Image of the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, by TapTheForwardAssist, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

“Democracy is a system in which parties lose elections.” These are concise words of wisdom from one of my favorite political scientists, Adam Przeworski, in his 1991 book, Democracy and the Market. Przeworski’s definition of democracy has been criticized by many as too minimalist, because he focuses on elections (contestation) much more than civil and political rights (who can participate, and how). But for Przeworski, his main focus was the idea that each electoral cycle produces winners and losers, and he defined a stable democracy as the willingness of the losers to accept the present defeat in the knowledge that they may win again in the future. This “long time horizon” is made possible by stable democratic institutions (the rules of the game!) that allow conflicting interests to lose one election and then compete (and possibly win) the next time around. For Przeworski, this long-term agreement between competing parties is the core essence of democracy (and beautifully exemplified by Vice President Al Gore’s 2000 concession speech).



I’ve always loved Przeworski because of his clear writing style of getting to the point (so rare in political science!). His unpronounceable last name was just a bonus. But as a graduate student, I didn’t buy his definition of democracy. I felt it was important to emphasize free, fair, and meaningful participation (and its associated civil and political rights) as equally important in a democracy as the elections themselves (e.g., Larry Diamond’s 1999 book, Developing Democracy). Przeworski just seemed too focused on this idea of accepting electoral defeat.    

The last few years in American politics have proven Przeworski right after all. The 2016 rise of rhetoric surrounding (non-existent) “voter fraud” in US elections led to the “election deniers” of 2020 and beyond (a topic we discussed at length in our American Chamber of Commerce post-election panel in 2021). These growing refusals to accept electoral loss, in turn, led directly to the January 6, 2021 violence at the US Capitol, and are responsible for an overall loss of faith in our democracy. An Axios poll from January 2022 showed that just over half of Americans (55%) believe that President Joe Biden won his 2020 election legitimately, with a quarter of Americans (26%) insisting that he was not the real winner, and 16% of Americans unsure. Przeworski was right: Election denial is bad for democracy.     

In the lead-up to the 2022 midterms elections, the New York Times published an article about the demonizing language and incendiary rhetoric eroding our democratic discourse and public space. While the NYT analysis showed that both sides have engaged in this behavior—and I want to be clear, this rhetoric is unacceptable no matter who the source—Republicans, especially election deniers, have far outpaced their Democratic counterparts in employing demonizing rhetoric. This polarizing language is the opposite of Przeworski’s emphasis that democracy means accepting loss and looking forward to the next electoral cycle. Recent research by two comparative political scientists, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt (2018’s How Democracies Die), backs up Przeworski’s 1991 observation. One of their major points was that healthy democracies display “mutual toleration,” which recognizes the legitimacy of the other side’s opinions and right to participate (and win) in elections. Demonizing, polarizing language that denies the legitimacy of elections is a recipe for democratic ruin. As I wrote in a NYT comment, “Arguments about policy are needed and welcome. But we need to respect the legitimacy of each other.” 

The good news for these midterm elections is that, across the nation, election deniers mostly lost (a trend celebrated by the NPR Politics team on their November 10 podcast, as well as explained in this Vox video). In the 13 races in six battleground states where election deniers were running for governor, secretary of state, or attorney general, 12 of those election deniers lost. (The last race to be called, the Arizona attorney general race, is headed to a recount with the Democratic candidate ahead by 511 votes, while the losing Republican candidate is… asking for certain votes to be thrown out in the recount. Sigh.) It is a good sign for American democracy that, even in a year where Republican turnout and popular vote margin exceeded the Democrats, election deniers were denied official representation in our political system.



Yet even more importantly, many losing Republican candidates have conceded gracefully, with none of the polarizing and demonizing rhetoric of stolen elections that haunted the 2020 election cycle. One recent example is Herschel Walker, Republican US Senate candidate for Georgia. When he lost the Georgia run-off election on December 6 to Senator Raphael Warnock, Walker conceded graciously, ending his speech with these final words:

And let me tell you, stay together. Continue to believe in our elected officials. Always, always cast your vote, no matter whatever is happening. Cast your vote for all and God we trust. I do. In God we trust. Continue to cast your vote. Never, never, never give up. All right. God bless you guys. Thank you, guys. Thank you.

I appreciate Herschel Walker emphasizing the belief in our elections, in our elected officials, and in the power of our votes. Democracy was truly on the ballot during the 2022 midterm elections, and—this time—democracy won.