Adam Przeworski’s research on the alternation of power has shaped our understanding of democracy. He is the Carroll and Milton Petrie professor emeritus at New York University and 2010 winner of the Skytte prize, political science’s closest equivalent to the Nobel Prize. In a short email interview, I asked him to explain why democracy is a system in which parties lose elections, and what happens when a leader like President Trump refuses to commit to accepting the vote if he loses.

HF: You define democracy as a “system in which parties lose elections.” Why is this such a crucial defining feature?

AP: Democracy has many merits (and demerits), about which see my book, “Why Bother with Elections?” But they all pale in importance in comparison to the role of elections in processing whatever conflicts may arise in a society without violence. As an Italian political philosopher, Norberto Bobbio put it, “What is democracy other than a set of rules … for the solution of conflicts without bloodshed?”

The value of democracy lies in the ability of the citizens to choose by whom and how they would be governed, and this implies being able to throw the incumbents out whenever a qualified majority so wishes.

HF: Trump has just suggested that he may not go along with a transfer of power if he loses. Your work asks why the losers of elections usually accept the vote rather than trying to subvert it. Why do most leaders not follow Trump’s lead?

AP: The very prospect that governments would alternate induces conflicting political forces to comply with the verdicts of elections rather than engage in violence, for the following reason. Although the losers of an election suffer from their current defeat, if they have a sufficient chance to win in the future, they may be better off complying with the result than fighting for power by other means. In turn, while the current winners may want to hold onto power forever, they may be better off granting the current losers a reasonable chance to win in the future rather than provoking violent resistance to their usurpation of power.

Regulating conflicts by elections is then self-enforcing. Violence and other costly forms of conflict are avoided by the mere fact that the political forces expect to take turns. Yet this mechanism fails when the short-term stakes in an election are too high or when the opposition sees no chance to win according to rules.

HF: What are the consequences for the expectations of other actors (in this case both the Democrats, and elected Republicans), when the elected president makes a statement like this?

AP: In democracies, we select governments through elections. Parties propose policies and present candidates, we vote, someone is declared winner according to preestablished rules, the winner moves into the government offices and the loser goes home. We are governed for a few years and then have a chance to decide whether to retain the incumbents or throw them out. All of this is so routine that we take it for granted. Moreover, while the taste for peaceful changes in office has to be acquired, as of today, 68 countries, including the two elephants, Russia and China, have never experienced a partisan alternation in power — it is addictive.

The probability that either the incumbent or the opposition would not respect the results of elections falls rapidly as a country experiences more alternations. For the U.S., which holds the world record having gone through twenty-two such events, this probability is 1 in 1.8 million elections.

Thus, Trump’s repeated refusals to respect the result of the election shatter all the historically ingrained expectations. It was unimaginable and no one imagined this possibility. This is a new world and no one knows what will happen in the next few months.

HF: There is a wide range of opinion on the current state of American democracy. What does your work have to say about its current strengths and/or fragilities?

AP: It is hard to see its strengths at this moment. The society is highly polarized, not just in terms of what different groups of people want, but more importantly in terms of how they see people with whom they disagree and what they are willing to do to them. To the shock of many legal scholars, we suddenly discovered that our constitutional system does not provide clear rules for determining the winner of elections. The Supreme Court, another conflict-processing institution, is divided along partisan lines. The military are being asked whether they see a role for themselves in the election. Police unions are declaring their partisan preferences. Speculations abound over how the Secret Service will decide whom to protect as the President on January 20.

I have spent a good part of my life in Latin America and this situation smells ominously familiar. If Trump loses the popular vote and stays in office, the best scenario is that we would enter into a state of a perpetual insurrection. The worst is that, with the help of a partisan Justice Department, even the trappings of democracy would be gone.