A Bit More on Peaceful Transitions and Democracy

Some commenters to my post (and, separately, Kevin Drum) point outed out yesterday that the US string of consecutive peaceful democratic transitions that Dylan Matthews posted on overlooks the case of 1861.

Yup, 1861 is a breakdown. No question about it. On the other hand…they do manage to have an elections during the civil war — and I’m hardly an expert on the period so correct me if I’m wrong, as far as I know there’s no doubt that Lincoln would have given up the presidency had he lost in 1864. And once the war is over, the system endures.

So it’s a major, serious, breakdown, but one which doesn’t lead to, you know, the army having George Washington’s great-grandnephew to take over as dictator.

I don’t know how that counts, but I’d say it’s not as simple as saying that the US has always had peaceful transitions — but also not as simple as saying that 1861 wasn’t.

The real point here, I think, is just that democracy is really, really, difficult. I think rather than focus on how to “count” the case of 1861, what’s clearly correct is to say the question of slavery wasn’t resolved democratically. And that’s a big blot on the ability of Madisonian system — although it’s not at all clear that any other system would have worked any better, and again it probably is a point in favor of the system that it did survive the Civil War, even as it’s a point against that the Civil War happened at all. I’d add that some commenters have also drawn attention to assassinations as non-“peaceful” transfers, but I would take the other point of view — the ability of the system to deal with the death of elected officials shows its strength, not its weakness. On the other hand, the case of Hayes/Tilden in 1876 is a much harder call; to the extent that they resorted to extraconstitutional measures, that’s a serious blot on the record.

Meanwhile, peaceful transfer of power is hardly the only way to judge a democracy. Another would be how inclusive it is; the fact of slavery itself was (obviously?) a much bigger blot on democracy than was the means used to end it, while the failure to extend full citizenship after the Civil War was, again, a serious and important shortcoming that should call into question whether it’s appropriate to consider the US a proper democracy at all before 1965. Another, one that I pay a fair amount of attention to, is the extent to which public policy is directly controlled by elected officials and not by the bureaucracy (or, for that matter, by any other anti-democratic elements such as an aristocracy or established church). Of course I’ve mentioned often that I think a key indicator is how permeable the political parties are. And there are, presumably, more.

Of course, pointing out these other important criteria for democracy does tend to knock down my point that it’s appropriate for the US to brag about (mostly) getting the peaceful transfer of power part correct. On the other hand, that’s a good one, too, and I still think it’s worth bragging about, even if it isn’t the whole ballgame.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.