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.

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“Haves and have nots” or “Do and do nots?”

The 2012 Presidential Election campaign is in its final weeks, and while one candidate seems to relish contrasting the “haves and have nots”, the other candidate recently implied that the real division is between the “do and do nots.” One group seems to boil with resentment against those who they perceive have more than they do. Another group seems to boil with resentment against those who they perceive do less than they do. Is either narrative accurate? Are both narratives accurate but incomplete? The debate is not limited to candidates or even parties; large swaths of the American population seem to feel the same way. The structure of the human body can shed light on these questions.

The human body is made of billions of cells, the building blocks of life. The cells are fundamentally the same, including parts such as the nucleus, the cytoplasm, the mitochondria, and the cell membrane. There is also diversity amidst the unity, with cells of hundreds of types and functions, including muscle cells, bone cells, hormone secreting cells, nerve cells, skin cells, fat cells, and many others. They are arrayed in a system of incredible complexity, and work together with precision to accomplish the purposes of the body. The human body is a truly magnificent creation.

An organization, whether a family, a church, or a nation, is made of many individuals, each one a building block of the organization. Each person is fundamentally the same, having the same basic parts and the same basic needs, but each has notable differences in type and function. Organizations also demonstrate complexity, both within and between the members. Each one is, in its own way, remarkable.

Each human cell has a specific function, and the function of each cell is of equal importance to the body. No cell type can be eliminated if the body is to survive. We may feel that a muscle cell, which allows movement and work, is more important than a fat cell, which stores energy for future use, but it is not. Some cells, such as eggs and sperm, do not serve the individual body as much as they serve the human species, but they still serve.

The normal human body does not have cells which do nothing; which contribute nothing to the betterment of the body. There is no cell which exists for its own pleasure, and no cell which receives resources for its own sake. Each cell “earns its keep” by its contribution to the body. Old or injured cells, though they may no longer have the ability to serve the body as robustly as they used to, still serve. No matter how weak, they have important work to do. A normal heart composed of healthy cells is able to pump out about 60% of the blood that is in it with every beat. A diseased heart, including normal and weak cells may only be able to pump 15%, but it still pumps. To help compensate, the brain directs the body to do things which allow older and weaker body parts and cells to meaningfully contribute. People walk with a limp to shift weight to the healthy leg while an injured leg heals. The body does not stop using cells when they become old. There is rest but there is no retirement for human cells; they only stop contributing when they die.

If we follow the example of the body, no human organization should have members who contribute nothing. Yet many do. What about those who consume far more than they produce? How each organization defines “contribute” or “produce” may differ, but ultimately having too many who do not give to an organization will kill it. Proverbs has much to say about lazy people (עצל `atsel – sluggards), none of it good. In the final analysis, each member of the family must pull together to accomplish the work of their family. Each member of the church must contribute to the work of their church, and the same for the nation. Parents contribute to having and raising the next generation, and workers provide goods and services for others and themselves. Even the old or sick can, and must, do what they can for the betterment of others. In our church many aged and disabled volunteer for important tasks, and many serve others mightily in prayer. My mother in law, a photographer in her 70s, was told to stop shooting pictures so she could make room for younger photographers. This is biased and rude; it is also unphysiologic. As long as the aged can work, they should be encouraged to.

Who decides the amount and value of what each individual produces? In the body, the contribution is harmonized in a way that seems automatic. Among humans and in the absolute sense, God alone decides. In the relative sense, each individual must first intend to give at least as much as they receive, and then strive to do it. Others must help them along the way.

Does this mean that the individual has no inherent importance outside of what they contribute? No, but it means that the One who created us did so not for our own enjoyment or even benefit, but for His purposes. No human individual, or even group, is the center of the universe. We exist to serve our Maker. Only when we believe that we have no Maker do we begin to believe that we exist to serve ourselves, individually or corporately.

The healthy human body also does not have cells that starve or fail to receive the structure and resources that they need to live and function. Some cells receive more than others, nerve cells, for example, use more glucose and oxygen than fat cells, but no cell receives more than it can profitably use. Even fat cells accumulate fat not for themselves, but for the body. Human organizations likewise must meet the needs of each member because doing so is necessary to accomplish the mission of the organization.

How does the body meet the needs of its members? The brain does not and cannot meet the needs of every member with its internal resources. The brain tells the body what to do in the external environment, ensuring that its needs are met, and picks up signals from the internal environment (such as pain, hunger, etc.). The brain is neither capable of nor responsible for meeting the needs of each cell. In fact, the brain sometimes sacrifices individual cells for the sake of the body. Instead the brain directs the body to get what it needs (air, shelter, water, food, etc.) from the environment. The body, its parts working in unity to accomplish its mission and meet its own needs, corporately promotes the survival of each cell. For example, when a person is born with only one kidney, the other kidney grows to compensate.

While the brain is responsive to the needs of its cells and organs, it can override internal signals to accomplish a greater goal. How often have we ignored the ache of muscles to finish a job we had to do? Every woman who has ever given birth has willingly endured the pain and injury, knowing that she will receive a great blessing.

Control is localized. When a man twists his right ankle, the right leg buckles to take the pressure off the injured ankle while the left leg stiffens to support more of the weight of the body. Control of this reflex occurs at the spinal cord. Vital processes such as breathing are controlled at the brainstem, not the highest level cerebral cortex. Another vital process, the pulse, is controlled jointly within the heart and at the brainstem. The health of the body is not the responsibility of the brain alone, but of all the members. Activities occur at lowest possible levels of control.

Organizations are similar. They exist first to accomplish their mission, and second to meet the needs of their members. The purpose of the leadership is to direct the organization to accomplish the mission. Parents must take care of their children and officers take care of their soldiers, but they do so to ensure that the next generation or the military unit does what it was intended to do. Control must be localized at the lowest possible level of authority in organizations, just as in the body.

Likewise, nations do not exist for themselves but to promote peace and justice at home and abroad. As the brain directs the body to accomplish its mission and ensure its survival in the environment, so governments direct the nation to accomplish its mission in the world and ensure its survival. However, governments should not and cannot guarantee the survival or even well being of every individual. On the contrary, individual citizens working as individuals, as families, as community groups, and even through governments work to support each other.

There are times when human bodies develop cells that do nothing for the body, that consume resources and that spread. This is known as cancer. Under the influence of viruses, radiation and other stimuli, a cell can be changed in a way that causes it to stop doing what it was created to do, stop helping the rest of the body, and begin multiplying uncontrollably. The immune system of the body usually detects these cells and destroys them before they cause greater damage. Some indolent cancers, such as many prostate and thyroid cancers, stay in the body growing slowly and never spread or become dangerous. In other cases, cancerous cells proliferate, consume resources, destroy nearby productive cells, and ultimately kill the body. This is why people with advanced cancer literally waste away. In killing the body the cancer cells also die. Selfishness is ultimately death to those that practice it.

The sequence is little different in the lives of families, other organizations, and even nations. Under the false teachings of “it’s all about me”, “the world owes me” and “I am the center of my existence”, people begin to believe that they can be consumers, not producers, and that somehow they deserve to be supported, regardless of what they give to others. A healthy family, organization or nation can retrain or even support these members. Eventually, though, these people do so little and consume so much that they can no longer be supported and the organization begins to falter. If unchecked the family, organization or nation will be destroyed. So will the “cancerous” person. Few people truly believe that they have no responsibilities to others at all, but how many do as much as possible for themselves and as little as possible for others? How much less cancerous are they?

The use of the human body to describe human organizations is a metaphor and therefore is imperfect, as all metaphors imperfectly describe reality. However it does describe important truths in the real world. It takes little reflection to realize that these principles are true in all areas of life. Let us return to our initial questions. The real issue is not between “the haves and the have nots” but those who have enough to accomplish their purpose on earth and those who do not. Resentment over people who have more simply because they have more is irrational, destructive, and frankly evil. Arrogance about having more than another person is the same. A person with little who accomplishes his mission in life is far better than one with much who does not.

The issue of “those who do and those who do not” is also misleading. It is rare to find someone who doesn’t contribute something to the family, the church, or the nation. It is rarer still to find someone who doesn’t believe that they contribute more than they actually do. Few people fall completely into the categories “do” or “do not”; most fall somewhere between the two. The task of measuring individual contributions is undoable, save by God alone. The task of identifying people with attitudes of selfishness and entitlement is far easier; most people will reveal their attitudes if you ask them, and then watch what they do. None of us is as good as we think we are.

In the end, the body provides an excellent illustration of how human organizations should work, and what happens when they do not. Creation and the Bible are God’s magnificent revelations to man. In aligning ourselves and our society with the truths contained therein, we will have the best possible human civilization and the best possible eternal reward.