I don’t read much fiction these days. I have a limited amount of time and think it’s better to read history and biography. Even so, I was reading Anthony Trollope’s The Prime Minister when Boris Johnson resigned in disgrace. An old friend recommended it as the best book about politics he ever read. He is somewhat of an authority, having worked on the Democratic side of the federal government for 27 years, first in the Senate and later as the head of an administrative agency.
Published in 1876, the novel’s political themes include the tension in government between the real and the ideal, the practical and the fanciful, the noble and the coarse, the privileged and the grasping, personal desire and official duty, stability and progress by evolution or revolution.
The main plot is about a fictional prime minister of the United Kingdom, Plantagenet Palliser, the Duke of Omnium. (It’s the kind of novel that the woke reflexively reject because it was written by an old white man, about privileged old white men.) Palliser becomes prime minister when neither the conservative Tory Party nor the liberal Whig Party is able to form a government on its own. A fragile coalition forms a government instead. It makes Palliser PM because he is a hardworking, well-meaning, relatively non-controversial technocrat.
The coalition lasts for three years until the prime minister tries to pass a bill reforming the electoral system by expanding the vote to resemble the American, one-man-one-vote system. (The UK granted women equal voting rights in 1928.) The bill alienates everyone to varying degrees. Conservative Tories and Lords fear the loss of their prerogatives. Liberal Whigs want to claim the achievement for themselves. Palliser has neglected and disdained to cultivate the personal relationships that might have overcome some of those obstacles. The bill only narrowly passes the upper house by nine votes and is destined to fail in the lower. Acknowledging the inevitable, Palliser steps down to make way for a new government.
Dignity in defeat isn’t pure fiction. Johnson’s immediate predecessors, Conservative Party Prime Ministers Theresa May and David Cameron both stepped aside voluntarily, if not happily. Cameron did so when his gambit of putting to the people the question of withdrawal from the European Union backfired. May stepped aside because of an inability to get Parliament to approve a Brexit agreement.
In the US, we have seen graciousness in defeat. Romney was gracious to Obama in 2012, as was John McCain in 2008. Although it took a while, Al Gore was gracious to George W Bush in 2000. But we have also seen a seemingly growing trend in the opposite direction.
Boris Johnson defiantly clung to power before agreeing to leave office only when his position became untenable because a record number, 59 at last count, of ministers had resigned. Johnson was brought down by his perennial inability to tell the truth more so than his policies. During covid lockdown, he hosted a party at his official residence where people drank and caroused. While that was bad enough, it was his prevarication that cost him more. When confronted, he denied, deflected, and dissembled. It became too much when he reverted to that tendency in response to allegations of sexual misconduct against his recently installed party whip, Chris Pincher.
Closer to home, Andrew Cuomo battled to remain governor of New York. He was forced to resign as allies abandoned him in the face of mounting evidence of sexual harassment, one of his party’s signature issues. Of course, President Trump tried various means of staying in office notwithstanding the results of the 2020 election, including by making accusations of fraud and by inciting a crowd to march on the capitol on certification day.
Politicians have survived flaws, but it hasn’t been pretty. Virginia’s former governor Ralph Northam survived a blackface scandal. Northam’s Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax survived accusations of sexual assault. Famously, Bill Clinton survived allegations that he had sex with an intern.
Is the willingness to step aside if you’ve lost the confidence of your supporters important? Is the willingness to concede a close election? Is it essential to democracy? Or is all that matters the willingness to fight? Does character matter? Is it a qualification for high office? Or is substantive policy the only thing that matters?
Is it easier for people to understand the personal than the ideological? Is the personal and emotional more motivating than the rational and the official? Why are dignity and self-restraint so rare these days? Because those who concede are mocked as weak?
Whatever the explanations, I prefer the old ways of dignity in defeat.