By Josh Hughes
For the 58th time in our nation’s history yesterday, a president began his new term. In the words of our 40th President, Ronald Reagan, while the quadrennial inauguration may to us seem commonplace, it is in the grand scheme of world history, nothing short of a miracle. He was right—as Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, chair of the Inaugural Committee, mentioned in his remarks yesterday, it could be historically argued that the transition of power between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson was the first instance of a ruling faction willingly handing over power to political opposition. Truly, the presidential transition of power is a uniquely American institution.
Throughout the history of the United States, there have been incredible moments where that institution could’ve been challenged and fought. In the history of our electoral system, on four occasions has the winner of the popular vote been denied the Presidency on behalf of the Electoral College. Notably, in the 2000 Presidential Election, the winner of the Electoral College was disputed based on the results of one state, a recount of which was blocked by the Supreme Court of the United States in a highly contentious legal battle. Most recently, in 2016, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by over three million votes despite losing the electoral college by nearly 80 votes. Furthermore, questions on the extent of foreign interference in 2016 has further obscured whether the 58th Presidential Election in the United States was truly legitimate or not.
Advocates of the peaceful transfer of power often take for granted that elections in the United States are legitimate. Certainly there is a strong tradition of open elections in this country, but it is irresponsible to simply assume that past is prologue when there is significant evidence to discredit, or at least cast doubt on the notion that the 2016 election was free of foreign interference. Furthermore, it’s essential to note the tradition of open elections has not historically applied to all Americans universally. Access to the ballot has come in bouts and spurts—not until 1920 for most women, and later for many people of color throughout the country. The 2016 Presidential Election was the first national election without the protections of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. It’s irrational to consider the outcome of the 2016 Presidential Election without also considering the impact not having the VRA and implementation of dozens restrictive voting laws in key states since 2012 held.
And yet, just a few months ago, there was a candidate calling into question the integrity of the upcoming election and threatening not to accept the results of the polling. Of course the great irony of the situation is the candidate who threatened to hold democracy hostage has since become the President, and the candidate who pledged to unequivocally accept the election results has legitimate standing to do the exact opposite. Nevertheless, during calls for recounts and investigations into foreign interference, Hillary Clinton has remained relatively silent, and supported the principle of peaceful transfer of power enough to attend Donald Trump’s Inauguration yesterday.
While many might point to 2016 as a pivotal test for our unique institution of the peaceful transfer of powers, I disagree. While many certainly would’ve viewed a President Hillary Clinton as illegitimate purely for political terms (as many do for President Trump) her victory in the popular vote, even amidst losing the electoral college can assure us that if she were victorious, she would’ve been accompanied by a relatively commanding popular vote margin, even if she sneaked by with a modest electoral college victory. Of course, when Donald Trump was declared the President-Elect, Hillary Clinton conceded, effectively ensuring the peaceful transfer.
The real test for our transfer of power will come in 2020. Regardless of whether President Trump chooses to run for reelection to a second term, how willing would he be to pass the presidency off to someone else, especially in an opposing party? Furthermore, how willing would a losing candidate in 2020 be in asserting foreign influence and meddling, now that the door has been opened? Being present at the 58th Presidential Inauguration reminded me just how important it will be in the coming years to hold leaders expressing authoritarian tendencies accountable at every level, but especially when concerning the peaceful transition of power.