American stability

Perhaps the most convincing argument for American exceptionalism lies in a facet of our political history that we don’t often dwell on.

As Chicago Tribune columnist Steve Chapman pointed out the day before President Obama’s inauguration, the peaceful transfer of power from one party to another, as first happened in America after Thomas Jefferson defeated John Adams in 1800, is not something to be taken for granted. This past fall was the 56th consecutive election in the United States; they have been held every four years without interruption since George Washington.

Let’s take a moment to compare this to the rest of the world’s record, starting with Western Europe. Between George Washington’s first election and Barack Obama’s, France has been a kingdom, a republic, an empire, a kingdom again, a republic again, an empire again, a republic again, occupied by Germany, and a republic again. Germany and Italy only came into being as nation-states when the United States was close to one hundred years old, and each has gone through multiple forms of government since then. Spain was a monarchy, a republic, a dictatorship, and is today a monarchy again; Portugal’s history is similar, although it has ended up a republic. The United Kingdom has been a constitutional monarchy with irregular elections for the entire lifespan of the United States, but I do not know enough history to track its transition from true monarchy to parliamentary democracy.

Looking briefly outside of Western Europe, Russia has gone from a repressive autocracy to a Communist state to a republic and is now sliding towards dictatorship. Ghana, as Chapman noted, recently experienced two peaceful and constitutional transfers of power for the first time. Sierra Leone, which won independence from Great Britain in 1961, did not experience a peaceful transfer of power between parties until 1996.

What am I saying here? Mostly that we should not take this stability for granted. Our quadrennial elections and the peaceful transfers of power between parties that follow them are strongly engrained in us. This is not so elsewhere in the world, and just because it isn’t likely to change here anytime soon doesn’t mean we shouldn’t realize how contingent our stability is. We should also realize the role this plays in our conception of what it means to be a “civilized” country. It can become difficult for us to properly comprehend the meaning of, for example, a coup in Thailand, when not only are coups entirely outside our direct experience, they are outside our idea of what might possibly occur in our country or any country like it.

Republicans dissatisfied with the outcome of last year’s election know they’ll get another chance in four years. Democratic candidates who lost their party’s primary know they can try again in 2016 at the latest. Where else in the world can people have such a sense of security in their political process?

Questions for commenters: Can you think of any parallels to American stability in the ancient world? In Asia, which I know little about (but bear in mind that transfers of power within dynasties are not that impressive)? Any thoughts on the downsides of this stability?


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