During every inauguration, every commentator mentions our unbroken history of peaceful transitions of power. My reaction was always “so what else is new?” Events during the inauguration of Donald Trump, the 45th such transfer of power, led me to reflect on how fundamental that peaceful transition has been to our success as a nation.
As an object lesson, the opposite kind of transition was taking place in Africa almost simultaneously with our inauguration ceremonies. The President of Gambia lost an election, but then refused to transfer power to his elected successor, prompting intervention by other West African countries to install the duly elected president.
It should be no surprise that a list of countries that have failed to have peaceful transitions of power, suffering instead from leaders who refused to step down or violent uprisings to overthrow them, is a list of the poorest countries of the world. Political competition and acceptance of its outcomes seems to be prerequisite for sustained economic growth.
Historians Douglas North, John Wallis (of the University of Maryland) and Barry Weingast have observed that until Europe and North America adopted democratic institutions and peaceful political competition (which in turn led to unprecedented economic freedom and competition), the long-term rate of growth of global per capita income was zero. The world’s population was no better off in 1400 AD than it was in 2000 BC. The reason, which they have documented from the first recorded civilizations through the age of democracy, is that every period of economic growth ended when contending political interests resorted to violence to take power.
These reflections about history were prompted by the appalling decision of 67 Democrats in the House of Representatives (counted by the Washington Post on January 19) to boycott the Inauguration. Many of them called the candidate who clearly won by the rules of the United States Constitution an “illegitimate president.”
Their actions undermine the very foundations of our political system and prosperity, and they were echoed in the planned violence and vandalism that occurred during the Inauguration. Participants in the boycott and riots revealed their willingness to abandon the commitment to acceptance of whoever wins by the rules, a commitment that has proved to be the only bulwark against violent takeover of power.
Why does that matter so much?
It matters because of the clear historical connection between political competition and the stability of civilizations. Free political competition gives every interest group the hope that they will be able to win a future election and obtain more of what they want from the political system. This hope then leads to the prudential calculation that it is better to put up with an offensive political party or leadership until the next election than pay the near term price of rising in arms and the longer term expectation that the same thing could happen to them. This in turn avoids the cycle of growth, violent takeovers of power, and collapse that every previous civilization has suffered.
Of course, there was no near term price for the 67 courageous Democrats to pay. They risked only criticism by people for whom they evidently had no respect while partying with their like-minded constituents. At least, the black-shirted and hooded rioters who attacked innocent visitors and police while destroying businesses and vehicles might have realized that they could be arrested and face some punishment.
It is hard for me to imagine how anyone who took the oath of elected office could justify what the 67 turncoat Democrats did. Each of them campaigned for office, and after winning expected to be able to advance the interests of those who elected them. They benefited from the system of political competition and peaceful transition of power.
Then, in a hypocritical about-face, they joined with the ignorant and violent rioters to declare that they did not want the elected President to be inaugurated. The depth of the thinking behind their actions is revealed by their inability to articulate what they were asking for. Was it for Donald Trump to apologize and concede victory to Clinton? Right! Was it to break the system so that those who voted for the winner would not gain any benefit from participating in the process of political competition? Deplorable. Or was it to encourage the rioting and destruction that their less prudent followers engaged in for the same reasons? Intolerable. No matter what high-minded symbolism the 67 attached to their action, those were its likely consequences
The actions of the perfidious 67 and those who applaud them directly undermine the process of political competition on which our prosperity and greatness as a nation rests. They said, “it is alright to ignore the result of an election if you really don’t like the positions or personality of the winner.” That is exactly the opposite of the prudential and patriotic practice of political competition. It is only by accepting just such an outcome that the loser guarantees a chance of becoming the future winner.
The widely deplored polarization of American politics makes the magnitude of the betrayal by the self-serving 67 even greater. The electorate has been sorted into two blocs with more or less consistent views and values that are pitted against each other at every turn. That polarization and unwillingness to find areas of agreement increases the risk that one side or the other will listen to a leader who claims that violence is preferable to peace under the other party.
For eight years, conservatives like me were outraged as President Obama moved the country in what we saw as an increasingly disastrous direction. We bided our time and elected a candidate who supported many of the policies we favor. Now we expect at least some of those policies to be put into effect. Elections are supposed to have consequences.
Democrats are now doubling down on the actions of some to boycott the inauguration by announcing plans to block President Trump from carrying out any of the changes he promised. Peaceful political competition requires the expectation that participating and winning means something. Some level of compromise is necessary to maintain that expectation and soften the polarization of the electorate. Political competition has historically led to good times is because it makes leaders aware that to win elections they cannot just work for a narrow elite. Effective political competition induces leaders to adopt policies that are sufficiently conducive to the common good that they can remain in office. Even if members of Congress increasingly are elected for life, the twenty-second amendment guarantees political competition for the Presidency. That makes ungrudging respect for the outcomes of Presidential elections an absolute necessity.
David Montgomery was formerly Senior Vice President of NERA Economic Consulting. He also served as assistant director of the US Congressional Budget Office and deputy assistant secretary for policy in the US Department of Energy. He taught economics at the California Institute of Technology and Stanford University and was a senior fellow at Resources for the Future.