Patriotism, like other kinds of love, is unique in every heart. The flag, the White House, the Brooklyn Bridge, Gabby Douglas sticking the landing: any of these—and a thousand more—can ignite an American’s love of country. For me, the spark is election night. To be clear: it’s not the stadium atmosphere or the magic maps or the special pageantry of watching of watching Wolf Blitzer try to catch his breath. It’s not even the joy that comes with a longed-for victory. What slays me—actually makes me weep—is not how we win, but how we lose.
Since the middle of the last century, concession speeches have been made both more vivid and more poignant because we’ve gotten to watch them. It is a familiar scene, but somehow all the more moving because of its familiarity. The loser steps up to a microphone, exhausted and dazed. He (up until now, always he) thanks his supporters with the last ounce of energy he has, and then congratulates the victor and says it’s time to unite. Sometimes, when the opponent’s name is spoken, the crowd boos and the candidate stretches out his hands as if patting each individual head and saying, “Hush, now; there, there.” Dreams, dollars and sleep have been lost. Disappointment, sadness, shock and even hatred may be balled up in the loser’s throat, but he somehow manages to say that the country is more important than any single candidate, election or party. In his 1992 defeat, George H. W. Bush hailed “the majesty of the democratic system.”
America doesn’t do coups. We have unspeakable violence and too many guns put to too many horrible uses, but when presidents are elected, we don’t express our disappointment with acts of aggression. We don’t jail—or even threaten to jail— our opponents. We don’t say the system’s rigged. We don’t inflame our followers. We try to calm them. No matter how much mud has been lobbed, there eventually is grace—sometimes even before there’s been time for acceptance.
But in the U.S., that is exactly what we do. In 1796, John Adams succeeded his fellow Federalist George Washington. But four years later, he was himself defeated by the rival party’s candidate, Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson’s chief apologist had labeled Adams, among many other things, a “strange compound of ignorance and ferocity, of deceit and weakness.” It was ugly. But as Jefferson later wrote in an 1811 letter to Benjamin Rush, while Adams was none too thrilled about his narrow defeat, he took it in stride: “On the day on which we learned …the vote of the Union, I called on Mr. Adams on some official business. He was very sensibly affected, and accosted me with these words: ‘Well, I understand that you are to beat me in this contest, and I will only say that I will be as faithful a subject as any you will have.’”
The peaceful transfer of power is one of our country’s greatest hallmarks, the legacy of our first president, who had the wisdom (and fatigue) to quit after two terms. This was a startling development—before then unseen in the political world. As Lin-Manuel Miranda in Hamilton has King George put it with extreme economy: