The (Peaceful?) Transfer of Power

The (Peaceful?) Transfer of Power

We’ve been here before, you know. But first, some current context.

There’s good news and bad news. The good news is that the Biden campaign has more than 600 lawyers ready to roll in the largest voter protection initiative in the history of this country – very reassuring. Also, Indivisible — that terrific grass roots organizing movement that has people in the streets, at town halls, and at Congress people’s offices — is in coalition with more than 160 and still growing groups, ranging from Planned Parenthood to the Women’s March, from MoveOn to Color of Change and many more, ready to hit the streets in peaceful demonstrations with a concerted campaign: everything from vigils to legal action; that’s the coalition, and you can login and sign up anytime you like.

The bad news is of course that Trump has said he just might not accept the results; that he has recently spoken a lot about instigating the Insurrection Act, which hasn’t been used in 200 years; that he called up the National Guard from red states with red state governors to militarize his walk from the White House to the church for his photo op with an upside down bible (blue states wouldn’t send Guards at his beck and call). Also in the bad news category is contingent elections, which is what happens when the count gets thrown into the House of Representatives. In short, so many things can go wrong it boggles the mind. Foreign interference, Facebook’s malignant participation, social media manipulation in general, so-called militias and street violence, and on and on. The Defense Department has said it will not participate in any political actions — although whether that’s out of respect for civilian authority or denial of preparations at Trump’s (illegal) command, we can’t tell yet, but we’re banking on our folks in the military who, after all swore their allegiance to the Constitution, not to Trump – and who were embarrassed and apologetic after unwitting participation in his photo op walk.

If you want to hear more about our current situation, tune in to my podcast and a special show with a distinguished panel of experts on this: Constitutional lawyer and former Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman; Dr. Bandy X. Lee, co-author of The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump,: an Anthology of 37 Leading Psychiatric and Psychological Medical Professionals; and two star Major General Patricia Rose, USAF (Ret.), former Mission Director for US Central Command Deployment and Distribution Center in southwest Asia, where she directed joint logistics for Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom. You can find the show at or wherever you get your podcasts.

But the thing is, as I wrote above, we’ve been here before—at least twice.

In the 1796 election, John Adams of the Federalist Party had narrowly defeated Thomas Jefferson of the Republican-Democratic party (yes, it was one party!). Prior to the ratification of the 12th Amendment, there was no distinction made between electoral votes for president and those for vice president. So, as Jefferson won the second most votes in 1796, he was elected vice president and served together with his political adversary, John Adams. Then, in the fourth presidential election in 1800, both parties formally nominated tickets, and the Democratic-Republicans nominated Jefferson and Aaron Burr (yes, the guy who turned out to be a traitor). But then — really, what are the odds? — Jefferson and Burr received the identical number of electoral votes. The Constitution required the House of Representatives to vote by state to choose the president. Therefore, amid threats of violence and in widespread fear of national dissolution, Congress met in February 1801 to resolve the fiercely contested election. Virginia Governor James Monroe prematurely obsessed that the Federalists would try to exploit the stalemate, but in the end a political compromise led to a peaceful transfer of power. Federalists and Republicans, the political parties that had just brought the nation to the edge of chaos, found themselves having to broker a political solution that ultimately elected Jefferson as president. In his First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1801, Jefferson sought to alleviate national alarm with his now-famous unifying declaration: “Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We are all republicans. We are all federalists.”

The 1876 presidential election was also a nightmare. By then, the Democratic-Republican party had separated into two parties, and at the time the Republican party boys were—wait for it!—the good guys. The candidates were Democratic Governor Samuel Tilden of New York and his Republican opponent, Governor Rutherford B. Hayes of Ohio. Returns from three states — Louisiana, Florida, and South Carolina — were in dispute and the Electoral College could not decide. The Constitution was no help on the details of succession, so the choice fell to Congress. But Democrats controlled the House and Republicans controlled the Senate (sound familiar?), so the two sides created a bipartisan electoral commission with five Congressmen (sic), five Senators, and five Supreme Court Justices—one of whom dropped out when he was offered a Senate seat. In reality, though, party leaders had been meeting in secret to agree to cede control of the South to the Democratic party and back away from attempts at federal intervention in the region. In return, southern Democrats wouldn’t dispute Hayes’ election. In that correctly named “Infamous Compromise of 1877,” Hayes pledged to bring the “blessings of honest and capable local self government” to the South if elected, a statement that was taken as code for ending Reconstruction.

Soon after he was inaugurated, Hayes kept his promise. He ordered federal troops to withdraw from South Carolina and Louisiana, where they had been protecting Republican claimants to the governorships. This action marked the effective end of the Reconstruction Era. White Democrats in the South quickly moved to reverse as many of Reconstruction’s policies as possible, to replace the biracial governments that had flourished across the South; to reinstate the Black Codes that had been repealed in 1866 by Reconstruction (laws denying African Americans the rights to testify against whites, to serve on juries or in state militias, to vote, or to start a job without the approval of the previous employer). The southern Democrats also moved swiftly to suppress the thousands of newly enfranchised African-American men—yes, men only—who had voted the Republicans into power in the first place. Not long after would witness the revival of Ku Klux Klan terror, rapes, and lynchings, and the apartheid of Jim Crow, which was institutionalized segregation.

No matter which way you turn in this country, you run headlong into the institution of slavery and the ghastly legacy of an agony that haunts us to this day. It was there in the race between deeply conflicted but nonetheless a slaveholder Jefferson and abolitionist Adams; it was there in the race between Tilden and Hayes; and systemic racism, along with so many other life-and-death issues, pervades the election today.

For the first time in decades, today’s national Republican Party is allowed to mount campaigns against alleged voter fraud without prior court approval. There had been a court-imposed ban on voter fraud operations since the early 1980s, after courts found repeated instances of the GOP’s working to exclude minority voters in the name of “preventing fraud.” In today’s hypnotized Republican Party that seems to follow in docile lockstep behind Trump, the top leaders of the Department of Homeland Security play down threats from white supremacist groups, despite the FBI noting that such groups comprise the vast majority of domestic terrorists.

I don’t know whether the Germans saw the Nazis coming, but history teaches us that
they did. Certainly we can’t claim ignorance, or that this is just another political fracas, or that this time a compromise might solve it, or that this is anything other than a pivotal moment for each of us, as individuals, for our republic, for democracy itself. Violence, weariness, despair—they just don’t cut it.

It comes down to us. Just us. We’re the ones left standing among the 240,000 Americans dead from Covid 19 and Trump’s criminal ineptitude and indifference. We’re the ones still fighting for the vote, the ones still trying to forge this idea that is America.

We’re as imperfect as the Framers. Maybe more so. But also – do I dare write it? — maybe less? Because in the teeth of a would-be tyrant’s madness, a world pandemic, a critically ill planet, social media corruption, big tech greed, foreign sabotage, human ignorance and rage and grief, dear god such grief . . . frail as a candle flame flickering in a strong wind, there’s still us.

But a magnitude of us. A mass, a host, scores of us. Throngs, hordes, legions, an abundance of us, a wealth of us, a hallelujah chorus of us. Multitudes of you, and me, and us. Still us.