one of the most pernicious aspects of our modern political culture today. I personally think “the other side” does this more than does “my side” but blind spots are, well blind. The following is a post I wrote on January 11, 2011, two blogs ago after the shooting of Rep. Gabby Giffords. I reproduce it below because it seems apt as I think about illegitimacy today.


The Politics of Illegitimacy

It is a bit off-topic for this blog, but several students have written and asked me what I think of the events in Tucson. It was a terrible human tragedy and a very sad day for our nation. It was a particularly grievous act in my mind simply because the shooting took place while an elected representative was going about her duties to represent her constituents.

We don’t know why the shooter did what he did, but from past assassinations we know there is often a complex etiology for such attacks that tends to include mental illness. The role that rhetoric and imagery could have on violence is an important question, but I simply don’t have an evidence-based answer. Yet, this event feels like a momentous occasion that is worthy of introspection.

As I thrash about and try and make sense of this tragedy and what it means for our nation going ahead, I settle on something I have been thinking about for awhile, and which has crystallized in my mind the past few days. The disturbing trend in American politics for losers of elections to decry the winners as being illegitimate.

I first voted for President in 1988 and I voted for the winner in that election. The country moved on pretty well.

I voted for the winner again in 1992, but there was a very different context to the aftermath of Bill Clinton’s election. There was a general sentiment from some quarters that he was illegitimate as President because he received less than 50% of the popular vote cast due to the presence of Ross Perot’s strong third party candidacy. Of course, the President is elected by the Electoral College and there is no stipulation that the winner must get a majority of the votes cast, though that typically was the case in modern times.

In 1996, President Clinton was re-elected with less than 50% of the votes cast (49.2% to be exact), again due to Perot being a candidate. It always bothered me that opponents of the President whom I knew personally would argue that he was illegitimately elected due to the fact that ‘more people voted against him than for him.’

President Obama won approximately 53% of the popular vote, and had the largest Electoral College victory since President Reagan. Of course that hasn’t stopped some of his political opponents from arguing that he is illegitimately elected even though the issue of his citizenship was long ago decided. Much of the opposition to the President has been tied to his ‘otherness’ I think, which is all designed to label him as illegitimate, which would make his policies all the more heinous.

Of course, my chronology skipped an election.

In 2000, the tables were turned, and I voted for the loser, Al Gore, who got more votes than did President Bush. Even though I had been irritated by the phrase after the 1992 and 1996 elections, this didn’t stop me from saying to some that ‘more people voted for Al Gore than President Bush’ which is of course true but constitutionally irrelevant. I can vividly remember calling President Bush the ‘President Select’ before his January 2001 inauguration in derision of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Bush v. Gore that settled the disputed election.

Several people older than I who are not big fans of President Obama have told me that they haven’t seen the country ‘as angry as it has been the past 2 years’ in their lifetime. I always remark that they must not have come to Durham or Chapel Hill, N.C. between 2003-2008! Self righteous rage against one’s political opponents is truly bipartisan.

There was a ubiquitous bumper sticker and tee shirt in Durham, N.C. around 2003 that said ‘Somewhere in Texas a Village is Missing its Idiot.’ This always made me chuckle until one day I heard one of my young children say that President Bush was dumb. I sternly told her that was disrespectful and asked her who she had heard that from. She said simply, you Daddy.

For some reason, I cannot get that out of my mind this week as I try and make sense of the tragedy in Tucson.

I think the essence of the progressive/liberal hubris is that we think we are smarter than everyone else. Instead of listening, and then trying to be persuasive and make the case, we are tempted to construct a defense mechanism that says that if you don’t quickly adopt my view it is just because you don’t understand. If only the country was filled with those as smart as me…..

I think the essence of the conservative hubris is the belief that conservatives are more moral/noble/patriotic than others. They are tempted to write off those who disagree with them as being unworthy of America because they think we don’t love it enough. If only the country was filled with those as good as me…..

At their heart, both sources of hubris say that people with different views are illegitimate in one way or another. Someone who is illegitimate is not worth talking to, respecting, listening to, understanding, or even debating reasonably. Certainly not worthy of compromising with to solve the huge problems facing our nation.

About Don Taylor
Professor of Public Policy at Duke University (with appointments in Business, Nursing, Community and Family Medicine, and the Duke Clinical Research Institute). I am one of the founding faculty of the Margolis Center for Health Policy, and currently serve as Chair of Duke's University Priorities Committee (UPC). My research focuses on improving care for persons who are dying, and I am co-PI of a CMMI award in Community Based Palliative Care. I teach both undergrads and grad students at Duke. On twitter @donaldhtaylorjr

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