Presidential Transitions: How Our History Should Inform the Present

  • Colleen Tanona ’22

The United States was one of the first countries to adopt modern representative democracy and, as a result, set many precedents for the expectation of democracy, which is a government run by the people. This stands in contrast to a monarchy, a government run by a family.

One of the main things that the United States set a precedent for was the peaceful transition of power between two different candidates, regardless of party affiliation. Essentially, this calls everybody to facilitate the transition between presidents, including parties, citizens, and the candidates themselves. This concept of a peaceful transition of power has helped to keep our nation unified and powerful globally, regardless of election turnout, party affiliation, and any other factors that might contribute to polarization. When the 2016 election came to a close, there was a transition of candidates and a transition of parties. Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, said the following quote in her concession speech, after losing to the Republican candidate Donald Trump:

“We have seen that our nation is more deeply divided than we thought. But I still believe in America, and I always will. And if you do, then we must accept this result and then look to the future. Donald Trump is going to be our president. We owe him an open mind and the chance to lead.”

Regardless of how you feel about the results of the 2016 election, this quote is an excellent example of how the peaceful transition of power is meant to unify the country rather than keep us divided. Clinton called on her supporters to accept the results and keep an open mind,  saying that she still believes in America and that we must respect the election outcomes, especially when it doesn’t go our way. 

Similarly, when Barack Obama first ran for president in 2008, he ran against John McCain. There was once again a peaceful transition of power from one party to another with Obama’s victory. In his concession speech, Senator McCain is quoted saying,

“I urge all Americans who supported me to join me in not just congratulating him but offering our next president our goodwill and earnest effort to find ways to come together. Whatever our differences, we are fellow Americans. And please believe me when I say no association has ever meant more to me than that.”

This is another quote that emphasizes how even if the election results are very upsetting to us, we must accept them for the sake of the country. While it is important to make sure elections are run fairly and accurately, when the result is clear, fighting against that outcome after it is decided would only serve to divide the country. However, in the past, even in the most contentious of elections, candidates have generally been very gracious about their losses, showing that they genuinely care about the American people and what they have to say. 

Flash forward to the 2020 election, arguably the most polarized year by far. Party affiliation has become increasingly intense, and candidates are idolized by people, making their dedication to the candidate stronger than their fellow citizens’ allegiance. In October, Donald Trump was quoted saying, “The biggest problem we have is if they cheat with the ballots. That’s my biggest problem,” indicating that he would not accept the election results.  When directly asked if he would accept the results, he stated that “we are going to have to see what happens” and “get rid of the ballots, and you’ll have a very peaceful — there won’t be a transfer, frankly. There will be a continuation.” This is about the mail-in ballots, which are essential to our society during the era of covid 19. It has been called by a lot of major news organizations that Joe Biden is the winner of the 2020 presidential candidacy. 

Based on the President’s statements and his recent actions on social media, it is clear that the transfer of power will not be nearly as smooth as it has in the past. What that means, I’m unsure of. The issue could be taken to the courts; there could be recounts in different battleground states and many more possibilities. However, by not accepting the election results and making excuses for his loss, President Trump is fueling polarization and blatantly ignoring the peaceful transition of power that has become such a significant part of our country’s democracy.

I would like to conclude with a quote by Michelle Obama, the iconic first lady to President Obama. She was by the President’s side for both of his terms and has become a household name due to her charisma, charm, and relatable character. Michelle Obama was recently quoted, saying,

“This isn’t a game. Our democracy is so much bigger than anybody’s ego.”

It doesn’t matter what party aligns with or what candidate you support. In fact, George Washington advised against the establishment of factions (political parties) in his farewell speech. Our country wasn’t founded on a two party system but rather, a strongly held belief of unity among citizens regardless of our differences. 

We are all one country, and the peaceful transition of power is one of the only things preventing us from going into a stage of complete hyperpolarization. It is crucial for the country that Donald Trump respects the results of the 2020 election, just like Hillary Clinton, John McCain, and many more before him. The election is not something meant to be manipulated to one’s liking; it is supposed to be a time for the citizens to elect candidates they feel exemplify their beliefs. An individual who truly cares about the country, and not just about power, would respect that and allow a smooth transition of power.

Image Citation:

“President Bill Clinton and President-Elect George W. Bush walk along the White House colonnade to the Oval Office” by Photographs of the White House Photograph Office is licensed under the public domain.

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