Yesterday, Scotland’s long-awaited referendum on potential independence for the United Kingdom ended with a No vote. The result was fairly decisive, confounding expectations from polls taken just a few days ago that showed Yes and No in a virtual dead head. I live in America and I had no personal stake in the outcome, but I rather hoped Yes would win. I have many friends out there who were passionate Yes supporters including one who campaigned tirelessly right up until the end. He and my other Yes-leaning friends are obviously very disappointed today, even crushed, devastated. Seeing their reactions on social media last night reminded me of similar other situations in my own past, all of which illustrate what I think of as probably the most important element in the democratic process: acceptance of, and respect for, an electoral result that you not only dislike, but think is utterly disastrous.
November 3, 2004, was one of the most depressing days of my life. In addition to an untimely convergence of personal and professional disasters, that morning I awoke to the heartbreaking (for me) certainty that George W. Bush had won election over John Kerry, the candidate I supported, as President of the United States. The 2004 election was extremely close, though not as close as the one four years before, but to the bitter end I held out hope that Kerry might pull it off. He didn’t. Sitting at breakfast the next morning, watching Bush’s victory speech, I was almost sick to my stomach at the thought of my countrymen (and women) returning to office this politician who, in my view, had demonstrated beyond all doubt his incompetence and unfitness for the Presidency. And in 2004, there was no bungled recount or spurious Supreme Court decision to blame. Bush beat Kerry fairly. That was the bitter fact.
In Bush’s victory speech in 2004, at 7:40 of the video, he speaks directly to everyone who voted for Kerry. Even in my grief, at the time, I appreciated this.
The result of an election struck me, for the first time in my adult life, as something akin to a personal emotional loss, like a relative dying. The grieving process was the same: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Up until 2004 I was relatively lucky in my political choices. I was conservative as a teenager (difficult to believe, I know), but by 1992 I’d strongly turned against the first George Bush; Clinton won that year and in 1996, and I felt somewhat ambivalent about the choice between Gore and Bush II in 2000. Thus it was not until 2004 that I really had to learn the importance of swallowing an extremely bitter election result. But it is important. There were allegations, chiefly circulated by Rolling Stone magazine, that ballot boxes had been stuffed in Ohio (the pivotal state) in 2004, but those turned out to be completely unsubstantiated. If you respect the democratic process, by definition you must respect the result even when it goes against you. In fact that’s the very point of democracy.
Sadly, I think we, especially in America, have begun to lose sight of this crucial principle. Although Barack Obama was elected with solid majorities in 2008 and 2012, the ferocious white-hot hatred of a minority of opponents refuses to grant the legitimacy of these results; indeed the whole “Birther” controversy centered around the allegation that Obama was legally disqualified from being President at all, which would have made the verdict of the people irrelevant. Last fall, Congressional politicians in the mainstream literally shut down the government in a vain attempt to achieve by legislative hostage-taking what they had failed to achieve at the ballot box in 2012, that being the undoing of the ACA or “Obamacare.” Politicians from that same party, again in the mainstream, are talking about impeachment of Obama, despite the painfully obvious lack of even the slightest legal or political grounds. They and their constituents were simply so opposed to the 2008 and 2012 election results that they refuse to respect them. When partisanship goes so far as to corrode this basic precept of democracy, I believe our democracy itself is imperiled.
By a stroke of chance, Robbie MacNiven, fellow writer and author of the (for a time) number 1 serial on JukePop Serials, happened to appear on the BBC’s live feed of the Scotland vote. Robbie was a strong No advocate.
The Scotland example, though, proves that even in this cynical age, where media is manipulated by for-profit interests, voter information and competence is questionable, and partisan politics is especially craven and vitriolic, the democratic process can still work. Voter turnout in yesterday’s referendum set new records in many Scottish districts. Though ground-level motives for having the referendum were obviously politically influenced, the fact that the UK had the referendum at all, and that Westminster pledged prospectively to implement the results of a Yes vote, indicates that the system still functions even under all its stresses. There are always ways to improve the democratic process, and voter suppression, gerrymandering and other abuses should still be resolutely opposed–and the rioting that broke out in some places in Scotland in the aftermath of the vote is undoubtedly barbaric and totally beyond the pale. No one is suggesting otherwise. But the basic idea of popular self-determination, as old as Athens and venerable as the Magna Carta, still works.
I also learned from the 2004 election experience that elections with disastrous immediate results often lead to better long-term results that are unforeseen at the time. For me, a committed progressive, the second term of George W. Bush was an unmitigated disaster. The Iraq War, Katrina, and the financial collapse of 2008 were painful episodes to live through, and each one made me wish, at the time, that Kerry had emerged victorious that night. But what if he had? As much as I wanted Kerry to win, I didn’t have high hopes that he would be an especially effective president. He would have faced a particularly tough fight for re-election in 2008, possibly even against Bush again. Barack Obama would probably never have been President, and his achievements, such as the aforementioned ACA, would remain undone. Thus, even as a committed progressive, looking back on it I tend to think the 2004 election probably came out the way it should have. One of my favorite quotes from Star Trek is when Spock says, “You must have faith that the universe will turn out as it should.”
I’m sorry for my friends who wanted Yes, happy for those who wanted No. But regardless, I have no doubt that democracy in Britain and the western world, however battered, tainted or scratched-up it might be, will continue to roll on, somehow. We must never lose that faith.