In the United States, losing political candidates are expected to publicly concede the race to the winners. In turn, a new president or other officeholder recognizes his or her opponent’s legitimacy, right to continue opposing the victor’s policies, and opportunity to contest future elections. This has been true for over 200 years, at least since 1800, when President John Adams acknowledged his defeat at the hands of challenger Thomas Jefferson.
More than a century and a half later, Americans witnessed another example of power transferred peacefully after a hard-fought contest. The 1960 presidential election was among the most closely fought in U.S. history — so close that supporters of then–Vice President Richard M. Nixon urged him to challenge the results. Nixon declined.
“Even if we were to win in the end,” he explained, “the cost in world opinion and the effect on democracy in the broadest sense would be detrimental.”
Nixon instead performed his duty as vice president, and officially reported to the Senate the election of John F. Kennedy.
“This is the first time in 100 years,” he began, “that a candidate for the presidency announced the result of an election in which he was defeated and announced the victory of his opponent. I do not think we could have a more striking example of the stability of our constitutional system and of the proud tradition of the American people of developing, respecting and honoring institutions of self-government. In our campaigns, no matter how hard-fought they may be, no matter how close the election may turn out to be, those who lose accept the verdict and support those who win.”
Nixon did the right thing, but he also did the expected thing. That’s because Americans are confident their elections are legitimate, and they insist that their results be respected, beginning with a peaceful transition of power from one leader to the next.
In a healthy democracy, defeated candidates know that no victory is permanent, that winners cannot change the rules of future contests, and that they can compete and win another day. Among those who understood: Richard M. Nixon, elected in 1968 the 37th president of the United States.