It is now three weeks from Nov. 3, the date of the U.S. presidential election, and President Donald Trump has yet to concede that Democrat Joe Biden won.
It is human not to want to admit defeat. Adolph Hitler did not admit defeat. In fact, out of pure spite he ordered the destruction of Paris before the withdrawal of German troops in 1944 — an order that, fortunately, was not carried out by the commander of the German garrison. Hitler never surrendered; instead, he chose to commit suicide in his bunker in Berlin in 1945, as the advancing Soviet troops entered the city.
Similarly, at the end of World War II, the Japanese military (the Supreme Council for the Direction of the War) did not want to surrender even after atomic bombs had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was left to Hirohito, the Japanese emperor, to announce the unconditional surrender of Japan. Otherwise, the Japanese military would have fought to the last person.
In 1962, Richard Nixon, after his defeat by Governor Pat Brown in the California gubernatorial election, complained bitterly to the media, “You don’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.” He did eventually manage a comeback and won the U.S. presidential election in 1968.
In China, even Jiang Qing, the widow of Chairman Mao Zedong, would not admit she had done anything wrong. Most people persist to the bitter end. Being a gracious loser does not come naturally.
In 1956, John F. Kennedy lost to Estes Kefauver in their competition at the Democratic National Convention to be the running mate of Adlai Stevenson, the presidential nominee. Kennedy impressed the convention delegates and the nation with his concession speech, which probably helped him win the Democratic presidential nomination four years later. He went on to be elected U.S. President in 1960.
In 2000, U.S. Vice-President Al Gore had the grace and patriotism to concede after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the narrow voting results in Florida, doing what he thought was right for the whole country. Gore earned the gratitude and respect of Americans for putting the nation’s interests above his own.
Why do people hate to admit defeat? First, of course, there is the matter of losing face. However, the inevitable cannot be postponed indefinitely. More face is lost when the truth ultimately comes out.
Second, there is the converse of “winner takes all,” which is “loser loses all.” Unfortunately, U.S. politics, as well as politics in many other parts of the world, have become increasingly focused on winner takes all. If someone wins by even a single vote, he or she can (and likely will) ride roughshod over the opposition on everything, without regard to any principles or long-term national interest.
This is essentially what the Republican majority in the U.S. Senate did when it blocked President Barack Obama’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court even as it waved through President Donald Trump’s nominations. Faced with this sort of political reality, a loser simply cannot afford to admit loss. He or she must try to make the opponent’s victory seem illegitimate.
Third is the lack of long-term perspective. A person with a long-term perspective knows that “you win a few, you lose a few.” This is the nature of life, a repeated game. It is not one-off. It is not zero-sum. And it can indeed be win-win over time, with appropriate coordination. If the winner takes all in victory, he risks losing all when the tables are turned. It is better to aim for a win-win outcome — never winning all but never losing it all either. It pays to be magnanimous in victory and gracious in defeat. All parties benefit.
The key to the willingness to concede defeat is realizing that it’s not the end of the world. There are many examples of life after political death. Richard Nixon came back to be elected U.S. president twice. General Charles de Gaulle, who retired in 1946, re-emerged unexpectedly to serve as the President of the Fifth Republic of France from 1959 to 1969. Deng Xiaoping, paramount leader of China from 1978 to his death in 1997, was purged at least three times within the Communist Party of China.
The comeback by Biden this year was almost miraculous: He had been all but written off after successive losses in the Iowa caucuses, the New Hampshire primary and the Nevada caucuses, but he persevered to win the South Carolina primary, followed by the Super Tuesday primaries and ultimately the presidential election itself.
So a loss, or even a series of losses, does not necessarily mean the end. The loser can create opportunities to come back and fight another day. Trump may yet win again in 2024. So it is not too late for him to concede the 2020 election graciously.