Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Peaceful Transfer of Power

So, leading up to Obama's inauguration, during the ceremonies, and in the immediate aftermath, I couldn't help but notice that I heard self-congratulatory references made by a number of journalists and commentators on television and cable, spoken on behalf of the United States, about the peaceful transfer of power from one leader to another, one administration to another, one party to another.

I wouldn't say that this was the first time I'd heard that sort of thing being said. But I don't recall ever hearing it being said quite so much, no where near as often as I have heard it said over the past week or so. The peaceful transfer of power.

Maybe it's all on account of the proliferation of cable news networks, with 24 hours of news programming to fill, and nothing much really going on, so they have to keep saying the same things over and over and over again, such as, The peaceful transfer of power.

But it seems to me that there might be something more to it, along the lines of the Shakespearean quote, Methinks thou doth protest too much. Are we (the me-dia being the we-dia in this instance) congratulating ourselves so much now because we are no longer taking it for granted, no longer just assuming that it is the natural course of affairs, this peaceful transfer of power.

That is the way it always use to be, I believe, at least as I remember it, that we never talked about the transitions as being in any way remarkable in and of themselves. I don't recall any self-conscious remarks about the process when Carter turned the reigns over to Reagan, for example, or when the elder Bush handed the presidency over to Clinton. So why now is there so much ado about this, the peaceful transfer of power?

Could it be an underlying concern that we can no longer just assume that a peaceful transition is going to happen? Does it have something to do with questions about the legitimacy of the past two elections that brought George W. Bush to power and kept him in office for a second term? Is this a paranoid fantasy of the left, the fear of a right-wing power grab, a coup d'état, that it could indeed happen here? Is it a reaction to the polarization of American politics, and therefore a barely supressed fear bubbling up from both ends of the political spectrum? Or is it a genuine concern that we have entered a post-democratic era wherein the unexpected and previously unthinkable might occur? Are we in real danger of losing our long tradition of, the peaceful transfer of power?

I most cerrtainly hope not. I'm not suggesting that it's a real possibility right now, I don't want to think it's a real possibility, and certainly any attempt to go against our political tradition would have disastrous consequences. Obama keeps summoning the spirit of Abraham Lincoln, which also reminds us of a time when at least some rejected the peaceful transfer of power, both at the start of his presidency, with all the horror that resulted in, and in its tragic end. Lincoln's is a dangerous archetype, however powerful and appropriate it may be to invoke. It is dangerous to be seen as a messiah, that sort of storiy generally does not end well. And as a democracy, we do not need a messiah. All we need is competent and ethical leadership. And we do not need a martyr. Sacrifices are inevitable, but a democracy does not encourage martyrdom, and does not need a scapegoat to die for our sins. What a democarcy needs is for us to take responsiblity for ourselves, to make sacrifices for ourselves, and not rely on others to sacrifice on our behalf.

The peaceful transfer of power. Can we still take it for granted, or is it less than certain? I don't have the answer, but it seems as if others are asking the same question, and some are saying no, it is no longer a sure thing. And even if they are wrong to question the inevitability of the peaceful transfer of power, if some people are unsure, and others suspicious, might that lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy that undermines or brings to an end our tradition of nonviolent transitions?

These thoughts trouble me, as I continue to hear the words on TV, the insistent celebration of... The peaceful transfer of power.

2 comments:

Dr. Fallon said...

I don't know, Lance...I was at NBC for the Presidential elections of '84, '92, and '96, and I've always been a political news junkie. I, too, noticed the almost compulsive repetition of the "peaceful transfer of power" thing, but I can't swear I heard it any more frequently than at any other time.

Do you think it could be possible that some were stressing it more because of the state of our political environment at present?

Lance Strate said...

Yes, I think it's possible. Of course, it's the perception of the state of our political environment, and the question then is, how accurate is that perception?