How to Destroy a Civilization by David Montgomery


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.

Letters to Editor

  1. George R. Shivers says

    I am one of the “perfidious” villains who wholeheartedly supported the decision of the 67 members of Congress who boycotted the inauguration of Trump. First of all, theirs was a peaceful protest that did not interrupt the history of peaceful transitions that Mr. Montgomery is so concerned about. Additionally, Donald Trump did nothing but bring disgraced on our country during the campaign and has continued to act in a shameful way that places all of us in danger as he antagonizes even our allies. I have joined millions of others in supporting the Indivisible organization across the country and our own local chapter in devoting myself to opposing the acts of this misguided presidency. I trust that Mr. Montgomery prizes democracy, and I can assure him that Donald Trump and his Republican allies are the biggest threat that our democracy has faced during its history (and there have been others.)

  2. Robin Wood says

    Stifling free speech and demonizing a free press is a good way to destroy civilization, or at least civil society. Also, making false claims about voter fraud, suppressing the vote and hacking the election. This president has shown himself to be an enemy of democracy. I’m sorry I don’t live in one of those principled congressmen’s districts. Much is made of the 100 rioters inauguration day and no mention at all of the 450,000 peaceful protesters the following day.

  3. Carla Massoni says

    What do you think now Mr. Montgomery? I look forward to reading your comments as the Trump presidency unfolds and holding you responsible for the “consequences” this election produces. I am proud of the “67 courageous Democrats” and hundreds of thousands of demonstrators all over the world who gave voice to their conscience and plan to RESIST at every opportunity. Presidents Trump – Bannon, Conway & Kushner- do not represent the America I love.

  4. Frances Miller says

    Whenever I hear a Republican chastising Democrats for planning to “block Trump from carrying out any of the changes he promised” and rewriting our country’s recent history to suggest that the past eight years of Republicans controlling Congress was a model of conciliation, compromise and legislative actions all directed at the “common good”, I have to ask just how stupid they think the American electorate is? Do they think we have forgotten “Our only job is to make Obama a one term president”, the costly Benghazi hearings, the endless attempts to repeal the ACA with absolutely no hint of what it would be replaced with, the theft of the Supreme Court nomination, and the total disregard shown by the president-elect for anything resembling constitutional guidelines or respect for governmental institutions and traditions that have been responsible for seeing a peaceful transition from one president to the next for many decades? Are they paying attention to what is going on in Washington and are they comfortable with the daily destruction? Are they happy with the consequences of this election?
    I respect any Republican, and I have met a few, who is willing to admit that their platform of Me first, Party second, America a distant third has brought our nation to this terrible moment in its history. I would welcome their views in this paper, but more of the same old spin we’ve been hearing since the Reagan years is simply counterproductive.

  5. Jodi Mathison says

    I was sorry to read of your obvious amnesia. I will help you. It was Sen. McConnell who met with his cohorts the night of President Obama’s first inauguration and announced that they would reject anything that Mr. Obama proposed. McConnell also announced that Mr. Obama would be a one term president. These jokers also refused to consider a valid nominee for the Supreme Court and almost shut down the government.

    Were these actions showing respect for the office of the Presidency? Or for the man?

    Furthermore, as a private citizen and candidate, Mr. Trump questioned, without evidence, the birthplace and therefore legitimacy of President Obama for years. It was a racist action and was despicable.

    The 67 Democrats who boycotted Trump’s inauguration recognize something that you do not. We are not in normal times and this is not a “normal” President.
    Please spare us your wagging finger. You have no standing here. The people do.

  6. Jamie Kirkpatrick says

    The “legitimacy” of Trump’s victory is very much in doubt, Mr. Montgomery. He lost the popular vote by 3 million votes. That he won in the Electoral College is largely due to Russian interference and the FBI Director’s ill-timed and illegal letter to Congress. I wish more people–Democrats , Republicans, Independents– had boycotted the inauguration. I know I did. What a sham!

  7. leslie moorhouse says

    Thank you David Montgomery for taking the time to write this article, and, thank you Spy for publishing it.Yes, these times are not normal,but what is? The most recent reporting by the “for profit press” of the new Administration’s “ban” on people coming to our country from certain other countries is a perfect example of the way that we as a people are being subconsciously brainwashed to believe that what is happening is bad. The words that these reporters use, and the way they use them are intended to infuriate and sway our opinion. All of it reports on how inconvenient and horrible this ban is for “everyone”, and how BAD it is for our country’s image around the world. Not once to they report on why the Administration has taken these steps.

    Not once do they show the faces of the victims of the San Bernardino massacre, nor the faces of any of the other victims of this Islamic terrorism, such as the 2,996 people killed and more than 6,000 others wounded during the attacks on September 11, 2001. These reporters keep interviewing people who continuously talk about how President Trump didn’t win the “popular” vote, and they do it over and over again. Need they be reminded that there is a reason that we have established the electoral college form of voting? I don’t think so. They just want to keep fueling the fire. And why is that? Because it brings high ratings and big bucks. The “love” group that marched in Washington the day after the inauguration all had one thing in common………..they “hate” our new President. The “silent majority” has spoken…..the “for profit press” should get over it.

    • Deirdre LaMotte says

      You speak of San Bernardino. That was home-grown terrorists not Syrian refugees. And the 9-11 attacks? Saudi Arabian citizens. Curious,the “President” did not have S.A. On his list. Anything to do with his business dealings there?

      You speak of the millions who marched the day after his swearing-in. Try being a women and understand how aberrant his anti-reproductive choices do to women worldwide. Remember, women who can control how many children they have can alleviate their entire family economically. That means the country as a whole improves. That is a fact.

      Denying reproductive choice through this odious gag-rule will result deaths beyond what one may imagine. And it is totally unnecessary. This is nothing but what happens in a theocracy. Perhaps all you ultra-right would feel more comfortable in Iran?

      • leslie moorhouse says

        I am not sure what you mean by this statement “women who can control how many children they have can alleviate their entire family economically”

        • Deirdre LaMotte says

          What it means is when women can plan pregnancies, i.e. the use of contraceptives, the entire family does better economically. Research proves this point and one only has to look to developing countries to see this. When women do well, the whole family does well. When women are forced to continually give birth (no family planning) the women and children are doomed to poverty.

          Last week Trump, in his gag rule that goes farther than any in the past, eliminated contraception to millions of women..particularly in Africa. Not only this, it curbs cancer screening and efforts to wipe out Zola and AIDs. Women die giving birth in these countries at an alarming rate. Abortion cannot be mentioned and this rule covers all kinds of health care…like the Zika virus I mentioned before.

          What is so heinous is that this administration is against abortion and against the contraceptives that prevent pregnancy. It is power over women and nothing else. According to Stanford University researchers, if replacement funding cannot be found there will be 6.5 million unintentional pregnancies, 2.2 million abortions (many self inflicted) and 21,700 women dying in pregnancy.

      • leslie moorhouse says

        You are right about the Saudis……..they are more complicit than our government for the past 30 years tells us. So let’s add them to the list??

  8. Deirdre LaMotte says

    Am I in an alternate universe? Did I just read that Obama was taking our nation “in a disastrous direction”? That he and the Democrats were responsible for the political polarization in our nation?? So, is this disastrous direction LGBT rights?, or perhaps women’s reproductive rights? How about protection of our environment? Black Lives Matter? And polarization…. well I believe that started with the Republican yelling “you lie” and McConnell vowing to oppose everything on Obama’s agenda.

    Please do not insult our intelligence, Mr. Montgomery. Your gas-lighting will not work. We are in a national crisis with this buffoon and his posse running our constitution
    into the ground and causing havoc just because they can. Pathetic!

  9. Beryl Smith says

    Mr. Montgomery, I would dearly love to know the “policies you now favor” and what you have seen as “disastrous” in the Obama year. Enumerate please. Can it be that you find taking away health care from those most in need of it without any idea of how to give them something you would see as better; or perhaps singling out people for deportation or immigration by religion; or destabilizing business and economy by an inability to understand the ramifications of the proposed ideas on tariffs and taxation? Those are just the actions during the first week. Hope it makes you happy. I stand with the 67 who peacefully demurred from attending the crowning. And, speaking of peaceful–what about those of the other side (the side you seem to support) that shouted out “Lock her up” when Hillary Clinton appeared (graciously I might add) at the inauguration!

  10. David Montgomery says

    I wonder if the commentators on my column realize what the word “illegitimate” means. To me, that statement that Donald Trump is not a legitimate President implies that he should be removed from office, by overturning the results of the election or other means. It is different from venting feelings by calling him a racist or a liar, however offensive and inaccurate those claims may be. That was my entire point, and why I cannot agree that boycotting an inauguration as an illegitimate ceremony is “peaceful protest.”

    Expressing outrage and voting are ways of exercising political freedom. But refusing to accept a legally elected candidate as President is not. Even if expressed only in words and nonviolent action, they amount to rejecting our system of political competition and denying the political rights and freedom of those who voted for the President. If not reversed, that wish to deny political rights to others leads inexorably to violence replacing peaceful transitions of power, which was my point

    Nor do I believe there is any factual basis for the excuses given for Hillary Clinton’s loss. First, read the Constitution. The electoral college fulfilled its intended function, which was to prevent large majorities in just a few states from imposing their will on all the rest of the states. Trump won fair and square, and the popular vote shows only that the country is split into two roughly equal halves.

    President Trump may have gained the normal level of support from Republicans, but the swing voters were Democrats. The President hit the road in every contested state to convince ordinary, normally Democrat working people that he understood and cared about them. He won every one of those states. All the leaks were true, and they served to make voters better informed. That just makes political competition work better. And lets just admit that Director Comey has become a scapegoat for the monumental errors made by candidate Clinton in refusing to woo white middle class Democrats in the swing states.

    I don’t want to engage tit for tat over which party was more obstructionist, and I hope we can agree that there is plenty of blame for both to share. House Speaker Boehner shook hands with President Obama on a budget deal, and by the time he returned to his office the President backed out. Obama pushed out an unprecedented number of Executive Orders and midnight regulations after the election, to top off years of issuing unconstitutional orders and more regulations than any other President. Not to mention betraying Israel, releasing terrorists, traitors and drug dealers from jail just before leaving office. All may be fair in politics, but those actions were clearly intended to obstruct the newly elected President’s ability to carry out his intentions. As far as the Supreme Court goes, I believe that the most important choice in the election was not who would be President but who would be on the Supreme Court, and Senator McConnell simply let that decision be made by the voters.

    What I think now is that the President is off to a great start, with one major blunder in how he issued the order on immigration. He delivered on exactly the promises that won him the electoral college. Trim government, reverse the arbitrary orders of his predecessor, bring back jobs, appoint the most qualified to cabinet positions, and secure the borders. Name as secretary of HHS a Congressman who has offered a fully developed plan to replace Obamacare in Congress. I am immensely gratified by the energy and work ethic that the President has shown. And he has shown his willingness to respect the views of his cabinet — his deference to Sec. Mattis on torture being a case on point.

    I am convinced that President Trump’s temporary ban on travel from countries that are producing Islamic terrorists is needed. President Obama did the same thing, so lets be consistently upset. At last count, too many refugees were military age males, and we admitted almost no Christians under Obama, despite their being by far the most persecuted group in the Middle East. But the President could have done a much better job of vetting the order with his cabinet and having it drafted more carefully. From his past history, the President will not repeat this kind of mistake.

    • Jamie Kirkpatrick says

      Mr. Montgomery: if you think Mr. Trump won “fair and square,” I have some oceanfront property in Arizona that might interest you.

  11. Jamie Kirkpatrick says

    Mr. Montgomery directs us to read the Constitution. OK: among its guarantees, I can think of two (due process and freedom of religion) that Mr. Trump has violated by his Executive Order. Then there is the Emoluments Clause which has already resulted in one bipartisan lawsuit and may well ultimately lead to an impeachment hearing. That’s three strikes within two weeks; not a very good at bat for Team Trump.

  12. JAMES B NICK says

    The entire Russian track and field team was denied participation in the Rio Olympics because of rampant and pervasive state-sponsored doping. Athletes from other countries as well as from other, past Olympics continue to be stripped of their medals due to drug cheating. Even women athletes are tested to make sure they are, in fact, “women”.

    Lance Armstrong along with countless other cyclists have had their Tour de France medals stripped and their records expunged due to doping. Pete Rose was banned from baseball and denied entrance into the Hall of Fame because he violated the rules. And in the old west, people were shot if they were found to be cheating at poker.

    There are any number of cross-cultural ethics, laws, and even religious commandments that we humans have imposed on ourselves to guard against lying and cheating so that we live in an orderly, predictable world. Standards like these are, in fact, the very basis of civilization itself.

    Likewise, in grandiloquent terms, Mr Montgomery speaks of how free and fair elections are the very foundation of the US political system. How political competition on which our prosperity and greatness as a nation rest and how “Free political competition gives every interest group the hope that they will be able to win a future election…”. What a great observation. Very high-minded; highfalutin even.

    So the question to Mr Montgomery is… exactly which election was he watching unfold before us? The vicious ad hominem attacks, the intentional misinformation and fake news, and the lies all directed to undermining Hillary Clinton were flying faster than the fact checkers and voters could keep up. There was one moment in trump’s scorched-earth campaign that put a fine point of the whole sordid affair. At one point, Kellyanne Conway admitted to MSNBC’s Brian Williams that trump’s campaign-trail proclamation — that Hillary Clinton faces a “likely indictment” by the FBI — was based on fake news. Still, she said, factual or not, “the damage is done to Hillary Clinton.”

    The “damage is done”, said with the same bravado that a mafia hitman might use describe his latest score. This comment followed on the heels of James Comey’s now infamous letter to Congress that violated all established DOJ norms and ethical guidelines about non-interference in elections. Then there was the Russian-WikiLeaks hacking team that virtually all our intelligence agencies agree happened and only flat-earthers and hardcore trump loyalists deny.

    So by what possible measure can the last election be considered free and fair?

    While conservatives like Mr Montgomery may have been outraged by President Obama over the last eight years and have bided their time waiting to elect a candidate that supported their policies, liberals have also been watching and learning from the obstructive governing tactics pioneered by the Tea Party and the Freedom Caucus Given the outcome of election, they seem to work, spectacularly.

    Touché, Mr Montgomery.

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