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Republicans can – and must – ensure a peaceful transfer of power

Republicans can – and must – ensure a peaceful transfer of power
© Stefani Reynolds

After a long and bitter campaign filled with threats of violence and fears of disunion, Thomas Jefferson became the third president of the United States. John Adams, Jefferson’s cantankerous and combative predecessor, fumed about the outcome, mainly in private correspondence. But he did not contest the election.

In his inaugural address on March 4, 1801, Jefferson asked all Americans to unite to protect the rights and liberties granted to them in the (still relatively new) U.S. Constitution. “Every difference is not a difference of principle,” Jefferson declared. “We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans: we are all Federalists.”

The “Revolution of 1800” is justly celebrated as the first peaceful transfer of power from a candidate of one political party (a Federalist) to a candidate from the opposing party (a Democratic-Republican). Peaceful transfers of power became a foundational principle of American democracy — envied and emulated in democracies around the world.

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In his first inaugural address, Ronald Reagan said, “The orderly transfer of power as called for in the Constitution routinely takes place, as it has for almost two centuries, and few of us stop to think how unique we really are. In the eyes of many in the world, this every-four-year ceremony we accept as normal is nothing less than a miracle.” Defeated for re-election in 1992, President George H.W. Bush wrote a congratulatory note to Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonOvernight Health Care: Biden unveils vaccine plan with focus on mass inoculations | Worldwide coronavirus deaths pass 2 million | CDC: New variant could be dominant US strain by March Biden chooses Amanda Gorman as youngest known inaugural poet Biden taps former FDA commissioner Kessler to head vaccine efforts MORE, his successor: “Your success is now our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you.”

That principle is now under attack in the United States. 

Republicans must join Democrats and independents in defending it, forcefully, unambiguously and publicly.

In “How Democracies Die,” Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt have demonstrated that democracies do not disappear in a single stroke. Aspiring dictators (including Erdogan of Turkey, Orban of Hungary, Bolsonaro of Brazil, Maduro in Venezuela) run for office as anti-establishment populist outsiders, promising to restore power to the people. In office, they begin to hollow out or abandon political norms, traditions, rules, and practices (including mutual dependence, bi-partisanship, and institutional forbearance). Over time, they deride their opponents as criminals and try to put them in jail; use friendly, bought-and-paid for, or government-controlled media to whip up support for themselves and demonize their critics; stoke conspiracy theories; tolerate or incite violence committed by their supporters; and question, delegitimize, or refuse to accept elections that go against them.

Conservatives, Levitsky and Ziblatt indicate, can play a pivotal role in promoting and preserving democracy. But all too often they fool themselves into thinking they can control — and then replace — these candidates. When they wake up, as some of them did in Germany in the 1930s, it is often too late.

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That said, there are some recent examples of conservatives who did intervene just in time. In 2016, support from conservatives helped Alexander Van der Bellen, a former Green Party leader, win Austria’s cliffhanger presidential election over his far-right, anti-immigration rival Norbert Hofer, whose Freedom Party was founded by former Nazis. In 2017, Francois Fillon, the center-right candidate for president of France, who was defeated in the first round of the election, threw his support to Emmanuel MacronEmmanuel Jean-Michel MacronEU launches coronavirus vaccine campaign Macron now symptom-free after testing positive for COVID-19 France slowly allowing passengers, freight from UK to enter MORE, the center-left candidate in the second round, and prevented Marine Le Pen from taking power.

Since Donald TrumpDonald TrumpCIA chief threatened to resign over push to install Trump loyalist as deputy: report Azar in departure letter says Capitol riot threatens to 'tarnish' administration's accomplishments Justice Dept. argues Trump should get immunity from rape accuser's lawsuit MORE became the Republican nominee for president, elected officials in the party, with very few exceptions, have rallied around him. Members of the U.S. House of Representatives, the Senate, and Republican governors have looked the other way (or contented themselves by acknowledging that they were “troubled”) when he used rhetoric or implemented policies that undermine democracy. Some Republicans (Ted Cruz, Lindsay Graham, Tom Cotton, Kevin McCarthy) have supported Trump’s unsubstantiated claims this week that his win was being “stolen” through wholesale election fraud.

It is now urgently necessary that Republicans — all of them — put Democracy first and defend the integrity of the electoral process in their states (especially Georgia, Arizona, and Pennsylvania) and throughout the nation.

If they act now, they have it within their power to ensure that the peaceful transfer of power, a prerequisite to a functioning democracy, survives the greatest threat to it in over 200 years.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Stuart Blumin) of "Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century."