The Peaceful Transfer of Power -- and Its Enemies

The Peaceful Transfer of Power -- and Its Enemies
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We mouth the formulaic words but reflect too little on the political miracle that is the peaceful transfer of power. The enormous authority entrusted to the president shifts from someone who leaves office voluntarily, without a bullet fired, to another who assumes office by oft-repeated constitutional procedures. These powers quietly transfer from one party to another, from one set of policies and preferences to another, and often from one section of the country to another.

The same political miracle that occurred Friday happened a few weeks earlier in the House and Senate, when newly elected officials took office peacefully, with full powers. They do so routinely, even when majorities switch from Republican to Democrat.

Until the day before they leave office, government officials have full powers. The next day, they have none.

And yet throughout history, since people have walked upright, we have been ruled involuntarily by kings, cousins, or tyrants.

That we are not so ruled, that we vest vast powers in representatives we choose freely and that they relinquish that power peacefully when their terms end is a rare, historic achievement.

That achievement was hard won. That is why the letter from Civil War officer Sullivan Ballou, read at Donald Trump’s inauguration by Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, was so fitting, so moving. Major Ballou wrote to his wife in July 1861, on the eve of the first major battle of the Civil War:

"I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in, the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American Civilization now leans upon the triumph of the Government, and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and suffering of the Revolution. And I am willing – perfectly willing – to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this Government, and to pay that debt."

Union Major Ballou died a week later at the first Battle of Bull Run.

Destabilizing the Peaceful Transfer of Power

In our constitutional democracy, the transfer of power will only remain peaceful if it is considered legitimate by nearly all our people and their representatives.

Our shared sense of legitimacy has been imperiled in our last three elections.

  • George W. Bush came into office only after a Supreme Court ruling, deciding a Florida election so close that the outcome could not be determined otherwise.
  • Barack Obama came into office with overwhelming goodwill (and an overwhelming sense of legitimacy), but there were a vocal few who never believed he could legally take office because he allegedly was not born in America. The most vocal was Donald J. Trump.
  • Trump's own legitimacy as the duly elected president was famously questioned by civil-rights hero John Lewis, whose refusal to attend the inauguration was followed by several dozen colleagues.

Rep. John Lewis’ Mistake

However sincere the Georgia congressman was, however repulsed he was by Trump's comments as a candidate, he made a fundamental mistake. His boycott, buttressed by his moral stature, encouraged others to follow and, sadly, prompted the president-elect’s sharp response.

Lewis’s boycott, like Harry Reid's change of Senate voting rules (from supermajorities to simple majorities on most appointee confirmations), is likely to be only the opening salvo, not the final one. In four or eight or 16 years, another president's political foes will find it easier to respond in kind.

Remember the near-universal condemnation of a Republican representative who interrupted President Obama’s 2009 State of the Union by shouting “You lie”? Why the condemnation? Because it was the wrong time and place for openly voiced partisan rancor. So, too, is boycotting the new president’s oath of office.

Renewing the Peaceful Transfer

What should Rep. Lewis have done? He should have drawn a crucial distinction between two aspects of Inauguration Day. One is the stately function of transferring power, which bring us together as nation. All elected representatives should participate in that swearing-in ceremony, and so should all citizens. Hillary Clinton deserves enormous praise for doing so; it must have been excruciating. But she did it.

The other aspect is a festive celebration of the person and party taking office. There is no obligation to join these celebrations or rejoice in them. If you do not approve the person or staunchly oppose the party’s policies, then boycott the parade, sit out the dances, and proudly march in peaceful protests the next day, as long as they oppose the person or the party elected, not the legitimacy of the election itself.

Too many Democrats, aided (apparently) by the U.S. intelligence community, have questioned the legitimacy of the election outcome. They have rightly noted that the Russian government did something unprecedented in our elections. Russians not only acquired secret information, they released it to affect American voters. That interference should be investigated thoroughly and sanctioned. But without any evidence the Russians changed the outcome, it is reckless to use their hacking and disinformation campaigns to undermine the legitimacy of a new president, however much you dislike him.

Other Democrats, aided by liberal media, have repeatedly stressed Trump's loss of the popular vote. As a political observation, that point is perfectly fine. It underscores a reality: The new president will lead a divided nation and lacks a popular mandate, just as President Bill Clinton did when he was elected with only a plurality of the popular vote.

But, again, partisans have gone too far, using the popular vote to argue the president is illegitimate. That goes beyond partisan bickering to attack our Constitutional arrangements for electing presidents. Challenging those arrangements is fine in their own right.  Challenging them in the context of Trump's Electoral College victory, however, shakes the foundations of our peaceful transfer of power. Too many Democrats have done exactly that.

There is time enough, going forward, to reflect on the blunt populism of President Trump's inaugural address, with its pointed challenge to Washington insiders and its bold revision of America's global role.

But those reflections and vigorous debate about them will come in a polity that welcomes dissent within "an ordered liberty." That ordered liberty is a rare, historic achievement, won over generations. It needs to be remembered, nourished, and supported, not undermined.

RCP contributor Charles Lipson is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, where he is founding director of PIPES, the Program on International Politics, Economics, and Security. He blogs at and can be reached at

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