Monday, January 21, 2013

Yes, the US Should Brag About Peaceful Transition of Power

Dylan Matthews tries to spoil the party by pointing out that the United States is not, in fact, unique in its ability to transfer power peacefully.

To which I say: nuts to that. It is a big deal -- a very big deal. And while other nations have gotten the hang of it, the US was very much a pioneer. Yes, we could argue about the Brits vs. the US, but either way when Jefferson replaced Adams it really was something amazing and rare in world history.

And we do it all the time. Not just the Bush-to-Obama version of four years ago, either; we just had a Pelosi-to-Boehner transition two years ago, and six years ago the Democrats took both Houses of Congress. Not to mention all the turnover in the states, and the mayors, and all the rest of it.

To be sure: what I'm talking about is democratic transitions. Matthews points out that China has apparently figured out how to do peaceful transitions now, but that's hardly the same thing.

What all of world history, from Rome to Russia, from ancient Athens to modern Egypt, tells us is that democracy is very, very, difficult. Madison, in his studies of republics as he prepared for the Constitutional Convention, focused on the demise of that form of government, and rightly so; what history told him, and what everyone who studied it at that time had concluded, was that republics did not last. There surely was no guarantee that the United States would be any different; even now, there's no way of knowing whether republican government in the United States of America (or any of the other world democracies) will endure. 

So, yeah, it's very much appropriate to celebrate and commemorate such events, and to remember just how rare they still are. And that they're not as rare now as they were in 1776 or 1800? That, too, is in part an accomplishment that citizens of the United States should take pride in. More than any other nation, the United States is the one that figured out how to do it. 

13 comments:

  1. It can be a big deal, remarkable, etc., and still not unique. Peaceful, democratic transitions of power are commonplace throughout the world, and almost universal in rich countries.

    "One of the first" would be accurate, as clearly it was the Brits who hold the modern record. And how long did the Roman, Athenian and Venetian republics last anyway?

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  2. I don't see how you don't give the Brits pride of place here, although the US was probably the first place where transitions of power were directly connected to election results. 18th century British ministerial changes generally had more to do with monarchical favor than with the House of Commons - I believe that every eighteenth century British parliamentary election resulted in a majority for the ministerial party. I believe 1830 was the first election to lead to the collapse of a modern British cabinet.

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    1. Actually, the UK parliament held general elections right from the start in 1707, and ministers were almost always selected from the party forming the majority by parliamentary convention. At the very least, the change of government of 1782 was dictated by parliament and not by the crown, since the government was forced to resign by a vote of no-confidence. There was no British general election in 1830.

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  3. Just think of how 1800 would have gone if Aaron Burr had actually succeeded with his cockamamie plan. He's probably the worst American ever who was not a Confederate.

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  4. The transition in 1861 didn't go so well. Apparently you can be the first to "get the hang of it" and still not quite have the hang of it.

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  5. Correct me if I'm wrong, but didn't the peaceful transition of 1860 lead to a fair amount of bloodshed not long afterward?...

    Also, let's not forget assassinations, which are definitely a non-peaceful transition of power. You may say they prove nothing about the stability of the system, that they are (at least for the most part) only acts of individuals, and the successor to the president is determined by law, not by the assassin's whim. True enough, but they still do change who is in power, and do so violently--and we have had more of them than some other nations.

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  6. "More than any other nation, the United States is the one that figured out how to do it."

    The problem is that other countries have, if you apply the same metrics, been doing it for longer, so I don't know how you justify this claim. It feels more along the lines of simply asserting American superiority in some field and expecting people to go along with it than actually demonstrating anything conclusively.

    The framers of the US consititution had many examples to look to, not least of which was the UK, but also the Roman republic on which they also leaned heavily. They did not invent democratic government, they did not invent the republic. They did frame a model of government that has worked reasonably well given the circumstances, but let's not exaggerate here.

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    1. Certainly the US used the UK as an example, but still the US system is quite a bit different than UK in the 1780s. As far as Rome...they were very much taken with Rome, but I wouldn't say they wound up leaning heavily on it -- there's really very little the Roman republic and the US system have in common.

      It's true that Madison and co. did not invent the republic. But if you add everything up: an extended republic with representation and no aristocracy, no official church, nothing but "the people", and more -- that all adds up to something very different than any previous example.

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    2. But we're talking evolution more than revolution here, despite the War of Independence being partly revolutionary in character. Actually, this was one of the system's great advantages for the US - it kept a sufficient degree of continuity with the pre-existing political structure in the 13 Colonies to be acceptible.

      When we look at how the Washington system has fared outside the US, the picture is rather less positive. The former US colonies and heavily US-influenced states that did implement something similar to it (the Phillipines, the ROC, South Vietnam, pre-Castro Cuba, South Korea) all underwent periods of dictatorship under strong-men who were not sufficiently restrained in their exercise of the powers given to the presidency under the Washington system. No democratic states that I can think of which have been formed or reformed in the last few decades have elected to model their system on the Washington model - almost all have chosen a variant of either the Westminster system or the German/French model.


      As an admitted partisan of the Westminster system, I can't help but point out that the record for countries operating under the Westminster system is somewhat better, although far from perfect. Australia (official a 'Washminster' system, though more 'minster' than 'Wash'), Canada, and New Zealand have all avoided dictatorship and have enjoyed a high level of democratic government. South Africa went through the apartheid era, this is true, but the presidency never over-awed the legistalature to the point of rule by dictat. Fiji underwent a coup, but this was quickly over-turned. Irish government was rocked by the credit crunch, but otherwise has a good reputation. Burma is the country that underwent the only permanent over-turning of the Westminster system in favour of a dictatorship, although Zimbabwe is almost as bad.

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  7. There are a three main points of difference on the way in which the transition from one government to the next happens in the UK which are worth a mention all of which stem from the Parliamentary system. The first is it is immediate - if a government loses the election, they are out of office that day; there is no drawn out transition unless the result is not clear as in 2010. The other relates to the parliamentary system in which both a government and a head of government can be dispensed with if they lose the confidence of the legislature and or the party and an election need not necessarily follow. The martyrdom of St Margaret is a good example. The final difference is that a head of government can step down whether through infirmity or a loss of political will and in such a case, the government continues.

    I'm not placing any great value on either system, although my preference is certainly for a clinical, surgical and swift change of government should an election necessitate it.

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  8. "China has apparently figured out how to do peaceful transitions now"

    Bo Xilai begs to differ...

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  9. I think Kevin Drum's take on this is about right:

    http://www.motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2013/01/was-1861-really-peaceful-transition-power

    I agree that peaceful, democratic transitions are to be cherished -- but lots of other people have figured out how to do this, too.

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  10. Whether we're unique or not strikes me as being of secondary importance. What's important is understanding that it's not a *given*. That we not start taking it for granted.

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