Tuesday, January 22, 2013

A Bit More on Peaceful Transitions and Democracy

Some commenters to my post (and, separately, Kevin Drum) point outed out yesterday that the US string of consecutive peaceful democratic transitions that Dylan Matthews posted on overlooks the case of 1861.

Yup, 1861 is a breakdown. No question about it. On the other hand...they do manage to have an elections during the civil war -- and I'm hardly an expert on the period so correct me if I'm wrong, as far as I know there's no doubt that Lincoln would have given up the presidency had he lost in 1864. And once the war is over, the system endures.

So it's a major, serious, breakdown, but one which doesn't lead to, you know, the army having George Washington's great-grandnephew to take over as dictator.

I don't know how that counts, but I'd say it's not as simple as saying that the US has always had peaceful transitions -- but also not as simple as saying that 1861 wasn't.

The real point here, I think, is just that democracy is really, really, difficult. I think rather than focus on how to "count" the case of 1861, what's clearly correct is to say the question of slavery wasn't resolved democratically. And that's a big blot on the ability of Madisonian system -- although it's not at all clear that any other system would have worked any better, and again it probably is a point in favor of the system that it did survive the Civil War, even as it's a point against that the Civil War happened at all. I'd add that some commenters have also drawn attention to assassinations as non-"peaceful" transfers, but I would take the other point of view -- the ability of the system to deal with the death of elected officials shows its strength, not its weakness. On the other hand, the case of Hayes/Tilden in 1876 is a much harder call; to the extent that they resorted to extraconstitutional measures, that's a serious blot on the record.

Meanwhile, peaceful transfer of power is hardly the only way to judge a democracy. Another would be how inclusive it is; the fact of slavery itself was (obviously?) a much bigger blot on democracy than was the means used to end it, while the failure to extend full citizenship after the Civil War was, again, a serious and important shortcoming that should call into question whether it's appropriate to consider the US a proper democracy at all before 1965. Another, one that I pay a fair amount of attention to, is the extent to which public policy is directly controlled by elected officials and not by the bureaucracy (or, for that matter, by any other anti-democratic elements such as an aristocracy or established church). Of course I've mentioned often that I think a key indicator is how permeable the political parties are. And there are, presumably, more.

Of course, pointing out these other important criteria for democracy does tend to knock down my point that it's appropriate for the US to brag about (mostly) getting the peaceful transfer of power part correct. On the other hand, that's a good one, too, and I still think it's worth bragging about, even if it isn't the whole ballgame.


  1. The biggest problem is that it counts 1861 as un-peaceful - but decides that the numerous rebellions (oft successful) against transitions in the UK don't count. Or that the transitions in Italy count more than the ones in Germany.

    Meh, sometimes specific numbers aren't worth it.

  2. On 1861, I think it's important to remember that the South wasn't trying to take over the central government; the use of the term 'civil war' often implies a contest for control of power. That's not what was going on. I like one of the old names better: the Great Rebellion. No one was arguing that Lincoln or the 36th Congress were not the proper democratically-elected government of the United States. Or questioning their right to be so. They just wanted out of the union. That strikes me as (somewhat) different.

    Once you orient Spring '61 as a separatists' rebellion, it strikes me as less of a blot on the peaceful transitions string. Sure, secession was in response to Lincoln's election, but it *could* have come at any time. If the South had stuck around for a year --- as many non-immediate secessionist wanted to do --- and then left because they found conditions unsatisfactory, I don't think we'd quite perceive the link between the war and the election. It's obviously a close call. But on balance I don't think 1861 interrupts the string.

    Another point is that, in both North and South, state elections continued unbroken. And since the North never had military reconstruction, you have the cases of NY, NJ, PA, CT, RI, NH, MA, and DE, all of which have had successive democratic governments dating back to at least the late 18th century.

    1. I think Crissa's point about specific numbers not being worth it applies, no? There's really no obvious answer to 1861 other than "it's complicated", so you either include it with an asterisk or exclude it with an asterisk. At least, that's my feeling. But as I said, it's pretty clear that the question of slavery wasn't answered via democracy.

      What do you think of 1876? And, a factual question you may know -- how many of those states you cite have the same state constitution (all of them?), and if not to what extent do you think it matters for this question?

    2. Love this thread. Always happy when I find people who are interested in these big questions of democratic fragility.

      I agree that it's an asterisk. And I agree with Crissa (I think). I don't question the fundamental point, I think I just fall on the side of "include with an asterisk."

      It raises the question, however, of what deserves an asterisk; in other words, at what point does a small rebellion honestly question the peaceful transition of the previous election? It seems illogical to say that the Whiskey Rebellion should count, but it also seems illogical to say it only counts if an state government draws up articles of secession.

      Good point bringing up 1876. But I'm inclined to accept it as a peaceful democratic transition. For one, no one questioned the congressional elections anymore than in a normal year (that I know of). Second, the dispute was settled in just about as democratic a fashion as possible. Third, there was virtually no violence in response from the Dems; they accepted it at that fundamental level. Obviously, at some level massive voter fraud would not allow us to claim a peaceful democratic transition. But I see 1876 as closer to 2000 or 1960 than as an exception to the string. Any close vote for electors in any state in the 19th century could very plausibly have been stolen; that the three disputed states in '76 made the difference in aggregate doesn't strike me as an indictment of the whole system.

      I don't know about the state constitutions, but I'm also not seeing why it would be so important. The people of the New England colonies have chosen their own leaders, both executive and legislative, since the American revolution, under rules that pass the "liberal for their era" test. How would a change in constitution --- assuming it was ratified by the people of the time --- alter our assessment?

    3. "No one was arguing that Lincoln or the 36th Congress were not the proper democratically-elected government of the United States."

      That point doesn't strike me as very important to the question. The Southern rebels decided, as a matter of tactics, that their best option was a defensive war to hold a certain defined territory (the 11 Confederate states). But upon encountering resistance, they were prepared to wage war to win. That included invading Pennsylvania. It didn't work, they were outgunned, but there's no reason to suppose they would have stopped there. A South that had the power to do so, and that failed to get a Union cease-fire even as it continued winning, might have gone on to subdue the North the way the North later subdued the South. Instead of Sherman's march through Georgia, we might have had Lee's march through New England. At some point, if the North didn't give up, Southern forces would have taken Washington and deposed the government there. They would then have had either to Reconstruct the North, or leave a puppet government in place that might still call itself "the United States government" but would not in a practical sense be the previous one.

      An analogy here might be the English Civil War. Given the way that unfolded, it looks like a struggle for control of all of Britain. Actually, at various times, the various parties (Cavaliers, Roundheads, Scots Presbyterians) controlled various pieces of the big island. They could have settled for dividing it up, with Charles continuing to rule in the southwest, the Puritan Eastern Association becoming a new government for those counties, etc. In other words, that event could have turned out to be a "separatist's rebellion" too. The two scenarios, separatism and civil war, aren't fundamentally different in kind; the groups engaging in either one don't really know at the outset which one their war aims -- and their success or lack thereof -- will ultimately produce.

      As to the whole thing looking different if the South had waited a year, I think the problem there is that everyone knew that the final crisis was tied to the rise of the Republican Party. If a new party with mass suppport can't come into existence and compete for power in elections without huge violence, then the democratic system of peaceful transitions has broken down.

    4. Jeff: good points.

      But as i note below, the idea that "everyone knows" that the South was not going to allow an anti-slavery party to capture the executive branch calls into question whether the '56 election should count as a peaceful transition. if the Democrats were walking if Fremont wins --- which I think is at least plausible --- then the question is not whether '61 counts, but at what point was the South no longer willing to play by the rules and respect the winner of an election. That could easily be post Kansas-Nebraska.

      It's not a "peaceful democratic transition" if you win but you weren't willing to give up power if you lost.

    5. I agree with Matt on the state constitutions, but I would take it a step further, at least to see where this takes us.....

      How about the Constitution itself? Is it possible to see 1789 as another asterisk, really, to the government that started in 1781? Or should that be 1777 (when the Articles were drafted?) Or 1783 (Treaty of Paris)?

      I'm not just asking this to be difficult (though I realize now that the various dates prior to 1789 are difficult to deal with). Rather, 1789 happened without a shot (that I'm aware of, at least) The Articles Congress set the date for electors to meet and specified the date where the transition of power would take place. The Articles were a democratic form of government, even if a poor one. Once we open up state constitutions (which have changed DRAMATICALLY in some cases), we open up to the idea that a democracy is not necessarily dated by its constitution.

    6. Matt G, no disagreement here about the situation pre-1861. What you're saying is that the breakdown of a peaceable political system, and the actual (visibly) non-peaceable failed transition, may not coincide (probably don't, usually). Very true.

      I don't know if this is a further relevant data point, but Lincoln spoke of the Southern rebellion as a conspiratorial attempt to "destroy" the United States government. Just from reading some passages of his speeches, if you didn't know the history, you wouldn't be able to tell that he was describing a "secession" (which he didn't think was Constitutional anyway and therefore, technically, didn't happen). You could as easily suppose he was referring to a palace coup, an attempt to burn down Washington, a subversive movement involving fifth columnists and a foreign power, or a guy named Guy (and some other guys) loading up the basement of the Capitol with kegs of dynamite. To Lincoln, at least in his rhetoric, Union failure would have meant the end of the United States government.

    7. Sorry, not dynamite -- not invented yet. Gunpowder.

  3. RE: 1876 and 1861, I'd also add that I think 1876 fits the *mold* of a problematic case better than 1861, because it features something like the key smoking gun: a person/party in power that loses an election and refuses to hand over the keys. You can argue that happened in '76. Not the case in '61.

    And for those who want to argue that the Democrats were going to walk as soon as any Republican won the Presidency, making '61 tantamount to a smoking gun, well that calls 1856 into question, since I think there's a very real chance SC walks if Fremont wins.


    1. IMO if the Republicans lost in 1876 because they failed to carry, say, Ohio (as they almost did, and probably would have with any candidate other than Hayes) they would have acquiesced in a Tilden victory without much fuss, as they would do for Cleveland in 1884 (even though some of them grumbled in 1884 that New York had been stolen). But when Tilden's apparent win was based on three southern states where Reconstruction had not yet ended (so that Republicans could control the results) and where they could plausibly argue that the Democrats had been at least as guilty of fraud as the Republicans--well, yes, they were going to put up a struggle (though I don't think it was ever likely to become a violent one). Even then, had the Electoral Commission sided with the Democrats, the GOP would have acquiesced.

      If there was any danger of violence in 1876 it was from the Democrats, but despite some hot rhetoric I think the chances of it were minimal--the South was in no mood for another war, especially once the Republicans made clear that the remaining federal troops would be withdrawn.

  4. OTOH on 1856...there are probably all sorts of issues in many (every?) republics which would at least potentially lead to a breakdown if the "wrong" side won an election that they didn't actually win. It's even possible that some of those issues have majority support, but that for whatever reason -- including political culture, institutional controls, constitutional structure -- they don't wind up as the program of the winning party/government. So we would want to be careful about how we characterize breaks that didn't, but we suspect could have, happened.

    After all, if Madison was right (and of course you all know I think he was), the whole point is how fragile republics are, and how you have to structure their institutions to prevent collapse. So coming close isn't necessarily a strike against the system. Maybe, but not necessarily.

  5. I agree that in some ways 1876 represents a rupture of peaceful transitions of power more clearly than 1860. The Republicans basically refused to leave via fraud and the compromise to euthanize Reconstruction. I also agree this is an excellent thread.

    As an aside, that's why I also date 1876 as the year in which the Republican Party's moral authority collapsed. 1876 was the start of the Republican Party's long trajectory towards being a southern-oriented, post-Confederate party. Crudely put, the Republicans eventually became Democrats, and vice versa.

    1. Really, Hayes didn't have much choice in withdrawing the remaining federal troops from the South. A Democratic House of Representatives had cut off funding for the Army in a dispute with the Republican Senate (the Senate had refused to agree to a clause forbiding the use of the Army to support any Southern state government not recognized by Congress). True, that was the old House, but the new one had a Democratic majority as well. Hayes had to rely on an unhappy and unpaid Army to suppress serious labor violence in the summer of 1877.

      See Mrs. Hayes' comment: "Why, what could Mr. Hayes do but what he did? He had no army."


  6. I'd be interested in seeing how JB would compare/rank other democracies (current and historical) by his criteria, although I wouldn't be able to evaluate it myself.


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