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Past & Present: Political Precedent

Politics, similar to law, is influenced by the principle of precedent. Considering what has taken place during the presidential campaign of 2016, both Democrats and Republicans should be concerned about the dynamics of future elections in the United States.

Since the 1970s, U.S. presidential candidates have made their recent tax returns public. Among other things, this practice provides voters another important window to assess the background and actions of individuals who seek to lead this country. Donald Trump’s refusal to make his tax returns public has broken this precedent. Moreover, while the controversy surrounding Hillary Clinton’s handling of emails as Secretary of State reveals she’s not a paragon of transparency, Trump’s actions concerning his tax returns have far greater implications for future U.S. presidential elections.  

Donald Trump created another disturbing precedent when he declared at the third presidential debate that he might not accept the results of the election. Besides generating the politically chilling question of what he intends to do if he does, indeed, lose, Trump’s pronouncement inadvertently helped to rehabilitate the political reputation of Richard Nixon.

Nixon is one of the more reviled presidents in American history. Yet, when he refused to contest the extremely close election of 1960, for the sake of national unity and stability, Nixon demonstrated remarkable statesmanship. Conversely, Donald Trump, by suggesting that he won’t accept unfavorable election results, has demonstrated remarkable arrogance and immaturity.

Robert E. Weems Jr. is the Willard W. Garvey Distinguished Professor of Business History at Wichita State University.