A reminder of the enduring strength of American democracy
RALEIGH - There was a pretty remarkable moment last week at the opening of the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum in Dallas.
All five living U.S. presidents made an appearance together, an amazing testament to our system of government. Former President Bill Clinton even said, “I like President Bush.” That’s not something you hear every day from members of opposing parties.
The biggest lesson to take away from last week’s ceremony though is the brilliance of our Founding Fathers and the enduring stability of our experiment in democracy. We sometimes take our political system for granted, but think about the election in 2000. The final outcome was left undecided for weeks, but once it was eventually handed down we saw, as we always have as a country, a peaceful transfer of power not just to a new president, but one from the opposite party of the sitting president.
Think about the many countries across the world where the situation could have easily devolved into chaos and violence. In fact, Venezuela just held a special election to replace former leader Hugo Chavez that resulted in a margin of victory of less than two percentage points and claims of voter fraud and election rigging. Since the announcement of a winner, nine people have died and 78 have been injured in post-election protests and violence.
No matter which side of the aisle you may fall on, we can all agree that we are profoundly fortunate to not worry about scenes like this here.
Images of the five U.S. presidents standing together, spanning a vast array of political ideologies, also speaks to the fact that no matter how vigorous our debates or how different our views, at the end of the day we have an amazing capacity to put country first. President Obama has pilloried former President Bush on countless occasions, including the majority of his 2008 presidential campaign. But, as has been done time and time again, politics were put aside to honor another member of the extremely select club that is the American presidency.
Try and imagine the leaders of Syria’s opposing factions sitting in a room together and saying positive things about each other five years from now. Or after a revolutionary upheaval, the winning party welcoming the overthrown government into the fold. These seem like farfetched ideas, and they are in much of the world. Here in America though, peaceful transitions of power are the norm. Even after the Civil War, a conflict that killed more than 600,000 people, Confederate leaders and soldiers weren’t executed in the capital, but were allowed to return to their homes and resume their lives.
The popular opinion today seems to be that partisanship is at an all-time high and our nation’s leaders care more about their own reelection than the fate of our citizens. While that may be true for some, I think now, as it always has been, our elected officials genuinely want to do what they see as right for the people.
Yes, there are disagreements about how to achieve those ends, but the beauty of our system of government is that in the end, the people ultimately get to cast their vote on the vision they agree with most. It sounds normal to us, but over 230 years later it is still a revolutionary idea.
(Brent Laurenz is executive director of the N.C. Center for Voter Education, a Raleigh-based nonprofit and nonpartisan organization dedicated to helping citizens fully participate in democracy.)