But what this man said also was that he felt frustrated at how “rigged” he viewed the system. “Don’t you think the system is rigged?” he pressed me, and then was surprised by my emphatic response of “No.”
The use of the word “rigged” is one that has figured prominently in the campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, who while embracing very different world views from a policy standpoint both embraced the anti-establishment sentiment for which a large share of the American electorate seemed in search.
The notion that a system could be rigged takes away the notion that one might, indeed, lose in a fair system (“fair and square,” as they say). There are indeed examples of rigged systems. We see such evidence in elections won with 95% of the vote such that any opposition candidate is inconsequential if ever legitimate. We see evidence when voting machines switch votes for presidential candidates and the executive leadership of voting machine companies writing a letter pledging commitment “to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the President” in 2004, the outcome of which was determined by the State of Ohio. We do not see evidence of rigging in 2016, but rather the petulance of one unwilling to concede at the conclusion of a loss. This is not a view that is contingent upon a Clinton versus Sanders nomination, a Trump versus Rubio nomination, but rather based on the empirics of the admittedly eye-opening election season that we have witnessed unfold over the last several months, presenting more than our fair share of surprises but not corruption in the way that "rigging" suggests.
It is not because our electoral institutions are perfect. They are not. But if it were a truly rigged system, it is unlikely that two such non-conformist candidates would have fared nearly so well. Despite Sanders’ loss to Clinton in the Democratic primary, he vastly outperformed predictions and, while losing by a more marked margin than did Clinton to Obama in 2008, still came remarkably close considering where he started out. It is far from controversial to say that Trump’s garnering of the Republican Party nomination defied expectations.
Characterizing the US electoral institutions as rigged not only mischaracterizes reality – with the empirical fact that “outsider” candidates fared well on the Democratic side and won on the Republican side – but it takes away from those who have won honestly, fairly and squarely. It is all well and good to want to change the system when in office, and by all accounts we do need to change certain electoral institutions. We have a decentralized election system that is confusingly varied by state, that in many cases disenfranchises ex-offenders, that in many cases requires the provision of identification that has a disproportionately adverse impact on minorities. We also have recently demonstrated some vulnerability to hacking, which incidentally could indicate some rigging (though largely in favor of those alleging rigging in the first place).
But the first step isn’t to complain about the process. It’s to win playing by the rules of the game, respecting the process (even respectfully disagreeing), and to create fairer rules from within office.