Saying goodbye

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No one wants to be the loser. But in American politics, the person who delivers the concession speech still has a powerful role to play in American democracy.

"The genre of this speech isn’t that difficult," Ben Crosby, associate professor of English, said. "Concession speeches are often boilerplate and ritualized, but they play an incredibly important role in how a democracy functions, especially a democracy as big as ours."

Crosby, an expert in rhetoric and public speaking, said concession speeches derive importance from a principle that was sometimes absent in the bitterly divisive 2016 presidential campaign.

"One of the main rules in all rhetoric is the principle of decorum," Crosby said. "It’s this idea that you have to do the proper thing at the proper time. You do it because it’s a violation of social norms to do otherwise. An important part of democracy is to rely on each other to behave in certain ways."

It’s why one of the most important speeches in American politics is the concession speech. When Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton delivered their victory and concession speeches following last Tuesday’s election results, the mood of the world dramatically shifted, Crosby pointed out.

"Tuesday night the world markets were plummeting when it looked like Trump would win," he said. "The moment Trump delivered his victory speech and when President Obama and Hillary delivered their speeches, the stock markets went soaring again. That’s not solely due to the speeches, but the speeches played a major role in reminding the world we follow rules of decorum in American democracy."

Those rules date as far back as 19th-century American presidential politics.

"The campaign between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams was a campaign that would make Hillary and Trump look like best friends," Crosby said. "It was full of propaganda, lies, every cheap trick. After it was over, Adams couldn’t even be in Washington for the inaugural. However, Jefferson issued that famous line in his inaugural speech, ‘We are all Federalists, we are all Republicans.’ You could hear traces of that language in the speeches last week. This idea that our party affiliations are less important than the fact that we are all one as Americans."

Along with traditional calls for unity, Crosby noted three other key elements of concession speeches: extending an open hand to the opponent that defeated you, acknowledging that your fight must be continued in the future with courage and optimism and sharing your consolation with supporters.

Clinton handled her concession speech well, Crosby said, noting one line that stood out in particular.

"To all the little girls who are watching this, never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world to pursue and achieve your own dreams," Clinton said in her Wednesday morning speech.

"Hillary Clinton addressed all of her supporters, but she was particularly concerned about a segment made up of little girls and young women," Crosby said. "When she addressed girls and women directly, that was a powerful moment that will be remembered."