US Elections – American Transitions of Political Power

Complain as you will about the American political system, our elections and transfers of power are the best in the world, and in history. 

Americans have waited long for this day to come; some because they are sick of the seemingly endless cycle of electioneering, and others because they are hopeful that their efforts will pay off, or at least their candidates and initiatives will succeed. Most people probably have a mix of these feelings. While understandable, such discomfiture is far better than the alternative. The purpose of elections in every country is to provide for a fair and stable transition of power from one person or group to another. Few countries in history have been able to pull this off.

Whatever happens today in any individual race, including the race for the presidency, power will change hands. The 112th Congress will give way to the 113th, some states will have different faces in their governors’ offices, and the legislative rolls will contain different names. Local governments also will not be the same in January as they are today. The amazing thing about America is that power changes hands with stability, if not civility, and money, not blood.

Transitions of Political Power

After the Franco-American victory at Yorktown (28 September – 19 October 1781) and the subsequent Treaty of Paris ending the American Revolution (3 September 1783), George Washington, still the Commander in Chief of the Continental Army, faced the question of whether to make himself king of America or resign his commission and return to civilian life on Mount Vernon. King George III of Great Britain, the one Washington had beaten, asked the American-born painter Benjamin West what Washington would do now. West replied “Oh, they say that he will return to his farm. George replied “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”

Few men in history had the virtue of George Washington, born of his Christian faith, and most transitions of power, especially after revolutions, have been bloody affairs. The French Revolution (1789-1799), only six years after the American, moved power from the royal despot (Louis XVI) through several transitional assemblies to a non-royal despot, Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821). The butcher’s bill was probably over 300,000, not including those killed in Napoleon’s wars (1799-1815). The suicide of Nero (68 AD) ushered “The Year of Four Emperors” into the Roman Empire, in which military commanders Galba, Otho, Vitellius, and Vespasian fought a civil war for control. The Bible is typical of ancient documents in speaking of assassinations, rebellions and revolutions accompanying transitions of power. When Queen Athaliah, mother of King Ahaziah, saw that her son was dead, she slaughtered every other person in the royal family to eliminate heirs to her power (2 Kings 11:1), although unbeknownst to her, one escaped. Empress Cixi 1835-1908, a daughter of an ordinary Manchu official who became a concubine to Emperor Xianfeng (1831-1861), ruled China for 47 years after Xianfeng’s death. Her challengers to the throne mysteriously died just before they became a threat. The list of bloody struggles for power is endless – in Mao Tse Dung’s Cultural Revolution, the Communists brutalized the educated, the wealthy and the middle class to consolidate their power. In the past year, civil war in Libya and Syria demonstrate the bloodlust for power and the suffering that common people endure when it moves.

Having never seen such despotism, Americans complain about the cost of elections, never considering the cost of revolt, and of their acrimony, never considering that the alternative may be rows of tombstones in a quiet field, or rotting corpses in a mass grave. In September 2011 the governor of North Carolina suggested:

“I think we ought to suspend, perhaps, elections for Congress for two years and just tell them we won’t hold it against them, whatever decisions they make, to just let them help this country recover,” Perdue said at an event in Cary, N.C., exactly one year ago. “I really hope that someone can agree with me on that.”

The statement was breathtaking. For the highest ranking elected leader of this important state in the Union to suggest that we abridge the Constitution and trust the tender mercies and self restraint of elected leaders betrays a pitiable ignorance of history and of the nature of mankind.

As tiresome as elections can be, the US system of changing power in government is far less costly, in blood and treasure, and produces a better result than any others.

Observations on the Transition of Political Power

In the examples noted above, the governments had absolute (or nearly absolute) power over their countries and citizens. Transitions of power are harder when power is concentrated, because as John Dahlberg-Acton wrote “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Understanding this fundamental truth of human nature, the framers of the US Constitution devised a system in which no one person or group could get too much power.

The Constitution delineated the powers given to the Federal government. No powers other than those listed in that document could be exercised at the federal level; everything else belonged to the state and local governments. Within the Federal government, power was divided between the Legislative Branch, who made the laws and controlled the purse, the Executive Branch, the enforcer of the law and preeminent in foreign policy, and the Judicial Branch, who ensured that both other branches maintained fidelity to the Constitution, the supreme law of the land.

In societies with diffuse power structures, less power changes hands with each transition so change is easier. The private sector, all levels of government, and community organizations all form centers of power that, when functioning properly, hold each other in check.

On the individual level, common folk have more influence when power is local. They know their leaders, live with them and can approach them in person. Peer pressure works from up close but too often fails at a distance. The more centralized the power, the less influential each person is. Individuals also have inherent power; the sources include wealth, education, strongly held beliefs, networks, personal skills and other attributes.

Conclusion

A transition of political power will begin tonight and end in the next few months. At the Federal level the Inauguration will bring this transition to a conclusion. Some people will consider the outcome a victory and others a defeat. No one will get everything and no one will get nothing. This is the nature of life, especially in a democracy.

Americans would do well to realize that the very system that enables us to enjoy peaceful transitions of power is a victory. Billions of people throughout the world live in lands where political power still comes through the barrel of a gun. The system is nowhere near perfect, but nothing in life is. Imperfect man will never devise a perfect government, or even a perfect election. Even if it were possible, his very presence would ruin the perfection of the system that he had devised. Our system can get better, and must for the benefit of all Americans. Still, we have much to be thankful for.

Americans would also do well to realize that man is not morally good; even in the best of circumstances those who reject Jesus are in rebellion against their Creator and those who accept Him behave imperfectly (For more on this, please see The Fundamental Problem of Human Existence). As such, no one can be trusted with too much power.

Finally, the Lord God has all power in the universe, and outside of the universe. No man or nation holds power forever, and no matter how bad the ruler, whether Sennacherib or Nero, God apportions power as he sees fit. We can have confidence regardless of any political outcome. Followers of Christ need not fear what the future holds because we know who holds the future.

The 2012 Presidential Debates

We have one television at home and generally watch only videos on it, because we have no cable, no satellite, and not even an antenna. With rare exceptions, we have lived without TV for over a decade. This year, however, with the Olympics in July and the presidential race in the fall we opted to buy an inexpensive cable package. One of the things that I anticipated watching was the series of presidential debates.

Elections are always a bizarre mix of truth and error, exaggeration and understatement, and bluster and bombast. Presidential elections are the most extreme. With little trust for the professional media, people seem to like debates because they feel that debates are the only unscripted and unstaged events in politics. Political conventions used to be raucous affairs with the outcome in doubt until the last ballot; now they are primarily pep rallies with the choice of candidate a foregone conclusion. Stump speeches and other events have more of the ring of a Hollywood production than of a chance to get to know the real candidate.

Stated another way, everything we know comes from our experience or the experience (and subsequent testimony) of others. We have ample personal experience with friends and family to feel that we truly know them. In the past, citizens roamed the White House and Capitol and interacted personally with their leaders. With the massive increase in the size and power of the Federal government in the past century, the US population growth, and the increase in security threats, this ended. People still feel like they should know governmental leaders but this has become impossible. Since we have little or no personal experience with the candidates, we rely on the statements of others about them. Unfortunately, those making the statements either have no experience of their own or largely turn these men into caricatures; so bad or so good as to belie the truth. Debates seem to provide a small but genuine personal interaction to each viewer.

I do not claim to be an undecided voter, but I hoped the first debate would be informative and civil. With modern attention spans measured in the minutes, not hours, I was not expecting a replay of Lincoln-Douglas (1858), though I would love to have seen it (yes, even the ridiculous portions, which have been around since before Cicero ran for Roman consul in 64 BC). The debate was a bit of a letdown, since it is hard to argue a point in a two minute long strings of sound bites, but I thought that each candidate performed well enough.

The next morning on the drive to work, the satellite radio channels erupted with exuberance (if the speaker was Republican) and drowned in despair (if the speaker was a Democrat). Apparently the commentators and focus groups felt that Republican challenger Mitt Romney had crushed Democratic Incumbent Barak Obama. Both sides reviled Obama for being “aloof”, “diffident”, and “weak”. President Obama explained that he had been too polite and promised to do better the next time.

If watching the first presidential debate was a bit of a letdown, watching the vice presidential debate was wearisome. This debate received our household prize for rudest and most arrogant of the year. My wife and I skipped the second presidential debate, recording it for my son, who wanted to watch it later. The next day he judged it “nothing but bickering and talking points”, summarizing that it was “not worth watching.” The thin, smile laden veneer failed to conceal the acrimony. Afterwards my son and I watched a clip from the Nixon-Kennedy presidential debates of 1960 and the Reagan Mondale debate from 1984. He asked “Dad, why can’t we have debates like that today?”

Radio commentators and focus groups, however, seemed to be quite satisfied. Many believed that the president and vice president made up for lost ground, showing “commitment” and “strength”. Democrats labeled the Republicans “wonkish” or “weak”. Behavior that would not have been tolerated in our home was lauded on satellite radio. Do we really think that such cacophony demonstrates strength? Is this behavior really useful in tense international negotiations? Is this how Nixon opened China, or what Eisenhower did at Panmunjom? By the third presidential debate my wife and I had regained our tolerance for 90 minutes of televised argument and rudeness, so we watched. My daughter, home from college, was fed up after 45 minutes. Nonetheless we persevered. On the whole, I found it better than the others.

Were these debates really what the American people wanted? They must have been what the media wanted because they droned on for hours with commentary and analysis. Perhaps election coverage is to the media what the Works Progress Administration was to workers in the 1930s; a source of some useful and much meaningless labor. The debates were clearly what some of the viewers wanted, as indicated by the recorded comments and the tenor of some of the social media coverage. If people wanted conflict, they got it, just like spectators at the Coliseum in Rome. Were the debates what the candidates wanted? One suspects that they were at least what they needed, because these ambitious and articulate men subjected themselves to this process. Perhaps that is why George Bush infamously checked his watch in the 1992 presidential debates; he had to perform but hated doing so. It is easy to conclude that many Americans got what they wanted in the debates.

People want their leaders to be successful and to care enough about them to help make them successful. People want their leaders to be enough like them to understand their problems and enough unlike them to solve the problems that they cannot. They want strong leaders to stand up to threats at home and abroad, and sensitive leaders who are touched at the sight of a mother grieving her fallen warrior son. They want a man who can deftly manage a civil war in Syria and equally manage the workplace rights of a breastfeeding mother. It is a tall order, and no one on earth can do it perfectly. The entire election process is the best that we, or anyone else, has devised to pick the man who can do it the best. The American style of government, republican democracy, is messy. But given the inherent corruption of man, it is the best possible government for providing the most good for the most people. The election process, including the wearisome debates, gives Americans a glimpse not just into the candidates, but into the glories, and absurdities, of republican democracy.

One last note, as citizens of the world, Christians must help shape the world to reflect the goodness of the One who created it. Justice matters, and believers in Christ should be the first to fight for it, just as the American Abolitionists, largely Christian, did 200 years ago. However as citizens of heaven, we must never put our hope in the world. God alone is sovereign, and regardless of the outcomes of elections, or any other event on earth, He is in control. Our ultimate trust must always be in Him.