Monday, January 25, 2021

The Strange Things About US Presidential Elections


The Strangeness of The United States’ Presidential Election Process

    The last two weeks has seen the United States in a social, political, cultural, and symbolic mess all related to one of its most basic structural features; the transfer of power from one elected leader to another. In theory it is a clear process, and one of the features of our system of government of which we are most proud. In theory, our Presidential elections and subsequent inaugural proceedings map out a way for power to be transferred from one elected person to another without a revolution, war, or break-up of the nation. This year, though, that seemed to be in doubt.  There was an attack on the US Capitol building and an attempt to overturn certified election results of the November Presidential election. It was scary and shocking to many-it seemed like something out of a movie. But Joe Biden and Kamala Harris did take their oaths of office on January 20th as scheduled, and the nation breathed a deep sigh of relief. It seemed that the process had worked after all. But if we look a little more deeply at the history of inaugurations, there are some strange aspects of the American system of Executive Succession, and they may have unintentionally played a role in the uprising.

   When George Washington shook hands with John Adams on March 4, 1796 at Philadelphia’s Congress Hall and then let him and Thomas Jefferson exit the building as the 2nd President and Vice-President of the United States under the Constitution, something remarkable had happened. Washington was partaking in a revolutionary idea; a nation changing its executive branch with ceremony rather than with violence. The writers of the US Constitution were scholars of previous civilizations, and they knew that even in countries with hereditary monarchs, changes at the top often involved some type of violence, be it poisoning, assassination, murder, feuds and/or civil war. England itself had recently been through 2 civil wars which killed thousands of people. So they wanted a system in place that would allow governmental change without violence. They set about creating a process in which a change in government could happen without disruption to the country. Elections would happen on a regular basis, have specific rules to be followed, and have a clear timetable. It was a daring and brilliant idea. But would it work?

   March 4 had become Inauguration Day by Washington’s second term, and he and Adams adhered to that, showing up at Congress Hall on that date. Washington then simply gave up the office of the Presidency with a handshake, and John Adams then took the Oath of Office. We now had a 2nd President of the United States under the Constitution, and the transition was a peaceful one. The system had survived its first test.

     That peaceful change of power worked, but there were still a couple of wrinkles in the process. According to the Constitution, elections for President take place every four years in November. The Electoral College then meets in December after the general election to actually elect the President. (Hopefully you remember this from elementary of junior high school) Then the House of Representatives and the Senate have to each certify the Electoral College results. So originally, the new President’s term of office could not start until March of the next year. Also, when the Constitution was being written being  a Congressman was not considered a full-time job-Congressmen were farmers or business people, and they had regular things to attend to. So a new Congress also would not convene until the next year. What this meant was that there was a considerable period of time in which a new President and and a new Congress would have been elected, but the previous President and previous Congress were still in power. That time lag, or “lame duck status,” could become a real problem. Why, if we were in the midst of a real crisis, should we have to wait some 4 months for a new President and Congress to take action? What if there is a war? An economic collapse? A huge natural disaster? What then?

   The writers of the Constitution wisely built a process for changing the structure of our government into that document-Constitutional amendments. That process would provide a solution of sorts to the time-lag problem. The 20th Amendment moved the start of Congress’ term to early January and made Inauguration Day January 20th. It was proposed in 1932 and became law in 1937.That is the structure we have now.  We may think it has always been this way, but it really is a recent phenomenon.

 January is better than March for new terms for both the President and Congress, but as this year’s post-election crisis point out, it still has the problem of a “lame duck’ period. During that time period no action can be taken by an incoming administration, but a lot of actions can be taken by an outgoing one. Over the past four months we have seen what the result of that can be, and it can be dangerous to the very existence of the country as we know it.
    I had a wonderful history professor at Lincoln University who frequently talked about what he called “The Living Constitution.” By that he meant that the Constitution has, right within it, the possibility of being adapted and changed to meet new circumstances and previously unimagined situations; that is one if its greatest strengths. It is not an easy process, but it is there. And we, as citizens and through our legislators, can take action.
The Constitution has been amended 27 times so far. Perhaps now is the time for us to again take a fresh look at our structures and consider making some changes to avoid a repeat of the last few months.

  Ben Franklin was supposedly asked by someone when leaving the Constitutional Convention, " Tell me, Doctor; what type of government do we have?"
 “You have a republic," he reportedly said. "If you can keep it.” If we can keep it, indeed.

Howard Johnson
     One of my favorite musicians, tuba and baritone sax master Howard Johnson, died on January 11. An incredibly innovative and original musician, Howard played live and on record with such amazing people as Charles Mingus, The Band, Taj Mahal, Mc Coy Tyner, and many, many more. He also led several great groups including the original Saturday Night Live Band, Gravity, and The Substructure. He is undoubtedly the brains and breath behind many of the horn sections found on some of your favorite music. Here is an interview with him: Enjoy.

The Dukes on YouTube
    We have posted few videos on YouTube. Please log in, view our videos, and leave a comment or two. Tell your friends to view us and post comments as well. Thanks:

Just a Little Bit watch?v=d8iFNlDPM_c

Higher Ground v=baSmjnQFvXg

If you want to stop receiving these missives, simply reply with "Unsubscribe" in the Subject Line


No comments:

Post a Comment