One of the most strange and tiresome rituals in American politics is the celebration very four or eight years of a peaceful transition of power. Obviously peaceful transitions of power are good and better than the alternatives. It is also something that happens in many countries and should not be viewed as something that makes the US uniquely democratic or otherwise different from the rest of the world. More significantly, the celebration of peaceful transition often helps draw attention away from the problems of our democracy that become apparent in many presidential elections. Thus, instead of asking what we can do to make our democracy better we lazily settle for celebrating the fact that Trump can take over for Obama, Obama for Bush or Bush for Clinton without bloodshed.
A more mature democracy would use these events not as an opportunity to pat ourselves on the back because we aren’t shooting each other, but to continue to make our democracy stronger. Some of the problems of American democracy have been around so long that many Americans rarely notice them, or view it as unpatriotic to mention these flaws. Nonetheless, we have a constitutional system that includes an upper legislative house that is not based on the principle of one vote, a system for electing our chief executive that similarly weighs some votes more than others, and we allow some citizens to run for president, while not allowing others, those born outside the US, to seek that office.
This emphasis on the ritual itself has also made it easier to ignore that two of the last three times there was a transition of this kind there the problems in our polity were so exposed that it raised questions question of whether the peaceful transition was actually democratic. In 2000 our peaceful transition of power was ultimately due to the Supreme Court ordering the state of Florida to stop counting the votes. While that decision brought closure to the election it was hardly a great step forward for democracy. In 2000 the peaceful transition was in great part due to the extraordinary disposition of Democratic nominee Al Gore and to an American society that accepted the Supreme Court decision, despite misgivings by many.
This year, the transition was again peaceful, but a peaceful transition that is not democratic is of much less value and if our democratic structures were tested in 2000, they came very close to reaching the breaking point this year. To celebrate this inauguration as further evidence of the stability and democracy of our political system is to overlook the role a hostile foreign power played in helping Donald Trump win the election, the voter suppression laws that had an impact on turnout in several key states and the popular vote itself. The popular vote alone does not undermine Trump’s victory, but thoughtful observers should realize the goal of a democratic election should be to get the most votes and the rules and structures should reflect that.
Most significantly, the drumbeat to celebrate the peaceful, but not quite democratic, transition is an effort to stifle dissent. It is a way tell people who are still upset because the election was not what should be expected from a democratic country in 2016 to shut up. In the last few days when progressive pundits, analysts and protestors have raised these concerns, they have been told to simply focus on the peaceful transition. When a Republican tells somebody to focus on the peaceful transition or respect the dignity of the office of the presidency, and to stop presenting all the evidence that there is something very amiss in our democracy, it is is the political equivalent of Charlie Brown telling Linus “Tell your statistics to shut up!”
This is precisely why the demonstrations that occurred not only in big liberal cities like New York, Los Angeles, Washington and San Francisco, but in hundreds of small and medium sized cities on Saturday are so encouraging, and so important. Many of the people who marched all over the country do not believe that this transition was democratic or the best we can do in the US. By marching in spite of the pressure to simply recognize the allegedly amazing feat of changing parties in power without civil war, millions of Americans not only showed their concern, but showed that are not afraid and neither we, nor our stubborn facts and realities, are going to be shouted down by those thinly veiling their undemocratic partisan sentiments behind fake patriotism.