How can voters be expected to show faith in the political institutions of America when those who run these very same institutions are partisan to such an extent that any outcome that is not to their partisan advantage is immediately dismissed as unfair? Or even illegal? If we don’t win, it must be rigged.

While Trump’s stubborn reluctance to concede any possible election loss and his persistent claims of a rigged process clearly erodes trust, Harry Reid’s threat to prosecute FBI Director Comey under the Hatch Act is as bad if not worse an example. In both cases, they only agree to the rules of the game if they win. If not, they find a way to denounce the game as rigged. Or worse, to prosecute someone who does not provide their desired outcome, in Harry Reid’s case. And not just anyone. The Director of the FBI.

In Trump’s case he does have a point that a large chunk of the media clearly covers events in a way that hammers him while granting Hillary’s campaign with the benefit of the doubt far more frequently. But to leap from the evidence of media bias to a conclusion that the actual electoral system is rigged is a stretch that not only discourages turnout (a possible tactic) but also degrades America’s democratic institutions.

The problem is that Trump is merely following cultural trends. The politics is – as the saying goes – downstream from an already cynical culture. One that, for example, includes many voters still viewing Bush 43’s victory in 2000 as a stolen election. That they happen to be Democrat voters is an inconvenient fact to those Democrats now denouncing Trump’s cynical take on this year’s electoral process. And well before the 2000 election, conspiracy theories abounded – especially on the left – on everything from assassinations to alien abductions. Including conspiracy theories on the origins of AIDS and the crack cocaine epidemic of the 80’s.

Of course, elections have sometimes been stolen. The 1960 election almost certainly involved shenanigans in Chicago that ensured that JFK would win. And Nixon himself is said to have accepted the apparent vote-swindle in order not to degrade people’s faith in American democracy. And to ensure he could survive with enough political capital to eventually make a comeback. Which he certainly did. And perhaps jaded by the bruising events of the early 60’s he had no problems engaging in his own dirty tactics in the early 70’s, which led to Watergate. America has not been the same since. Despite Reagan’s optimism, an optimism which had to constantly battle it’s way past a hostile media to reach voters.

As Tom Pepinsky writes in a recent blog post, all parties in a democratic system have to agree to disagree by the rules, regardless of which party is in power. If not, the peaceful transition of power becomes a suspicion-laden partisan power struggle. And the system itself becomes unsustainable and must, in the longer run, bend or break. Bending during the Civil Rights movement, breaking during the Civil War. Reconstruction can hopefully follow a break in the democratic order, but again, rules have to be agreed on by winners and by the losers.

Are Trump and Reid merely bluntly voicing what many voters already feel? Merely expressing the will of their supporters? Or do they have a responsibility to nourish and respect the transition of power and not feed the paranoia? One would hope it’s the latter.

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