Maria Terrinoni. Maria was the International Rule of Law and Security program intern at the McCain Institute for International Leadership during the Spring 2021 semester. Maria is a junior at Arcadia University studying history with minors in law and public policy and international studies.
Concession speeches in the United States have played a major role in the aftermath of election seasons. Not only do they designate an informal but critical end to the campaigning process, but they also initiate the reconciliation process of the American electorate. The concession speech by the losing candidate is the “loser’s privilege to cease hostilities, declare peace, and make the first gesture in restoring the nation to its common labor.”i Despite the importance of these concession speeches, there is no mention of concession in the Constitution; in fact, the Constitution mentions no recourse if a president refuses to leave office upon losing an election, or if a losing presidential candidate refuses to concede. As reported by the Washington Post, Jeffery Engle, founding director of the Center for Presidential History, believes there is no mention in the Constitution of what to do in such a situation because our Founding Fathers could not fathom that “a person who had become president . . . [would be] so utterly lacking in classical virtue that they would deign or dare to put their own interests above the unity of the country.”
While forms of concession speeches can be traced back to the early days of American democracy, the current conception did not come to be until 1896, when losing presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan sent a concession telegram to William McKinley. As NPR described, in this telegram, Bryan congratulated McKinley for his win, stating, “We have submitted the issue to the American people and their will is law.” Since then, concession speeches have become tradition in the electoral process. Concession speeches allow for healing to begin and illustrate a “commitment to the peaceful transfer of power.” Candidates who choose to be “good losers” play “a crucial part in making politics in America a source of unity, not division.”ii
Examples of “good losers” are numerous in American history, and perhaps the most renowned concession is that of Senator John McCain in 2008, with some believing McCain’s speech to be the “finest achievement in conceding ever witnessed.” In this speech, Senator McCain graciously accepted his defeat and even referred to president-elect Barack Obama as “my president.”iii Due in part to Senator McCain’s leadership, the crowd went from jeering him to “cheer[ing] the historic nature of Obama’s election as our first African-American president.”iv His concession speech set “a tone of reconciliation that helped legitimize Obama’s election in the eyes of the millions who had voted against him.”v Senator McCain made it clear to his supporters that it was their duty to be patriotic and “good losers” in order to reconcile the nation.vi
While Senator McCain’s speech is widely lauded for its impact, it is not much different from other concession speeches in American history. Almost all such speeches follow a format that includes four main elements: 1) the indirect admission of defeat, which offers congratulations to the winner and an acceptance of the electoral verdict, 2) a call to unite behind the winner, 3) praise of democracy which “exonerates and legitimizes the losing campaign,” and 4) a promise to continue the fight.vii This format allows not only for the process of the election’s closure to begin, but also for the beginning of reconciliation between political opponents and a signaling that the losing party’s base should accept the winning president as the legitimately elected leader of the country.
The importance of concession speeches in American campaigns in the past is apparent. What happens when there is no concession speech?
As reported by Governing.com, Charles Bullock, a political scientist at the University of Georgia, believes that a lack of a concession speech is “really dangerous for the future of the Republic.” As Bullock stated, “To question the legitimacy or accuracy of the election goes against our whole norm of peaceful transfer of power.” In Almost President: The Men Who Lost the Race but Changed the Nation, published in 2011, Scott Farris notes, “In a nation where private citizens own 270 million guns, we can only speculate about what type of crisis might erupt if a candidate ever refused to concede, or conceded in a way that created deep antagonism toward the incoming president.”viii
Unfortunately, we no longer need to speculate. We saw on January 6, 2021 what could happen in the United States if a president refused to accept the results of an election. Former President Trump’s rejection of the election results is well known, and it is impossible to determine how much his refusal to make a concession speech contributed to the attack on the Capitol.
However, these attacks did not stop the election results from being confirmed. Our election process was enough to certify President Biden as the winner. In the hyper-partisan times of today, the idea that a concession speech is required in order for a transition to begin could be outdated. Populists such as President Trump might again hijack the tradition of concession speeches by refusing to concede, despite the facts that the election results were certified and the process was free and fair. His refusal to concede helped to further the baseless argument that the election was rigged, which contributed to the attacks on January 6.
Relying on a presidential candidate to accept the results of the elections in order for them to be viewed as true—that is, waiting for a concession speech to see the election as over—may not be the wisest course. Instead, our institutions and certification process (votes tallied, electoral votes counted in Congress, votes certified) alone should be enough to dictate the results of an election. We should not have to wait for the losing party to concede, especially when their refusal can cause so much damage. Unless we can be certain that our presidential candidates deserve the faith the Founding Fathers put in them, the trust in the integrity of elections should lie in our institutions, not in our candidates.
i Corcoran, Paul E. “Presidential Concession Speeches: The Rhetoric of Defeat.” Political Communication 11, no. 2 (1994): 109-31. doi:10.1080/10584609.1994.9963019., 115.
ii Farris, Scott. “The Concession.” In Almost President: The Men Who Lost the Race but Changed the Nation, 13-27. Lyons Press, 2013, 14.
iii Farris, Scott. “The Concession.” In Almost President: The Men Who Lost the Race but Changed the Nation, 13.
iv Farris, Scott. “The Concession.” In Almost President: The Men Who Lost the Race but Changed the Nation, 14.
vii Corcoran, Paul E. “Presidential Concession Speeches: The Rhetoric of Defeat.” 115.
viii Farris, Scott. “The Concession.” In Almost President: The Men Who Lost the Race but Changed the Nation, 20.