Whenever I teach intro to comparative politics (or Comparative Political Systems as we call it at Georgetown), I always start the class off with the following anecdote. There was a leader of a country who was in power for over a decade and was forced out of office before he was ready to step down. The leader’s bitter rival, who had spent months painstakingly turning elites and the general population against the country’s ruler, took over power and embarked on a crusade to cement his own hold over the country. After nearly a decade marked by scandal and recriminations, the current leader was retiring and the first leader’s son, who had a severe alcohol problem, a string of failed business ventures to his name, and was chased by allegations of drug use, decided that he wanted to run the country. He challenged the current president’s hand-picked successor, accusing him of being involved in scandals and misusing the military and vowing to avenge his father’s loss. A vote was held that was marked by all sorts of irregularities and accusations of fraud, and when the dust cleared it turned out that the current president’s successor had won the most votes.
The challenger was not willing to accept his loss though, and being stymied by the results of the election, he approached the country’s constitutional court, a majority of whose judges were appointed by his father when he had been in power, and convinced the judges declare him the winner through a technicality and order the current president’s government to step down and cede power. Knowing that there was a genuine sense of anger among the former president’s powerful supporters and that he was facing a crisis of legitimacy that would hamper his rule, and perhaps even in an effort to make sure that he had the army on his side, he then appointed popular military officials from his father’s government, including the former commanding general of the country’s army and the former defense minister, to high ministerial posts in his own government. He then proceeded to organize a parade through the streets of the capital that literally brought him to the steps of the presidential palace, where he placed the outgoing president on a military helicopter and sent him away.
I then always ask my students what they think will happen next. Is this country going to be stable, or is it likely to go through years of repression and civil war? They invariably answer that the country is going to experience an outbreak of violence and that authoritarian rule will prevail, and when I tell them that this series of events actually occurred somewhere, they guess Iraq, China, or Saudi Arabia. Only once has a student immediately realized what probably all of you have already, which is that the country I am describing is the United States under Presidents Bush, Clinton, and Bush. Considered in a vacuum, the fact that the U.S. simply moved on in the aftermath of the 2000 election is mind-boggling, but it is not at all unusual when you stop to consider that this is the effect that democratic politics has on a state and a society. There was simply no question that once the Supreme Court ended the recount, effectively making Bush the president, there would be no violence or rioting, no military coup, no measures to prevent the new president from moving into the White House, and that the Clinton administration would stand aside for the Bush administration.
As Americans we take this for granted, because this is the way our country works and has always worked (save for that pesky Civil War), but in the grand sweep of history it is nothing short of remarkable. Not only do we get the opportunity every fourth year to decide who will be president, but when the incumbent is voted out or must step down after two terms, the most powerful person in the world and commander-in-chief of the most awesome fighting force in the history of mankind unfailingly vacates his post peacefully and makes no move to hang on to the trappings of absolute power. Just take a minute to reflect on how improbable this would be were it to happen once, let alone routinely as a matter of course for over two centuries. Take a minute to reflect on what an incredible country this is and how lucky we are to be living in it.
Something else to keep in mind on this Election Day is that as American citizens we get to select our leaders, but we are also voting in an election that for many countries is more consequential than their own election. The decisions taken by the president and the Congress directly impact the lives of billions of people across the globe and determine whether they will live in peace and security or whether they will live in an environment that is considerably worse. It is a solemn and awesome burden, and even if you are not thrilled with the choices that you are presented with on your ballot this year, please think about how those billions of people worldwide would jump at the chance that you have today, and make sure to vote. We talk about exercising our right to vote, and it is aptly described as a right, but it is also a privilege and a responsibility. The simple act of voting to elect our president and representatives reverberates around the entire world and such a thing should not be taken lightly or treated callously, and it is a right that under no circumstance should go discarded or unexercised. Go out and vote, reflect on how lucky we are to live in such an amazing place and time, and have a very happy Election Day.
A short Election Day programming note: I will be spending the evening at National Public Radio headquarters in DC, watching the returns and tweeting out my thoughts as we (hopefully) find out who our next president will be. I am really excited about it, so if you don’t already follow me on Twitter, my handle is @mkoplow and I’ll be tweeting all night.