Lessons from the US transition

When the dust from the recent transfer of power in the United States finally settles, political scientists, historians and public policy analysts will have a lot to ponder and say about what went wrong (for instance, why did a pro-Trump mob storm the US capitol on January 6, the day Congress was slated to tally the electoral college votes?), and what further constitutional guardrails can be put in place to strengthen a system that saw—and barely survived—its most acute stress test since the birth of the American republic in 1776. Pending that determination, and in the absence of data and information that will help make sense of the actions taken by many key players in the American political process, a few tentative reflections on the character of democratic transitions and indeed democracies in general, may be vouchsafed.

If recent events in the United States remind us of anything about democratic transitions, it is that they are inherently precarious and prone to sabotage. On paper, a democratic transition is a simple handing over of the baton of power from one party to another. It is an admission that the people have spoken, and that an election, no matter how intensely and ferociously contested, has been decided by the final authority in a democratic system: the people. The defeated party or candidate can, by right, challenge the outcome of an election, but taking a case to court also means committing oneself to the outcome of its arbitration. Once a candidate loses in court, it is over until the next election that is. What we just saw with former President Donald Trump is what happens when a candidate, albeit with the encouragement of a handful of political opportunists within his party, is determined not to play by the established rules. Not only did Trump not play by the rules, he went to great lengths to undermine them, and in repeatedly lying about the election to his suggestible band of supporters, he created doubt about the legitimacy of the victory of his opponent and now successor, President Joe Biden.

Smooth transition of power requires that all parties abide by the rules and play the game in good faith. By doing neither, Trump unnecessarily and recklessly put the American system in peril.

Second, the US transition is a reminder of the utility of democratic norms, both in the smooth handover of power and the general functioning of the system. One of the time-tested rituals of the American system is the congratulatory call placed by the loser to the winner of an election on the day the election is called, which is typically the night of the election. Of such quotidian norms is democratic resilience composed, and having seen it happen so many times, most people may be forgiven for not realizing that it is in fact not constitutionally mandated. But that is precisely the point about a democratic system: many of the elements that help to keep it moving along are not written down, let alone legally binding; they are acts of moral generosity and mutual civility through which, in this case, one power elite honors another.

When, in March 2015, former President Goodluck Jonathan called President Muhammadu Buhari to concede victory in that year’s presidential election and in so doing singularly disarming potential troublemakers, he was following this established democratic norm. So did the late Senator John McCain in 2008. Trump’s refusal to abide by the norm of concession, a first in American history in the modern era, sowed division and distrust. His flagrant and repeated assault on other norms means that his presidency will go down as one of the most debased and debasing in the country’s annals.

It has been suggested that because Trump flouted many of those norms (the one that requires candidates to show their tax returns, say) Congress should move to make them legally binding. It is an understandable sentiment, but we think it misses a critical point as follows: making something illegal has never stopped anyone determined or possessing a strong enough incentive to do it. Sure, you could legally compel candidates to show their tax returns, but the real point is that to attempt to convert norms into laws is to miss the point about norms. Common courtesy cannot be a matter for the law.

The broader point here, and lesson number three, is that democracy cannot exist without democrats, and part of what it means to be a democrat is to fundamentally commit to the rules of the game. When the governor and attorney general of the state of Georgia respectively (incidentally, both, like Trump, are Republicans) refused to overturn the state’s vote at the behest of Trump, they were being democrats; when Attorney General William Barr refused to play ball, he was being a democrat. Democracy needs a people, and an elite, who understand that a fair system that works for all is more important than the whims of a crazed pseudo-democrat. Trump may be a lot of things, but being a democrat is not one of them. Apart from treating democratic rules as a matter of convenience, at the last minute, when all his antics had failed, he encouraged a mob to storm the US capitol, thus showing that he is more interested in holding on to power than preserving the stability of the system.

One final lesson from the US transition is the inherent fragility of all democratic systems. Literary scholar, Adebayo Williams, once memorably remarked: “There are no democratic states, there are only democratizing societies.” Williams’ point is that even the most advanced democracies—and the United States definitely meet that definition—are a work in progress, and there is no epistemological closure for any government that derives its just powers, as the American Declaration of Independence affirms, from “the consent of the governed.” The US transition is a reminder that even the best systems can wobble, and that eternal vigilance, that famed price of liberty, is the only known antidote to tyranny.


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