No, America’s peaceful transitions of power are not special

January 21, 2013

Incoming Chinese leader Xi Jinping, whose ascent to power was every bit as nonviolent and orderly as Barack Obama's. (Li Tao/AP/Xinhua News Agency)

One of the strangest features of the inauguration was various politicians' boasting of the U.S.'s long run of peaceful, democratic transitions. “We do this in a peaceful, orderly way,” Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) said in his introduction. “There is no mob, no coup, no insurrection. This is a moment when millions stop and watch. A moment most of us always will remember. A moment that is the most conspicuous and enduring symbol of our democracy.”

Not to rain on everybody's parade, but this is just about the least special feature of American democracy. You know who else has regular, peaceful transitions of power? Lots of countries:

It's probably fair to say that the U.S. has had an unusually long run, in both number of transitions and length of time those transitions have spanned. But between Robert Walpole and David Cameron, the United Kingdom has gone through 74 changes of prime minister, all without bloodshed. How democratic UK elections were in the early 18th century is a matter of legitimate debate, but they weren't that much less democratic than early American elections, restricted as they were to white, property-owning free men.

And this isn't even including countries with a history of successful, peaceful transition without democratic procedures. The tally for Portugal in the above graph, for instance, doesn't include peaceful transitions undertaken during the Estado Novo dictatorial system, such as when Marcelo Caetano took over for long-time ruler António de Oliveira Salazar in 1968. Nor does the above graph include, say, the peaceful transition from Mao Zedong to Hua Guofeng to Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping in China — not exactly democratic, but certainly peaceful and orderly!

All of which is to say that "we move between rulers without killing each other" isn't exactly the highest standard to which to hold American democracy.

 

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