Back in 2017, a group of nearly 1,000 protesters crowded into the American Legion Post 34 fairgrounds in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, to confront Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell about the stance he’d recently taken on immigration. “No ban, no wall, Mitch McConnell, take our call,” they chanted, according to The Associated Press.
McConnell told the audience that he respected the protesters’ right to voice their opinion, saying they were merely taking out their frustrations over the outcome of the 2016 presidential election when Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton. “They had their shot in the election,” McConnell said. “But in this country, when you win the election, you get to make policy. I always remind people, winners make policy and losers go home.”
An apt sentiment, perhaps, if it was coming from the mouth of a coach who’d just won the NCAA Tournament, but from one of the country’s top legislative leaders in our democratic republic, it’s both astounding and terrifying. In fact, it’s antithetical to the very concept of democracy: everyone — not just the winners — belongs in the conversation.
What’s more disturbing was that McConnell’s statement at the fairgrounds wasn’t an out-of-context gaffe. He’s said it multiple times over the course of his legislative career, including later that year when he tangled with former Trump strategist Steve Bannon over maintaining the Republican majority in the Senate. “The way you [keep us in the majority] is not complicated — you have to nominate people who can actually win because winners make policy and losers go home,” he said.
As writers from The Atlantic pointed out in the 2020 book The American Crisis: What Went Wrong, How We Recover, McConnell’s tone-deaf understanding of democracy symbolizes the newfound political belief that one faction has the power to force its will by imposing draconian measures via referendum or confirming judges by partisan fiat. The Trump/McConnell philosophy of dividing and excluding the losers from the conversation is the flipside of democracy. In any particular argument or policy vote, even the losing side needs to be welcomed back into the conversation.
Danielle Allen, a professor at Harvard University who recently ran for governor in Massachusetts, argues that “winning” in the context of a democracy simply identifies who gets that authority to lead the conversation, to chair the committee responsible for crafting the policy. But the conversation must still include both the winners and the losers.
The founders certainly believed the losers should have a seat at the table. “The alternate triumphs of different parties…make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common counsels,” George Washington said in his 1796 farewell address. In other words, there are no winners or losers.
Furthermore, it is the responsibility of the winners to bring the losers back into the conversation. With the exception of Trump, modern-era presidents have always acknowledged this important tenet when declaring victory. They’ve routinely embraced the other side, those who voted for the losing candidate, and further, made an explicit effort to pull those non-supporters back into the dialogue. “Let us start afresh,” President Joe Biden said in his 2021 inaugural address. “To all those who did not support us, let me say this: Hear me out as we move forward. Take a measure of me and my heart. And if you disagree, so be it. That’s democracy. That’s America. And I pledge this to you: I will be a President for all Americans. I will fight as hard for those who did not support me as for those who did.”
As Doris Kearns Goodwin illustrates so vividly in her book Team of Rivals, President Abraham Lincoln — perhaps the epitome of this quality of democracy — took the importance of unity one step further, pulling all his losing presidential competitors into his cabinet, knowing this was the best practice for instituting a scrupulous and thorough problem-solving process.
Allen said she believes belonging in the conversation also means listening to and understanding dissimilar and often divergent perspectives before judging and dismissing them. She said people need to “bring their authentic selves“ into the conversation, and to do so, they need charitable space with basic rights protection.
One of the benefits of this approach to democracy is that it has the potential to lead to robust and durable change. When a decision by an autocrat is handed down to the people, the autocrat’s tool for change is not changing minds, but heavy-handed enforcement. As we’ve recently seen with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin rules in precisely this way.
However, the democratic process of explicitly incorporating disparate views into the development of solutions has greater potential to shift underlying beliefs and opinions, provided it allows honest and nuanced debate in the public square (as opposed to in social media). Furthermore, once such debate does shift underlying beliefs and opinions, any resulting justice gains tend to be more resilient.
A great example of this phenomenon was illustrated in the recent debate in the US on the question of same-sex marriage. The many forums of genuine debate on this topic, from the early discussions around the Defense of Marriage Act through the many state ballot proposals banning same-sex marriage, afforded the populace a period of sustained and deep exploration of the topic. The LGBTQ+ community stayed in the conversation while enduring many losses. Arguably, the 2015 Supreme Court decision was not so much a “verdict handed on down from up high,” but merely a recognition of a significant shift in thinking that had already occurred within the broader population.
Today, we frequently hear comments about our democratic form of government being “broken.” Myriad political scientists, historians, and others have described how and why democratic government is difficult to establish and uphold, relative to other forms of government. However, if we firmly believe in the ideal of democracy, a bottom-up government of, by, and for the people, we have no choice but to remedy ours to the best of our abilities.
In Allen’s words, the populace must fully embrace and even cherish democracy. This love of democracy must be strong enough to overcome the pain and conflict that its practice entails. “One must sign up for the whole package, recognizing that you will have to share decision-making, you won’t win all the time, and you will have to sacrifice, but you have to stay in the game,” she said, adding that unless we make fixing our democracy the top priority, of higher importance than any other substantive goal, specific policy “wins” will not be durable or sustainable and thus will be ultimately fruitless.
What many Americans — including, apparently, Sen. McConnell — need to understand is that democracy isn’t a sports arena where the winners douse themselves in Gatorade while the losers traipse to the locker room and make their plan to get ‘em next time. It’s a partnership, an understanding that what’s best for the nation is a conversation in which everyone has an opportunity to participate. When we start labeling ourselves winners or losers of the political game, we all lose.