You’ve likely never heard the name William Jennings Bryan, as he’s not among those regularly talked about in history books. But his contribution to democracy should be indelible, after a simple telegram sent he sent to William McKinley on Nov. 5, 1896, forever changed how we approached elections.
“Sen. Jones has just informed me that the returns indicate your election, and I hasten to extend my congratulations,” Bryan said in the telegram. “We have submitted the issue to the American people, and their will is law.”
Conceding an election isn’t required by law, which is why what Bryan — in his first of three runs for president — did was all the more unique at the time. He didn’t have to do it by statute, but he had to do it in the spirit of democracy.
Such concessions have become a staple of our election process at all levels. Candidates battle it out over issues and who can best represent the people, and once the people have made their decision, they accept it. Even if that decision doesn’t favor you, all for a peaceful transfer of power.
Not that making a concession is easy. Far from it. Candidates invest so much of themselves into their campaigns that to suddenly make an about-face and watch someone else get awarded what they had fought for can be heartbreaking. Still, no matter how hot the debate was among the candidates, once the decision has been made, it’s time to return to the real job at hand: governing.
When we think of concessions, we’re likely to think of those in races for our country’s highest office first.
“Just moments ago, I spoke with George W. Bush and congratulated him on becoming the 43rd president of the United States. And I promised him that I wouldn’t call him back this time,” then-Vice President Al Gore said in a Dec. 13, 2000, address, even joking about rescinding his first concession on election night, when the race between them was still too close to call.
“Almost a century and a half ago, Sen. Stephen Douglas told Abraham Lincoln, who had just defeated him for the presidency, ‘Partisan feeling must yield to patriotism. I’m with you, Mr. President, and God bless you,’” Gore added. “Well, in that same spirit, I say to President-elect Bush that what remains of partisan rancor must now be put aside, and may God bless his stewardship of this country.”
Sen. John McCain shared similar sentiments eight years later, when he took the stage in Phoenix to congratulate the man who would become the 44th president, Barack Obama.
“Sen. Obama and I have had and argued our differences, and he has prevailed,” McCain said. “No doubt many of those differences remain. These are difficult times for our country, and I pledge to him tonight to do all in my power to help him lead us through the many challenges we face.”
Concessions are just as powerful on the local level. State Sen. Anna Kaplan described her service in Albany as an “honor of a lifetime” after losing her re-election bid to former senator Jack Martins.
“While our campaign has ended, my service to — and love for — our community has not,” Kaplan said. “I will always fight for you, and am committed to continuing that spirit of service in my next chapter.”
Laura Gillen, who lost her bid for Congress to Anthony D’Esposito last week, also put politics aside to honor the choice of voters.
“We ran a campaign to be proud of in a challenging political environment,” Gillen said. “Together we motivated thousands of Long Islanders to make their voices heard. To stand up for common-sense leadership. And to vigorously defend fundamental rights from assault.”
After the 2020 presidential election, in which defeated President Donald Trump never conceded to his successor, Joe Biden, there were real fears that this act of patriotism — this cornerstone action of democracy — could become a relic of the past. That conceding somehow represented weakness rather than strength. And that it meant essentially giving up on fighting for the chance to represent your community, region, state or even country.
But nothing about concession means you have to give up the fight, or that you can’t explore every option available to you. Once those options are exhausted, however, it’s time to close that chapter and start the next one.
On election night last week, U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin wasn’t ready to concede the gubernatorial race to Gov. Kathy Hochul. And that was his right — not all the votes had been counted, and while his chances of winning were remote, they still existed.
But when it became clear that he had no path to victory, Zeldin did his part to protect and defend democracy by exercising the power of concession.
“I would like to congratulate New York governor Kathy Hochul on her election to a full four-year term,” Zeldin said in a statement the day after the election.
But while this particular battle for the governor’s mansion might be over, Zeldin made it clear that his fight for those he had hoped to represent wouldn’t end — a sentiment every candidate on the short side of any election should share in their own quests.
“As they take office in January, Gov. Kathy Hochul and those controlling Albany must address the grave concerns voiced by the voters,” Zeldin said. “While this campaign has come to a close, the rescue mission to ‘save our state’ continues.”