American Exceptionalism Gives Voters a False Sense of Security about the ElectionRoundup
tags: American exceptionalism, 2020 Election
Melissa J. Gismondi is a journalist and the new media & public humanities postdoctoral fellow at the Jackman Humanities Institute, University of Toronto.
Shira Lurie is a historian of early American political culture.
During a recent news conference, President Trump said “we’re going to have to see what happens” when asked whether he would accept the election results. He then referred to mail-in ballots as “uncontrollable” and maintained that by not counting them, “there won’t be a transfer, frankly. There will be a continuation.” In the first presidential debate, Trump doubled down, again refusing to agree to a peaceful transition of power, urging his supporters “to go into the polls and watch very carefully.” He also suggested that the Supreme Court must inspect all ballots. Trump may use his recent diagnosis with covid-19 and resulting suspension of campaign activities to further question the legitimacy of the election.
Despite his remarks, many Americans cannot — or do not — want to imagine a scenario in which Trump refuses to concede. Republican leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), reaffirmed their commitment to a peaceful transfer of power, without refuting Trump directly. “There will be an orderly transition just as there has been every four years since 1792,” McConnell tweeted. For other Republicans, such as Mitt Romney, the idea of any president refusing to respect this constitutional precedent is “unthinkable.”
The tepid response to Trump’s refusal to agree to a peaceful transition of power is a product of 230 years of precedent. Indeed, there’s no shortage of historical examples that mirror some of the tensions unfolding during the current election. But this long history has given many Americans a false sense of security. There is the feeling that because a president has never refused to leave office before, it cannot happen now.
This was not a belief shared by the founding generation, who understood — better than some of us do today — that the American republic was fragile. Strangely enough, the men who made it knew well that it could be broken.
Early American political leaders worried that the United States would be a short-lived experiment. At many junctures, they believed that the nation could — and very likely would — fall. Threats, both real and imagined, appeared everywhere: domestic insurrection, enslaved rebellion, foreign invasion, partisan division, regional splintering, elite corruption and hoodwinked citizens, to name just a few.
This was not mere paranoia — a republic had yet to survive the test of time. “[They] have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths,” observed James Madison. Likewise, Alexander Hamilton concluded that it was “impossible to read the history of the petty republics of Greece and Italy, without feeling sensations of horror and disgust.”