Ten Miles Square

Blog

January 22, 2013 10:57 AM Yes, the US Should Brag About Peaceful Transition of Power

By Jonathan Bernstein

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. 

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.