The Not-So-Peaceful Transfer of Power

Our long record of peaceful transfers of power now has an asterisk on it.


When I stepped out of the house on the afternoon of January 6 to pick up my kids from their neighborhood pandemic learning pod in Washington, D.C., it was very quiet. A planned playdate with their podmates—a rare luxury in COVID times—had been canceled in anticipation of the citywide curfew just announced by the mayor. Perhaps because my block was so devoid of its usual bustle, I could hear yelling in the distance. Not normal city noise; a kind of sustained, angry ranting.

I was too far from the U.S. Capitol to hear the conflict there, as supporters of President Donald Trump smashed their way into the building and forced an evacuation. Though I'd been doomscrolling all afternoon, I didn't know that at that moment a rioter was being shot by a Capitol Police officer. I didn't know that at least four others would eventually die as a result of the melee.

But looking south, I could see a trickle of people with placards coming up my street. Tired protesters are not a terribly unusual sight in D.C. of late, where there has been plenty to protest. But these folks appeared to be hustling away from something at a sharp clip. Somewhere in the distance, the yelling continued. It seemed to be getting closer.

I picked up my kids and walked them home. They ate yogurt and apples and chattered about Minecraft. I wasn't in danger. My city wasn't consumed with violence. The federal government continued to function. But I wouldn't call D.C. on the day Congress was set to certify the electoral votes, marking a milestone in the transition of power, exactly peaceful, either.

What does it mean to execute a peaceful transfer of power? I'm not alone in having brandished that phrase as something of a talisman in the past. America is a young country, relatively speaking, and chaotic at times. But one thing you can say for us is that our record of peaceful transitions of power is really quite impressive. It's one of our best attributes as a nation, and predictably pulling off such handoffs is central to the rule of law in a democratic society.

People talk a lot of smack about John Adams. Doubly so, now that he has been immortalized in not one but two Broadway musicals as a buffoon. But his choice to quietly slink out of town in a stagecoach in the wee hours of Thomas Jefferson's Inauguration Day set a precedent that the nation's leaders have managed to honor in the years since. Andrew Johnson was petty enough to hold a Cabinet meeting during Ulysses S. Grant's inauguration. But then he departed as well.

There is space in our system for many challenges to election outcomes, from county-level recounts all the way to the Supreme Court. Virtually all of those options were exercised this year, with varying levels of competency, honesty, and legitimacy. They all failed. When that happens, you don't have to be happy about it, but you do have to go, and go without violence. And our presidents always have.

The fact that, after an election is over, everyone knows that they get to try again in two years or four years or six years is crucial. The fact that no policy is ever settled can be frustrating. But it keeps the stakes of politics low in an important way. We don't require our politicians to win or die trying. And we don't do violence to the losers. There are limits to the will of the people, and this is one of them.

So how to account for what happened at the Capitol on January 6? It was a violent, inept attempt to disrupt one of the civil rituals that mark—and celebrate—peaceful transition. That effort was greeted by violent, inept attempts by law enforcement to protect the transition process.

The rituals themselves have purpose. It is useful to routinely remind ourselves that we are proud of the ways we typically handle switches of partisan control. But on a practical level, this was probably a case against pomp and circumstance. There is no reason on God's COVID-infested Earth that Congress couldn't have met via Zoom and certified the Electoral College results via DocuSign. Congressmen love the trappings of their offices and always have, but if you build something up as a symbol, it will also attract those who wish to symbolically destroy. (Recall the fate of many a bronze effigy this summer.)

Still, the day of the certification of electoral ballots isn't a natural flashpoint. Election Day itself and Inauguration Day are more obvious targets. Protesters converged on the Capitol in this case because the president called them there. "Big protest in D.C. on January 6th," he tweeted on December 19, the first of several such summons. "Be there, will be wild!"

At the end of that wild day, about 16 hours after rioters stormed the Capitol, Trump issued a statement through a surrogate saying, "Even though I totally disagree with the outcome of the election, and the facts bear me out, nevertheless there will be an orderly transition on January 20th." That is slightly below the bare minimum, and the fact that it was tweeted out at nearly 4 a.m. hardly inspires confidence.

Trump has also already promised and reversed himself several times on the matter. In September, when asked about the "peaceful transferral of power" at a press conference, he declined to directly answer the question. "Well, we're going to have to see what happens," he said. We've seen what happened. It left at least five people dead, dozens hospitalized, and a significant amount of property damaged. But it did not stop the certification of the electoral ballots. Indeed, debate resumed later that evening, complete with its usual absurd grandstanding for the C-SPAN cameras.

A 2014 study in the journal Comparative Political Studies found by examining thousands of transitions going back to 1788 that 68 countries had never had a peaceful transfer of power. But encouragingly, the same study found that when countries do manage peaceful transitions, the habit tends to stick. Each nonviolent handoff of power to an opposing party dramatically increases the chances that the next one will be chill as well.

We have a lot of political and cultural capital built up. Although this issue is going to print a week before inauguration, our good civil habits, paired with robust institutions, will almost certainly carry us through this transition. We will go back to the adult equivalents of yogurt and Minecraft. (Shrooms and cable news, perhaps?) We are, however, burning that capital at a dangerous rate. So much so that we risk ending up with a burning Capitol. It's still not likely, but it's more likely than it was four years ago.

What happened on January 6 wasn't a coup. But it ended in multiple violent deaths in the halls of Congress, a citywide curfew in the nation's capital, and a troubling uncertainty over whether our legislature would be able to meet a crucial electoral deadline. At the very least, our long record of peaceful transfers of power now has an asterisk on it, and there's reason to fear worse in the future. As a not-so-great man once said: We're going to have to see what happens.