“Political theorists consider the acceptance and consent of election losers to be among the necessary ingredients of a successful democracy,” writes Barry Hollander, a University of Georgia journalism professor, in a Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly paper that was just published online. Once the electoral dust has settled, in other words, things are unlikely to run smoothly if big swathes of the population feel disgruntled over the result for an extended period of time.
Unfortunately, there’s a lot of that these days, and some of it can be pegged on a category of voter called “surprise losers,” Hollander argues in his paper — that is, those who are both disappointed by a result and blindsided by it. These voters, he hypothesizes, “will be more negative about government, elections, and democracy than losers who expected their candidate would lose.”
In analyzing a big chunk of survey data that followed the same voters before and after the 2012 election, Hollander found mixed support for this hypothesis. He did, however, find that surprised losers “were more likely than expected losers to perceive the government as a threat ... and to question the integrity of the election.” It appears that “expected losers” do a better job of understanding that a majority of their fellow citizens simply disagrees with them, and that they’re going to have to get over it. With surprised losers, it’s more likely the result will elicit broader, angrier dissatisfaction or anger.
Part of the problem here, Hollander writes, is the balkanization of media. Fox News viewers, especially those who don’t get their news from other outlets as well, live in a media world in which it’s obvious Obama is a treacherous, illegitimate president. And in the run-up to the election, this belief and the ratings benefits of reinforcing it led to some startling moments of Fox hosts ignoring the reality that a fair reading of the polls showed Obama was an overwhelming favorite to win. (The best example of this, of course, was Karl Rove’s famous election-night meltdown.) Fox, in other words, helped generate a lot of surprised losers.
And these surprised losers, in turn, help fuel government dysfunction. “The ‘surprise’ of the electoral outcome is probably best seen in the ‘take my country back’ approach among Tea Party folks, who also to some degree fuel a distrust in government,” Hollander explained in an email. The Obama era has brought with it a historic level of obstructionism, and much of it stems from a prevailing distrust in the Obama administration on the right, and/or from the idea that he’s somehow not a “legitimate” president (birthers might not be making a lot of headlines these days, but for a while they were a depressingly regular part of the news cycle). Many Republicans in Congress perceive (accurately) that their constituents don’t view the president as legitimate. So why not try to block his every nomination? What’s to be gained from scaling back the opposition one iota?
None of this is a complete explanation for government dysfunction, of course. But it does usefully highlight some of the divisions that are plaguing the U.S., and how ideological media helps exacerbate them.