Today in superficial statistics (peaceful transitions edition)

As always happens at some point on every Inauguration Day, some drunken DC fool blathers something about celebrating America and her “tradition of peaceful transfers of power” and I guess everyone in the country is traditionally supposed to try to kiss their own asses for being so special or whatever. This year I gather it was Lamar Alexander (R-YouSeriousWithThosePlaidShirts?) as the blatherer, but then suspiciously intellectual-looking Dylan Matthews had to go America-Hatin’ on the Craptial’s Newspaper of Ill Repute, and he produced this chart to say, nuh-uh, America isn’t so special, after all:


Now, I’d like to cite the original source of this wonderful chart, but Mr. Matthews didn’t offer it and for all I know he made it himself. What I do know is that it’s spectacularly useless as to making any kind of point. Why? Let’s examine a few of the reasons:

  • The chart evidently assumes that every change in US presidential administration counts as a “peaceful, democratic transition.” There have been 44 US presidents so, ipso facto, we’ve had 43 peaceful transitions. Except I bet if we could raise Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, and Kennedy from their resting places (where they were put by, you know, assassins), they might raise some objection to the idea that the ends of their terms came “peacefully.”
  • For that matter, as Kevin Drum suggests, are we really saying that Lincoln’s 1861 inauguration was a peaceful democratic transition? Sure, the part where half the country violently rebelled came shortly after his inauguration, but isn’t that really splitting hairs?
  • How much of a “transition” was, say, Washington’s replacement by his own vice-president? Jefferson’s replacement by his own Secretary of State, who was then replaced by his? Teddy Roosevelt’s replacement by his hand-picked successor? For that matter, when any new president comes from the same party as the previous one, does that really count as a “transition”? Should we really be giving ourselves gold stars over the fact that the streets didn’t run red with blood when George the Elder took over for St. Ronald after serving as his VP for 8 years?
  • What about some of these other countries? In the UK, it appears whoever made that chart is, as for the US, just counting up the number of past UK PMs and subtracting one. Except, this is misleading not only because sometimes one PM succeeds another PM from the same party, or because for a chunk of that time the UK was not all that “democratic” (unless you would agree that allowing only about 10% of the adult male population to vote [prior to 1832] qualifies as “democratic”) nor did it “transition” all that much (unless you want to ignore that a lot of executive power still belonged to the UK’s inherited and stable monarchy over much of the period in question), but also because the UK changes PMs far more frequently than we change presidents, since PMs have no set term in office (going back to the first PM, Robert Walpole, according to this chart the UK has had arguably 74 transitions of power compared to America’s 43, but only over a period of about 50 or 60 more years). I would argue that this chart makes the UK’s record look disproportionately better than America’s (if you ignore all the objections I just raised to America’s place on the chart) by focusing on transitions rather than over the period of time during which those transitions have occurred. On the other hand, maybe you think the fact that they’ve managed 30 more transitions in only ~60 more years is actually more impressive than the graph lets on. Either way the chart is comparing apples and oranges to some extent.
  • The same problem comes up in countries like Italy and Japan, where there have been periods during which both countries have gone through two or even three governments in a single year, which either makes their string of peaceful transitions more or less impressive depending on how you look at it. In any case, the chart doesn’t account for that fairly crucial bit of information, the length of time over which these records were accumulated.

I’m sure somebody with a better grasp on the internal politics of the other nations in this chart can pick it apart further, but at any rate just counting up the number of presidents and/or PMs a country has had and subtracting 1 is hardly the basis for a serious discussion about peaceful transfers of power. Circumstances matter. History matters.

ADDING (6:37 Central): I don’t want to come off as demeaning or diminishing what the US has achieved at the same time I’m arguing that 43 CONSECUTIVE PEACEFUL TRANSFERS OF POWER maybe isn’t a helpful or interesting figure. There have been a few true successes in our electoral history, in terms of fending off the potential for violent interference in the process: 1796, our first truly contested election; 1800, the first transition from one party to another; 1824, when Andrew Jackson could have made quite a mess had he fought the Clay-Adams bargain; 1864, successfully pulling off a democratic election in the middle of an ongoing rebellion; 1876, when Hayes made a deal to end reconstruction in exchange for southern Democrats throwing the election to the House on his behalf, could have been another flashpoint but wasn’t; and I would say that the election and re-election of the nation’s first black president probably qualifies for this list as well.


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