John P. Pelissero, Ph.D
Evan Vucci/Associated Press
This article was originally published in The Mercury News on November 12, 2020.
John Pelissero (@1pel) is a senior scholar in government ethics at Santa Clara University’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics and a professor emeritus of political science from Loyola University Chicago. Views are his own.
It has been over a week since voting ended and several days since Joseph Biden was declared the president-elect. Continuing to shatter historic norms, President Donald Trump has not conceded the election to Biden, who holds a significant lead in the Electoral College projections. Trump’s refusal to concede is a troubling sign that he is not committed to a peaceful transition between administrations. Instead of focusing on national reconciliation after the bitter election, Trump is focused on baseless lawsuits alleging fraud and misconduct in the election.
The United States has experienced a peaceful and orderly transfer of power between presidential administrations for 224 years. Each transfer of power between individuals and political parties has been achieved because of the decency of the candidates and their commitment to honoring the will of the voters. The American people have come to expect peaceful transfers after an election because it is the right thing to do — and it is the ethical path to affirming our democratic ideals.
In 1800 John Adams set the standard for how to put aside political disappointment and accept the election results. He was the first incumbent president to lose to a candidate of another political party and lead a peaceful transfer of power to Thomas Jefferson.
How an outgoing president treats the new president is a critical signal in a peaceful transition. Following a norm set by George H.W. Bush, who lost his bid for re-election to Bill Clinton in 1992, presidents have demonstrated their personal support for their successors from the opposing party by leaving a personal note for the new president. “Your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you,” Bush wrote. Presidents Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama left similar messages for their successors.
The last time we witnessed a protracted challenge was when Al Gore and George W. Bush battled for the presidency in 2000. Without a definitive result in the days after the election, both campaigns mounted a series of legal challenges, notably involving Florida’s ballots. The U.S. Supreme Court ended the legal dispute, allowing Florida’s electoral votes to go to Bush. Afterward, in an act of conciliation, Gore said, “…for the sake of our unity as a people and the strength of our democracy, I offer my concession.”
President Trump’s refusal to concede has the potential to do more damage than simply delaying the critical first step toward national reconciliation. His political appointees at the General Services Administration declined to implement the Presidential Transition Act of 1963 and recognize Biden as the winner, which would provide funds, office space and key tools for a smooth transition process. This delay harms the public interest and national security. As the Washington Post reminded us in an article on Saturday, the court battle over the winner of the 2000 presidential election delayed implementing the 1963 transition act, which had devastating consequences. “The Bush administration’s sluggish start and lack of qualified personnel in place was cited by the 9/11 Commission Report as a critical vulnerability to U.S. national security for the attacks that occurred less than eight months after the inauguration.”
It may not be in Donald Trump’s character to concede defeat. But if he could demonstrate ethical awareness and place the nation’s interests above his own, he would commit to an orderly transition. The first ethical question he should ask is, “Are my actions going to damage our citizens or nation?” In order to serve the common good in society, an ethical approach is critical to protect our national and health security needs.
The ethical path to preserve our democracy is through an immediate and orderly transfer of power for the common good of the nation. Will Donald Trump understand this?