The most amazing thing happened after the presidential election of 1800. Thomas Jefferson assumed the Presidency representing the first peaceful transition between opposing political parties. By today’s standards, this may seem as commonplace as ordering your Starbucks latte with soymilk. But at the time, this transition of political power from one group to another – specifically one that did not require a war or a beheading – was radical.
And it wasn’t as if the presidential election wasn’t mired in drama, contentious disagreements, or controversy. Democrat-Republican Party candidates Jefferson and Aaron Burr were challenging incumbent Federalist John Adams. Key campaign issues? How centralized should government be, taxation to pay for the undeclared Quasi-War against France, and the Alien and Sedition Acts, four acts that Adams signed into law dealing with the deportation of foreigners deemed dangerous and suppression of dissent by the press. (Hmm sound familiar?)
Both Jefferson and Burr received 73 electoral votes thus creating an electoral tie (and a need for the 12th amendment) and kicking the election over to the outgoing U.S. House of Representatives where the Federalists (the losers) still had some pull. After 36 ballots, Jefferson was elected our nation’s third president and Burr became vice-president. (We’ll ask you to set aside for now that Burr would eventually challenge and mortally wound rival Alexander Hamilton in a duel because of some trash talk said at a dinner party.)
So why trot out the history lesson on Election Day over 200 years later? Because our nation wrestles with complex issues; should government provide a safety net for its citizens; what rights and restrictions for immigrants; what is the role of government is people’s individual lives. These issues generate passionate and differing opinions, which is an entirely good and appropriate thing. Not surprisingly, elections, a battle for whose ideas is actually implemented, really bring all the dissention to the surface. Throw in some individual skin in the game – a 75 year old retiree who may have her Social Security means tested, a 20 year Mexican legal resident who may face random searches, a 42 year old Detroit auto worker seeing his job shipped abroad – and now you’re really throwing gas on the flame.
But passionate disagreements about a particular issue or candidate are not unique in 2010. As the election of 1800 demonstrated, a mere 24 years after the signing the Declaration of Independence, our wise founding fathers weren’t all on the same political page. But despite their differences, they recognized the importance of the relinquishing power gracefully. John Adams was so demoralized after losing to Jefferson he didn’t attend his inauguration. But in 1812, Adams rekindled his friendship with his former adversary Jefferson. Their 158 pieces of correspondence spanned 14 years and offer great insight into meaningful political discourse. Interesting side note: both Adams and Jefferson died on July 4, 1826 – the fiftieth anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence.
We seem to have lost the scent in our ability to pivot from heated public discourse to gracefully accepting the outcome of an election. And we may like to blame politicians and the media for this toxic climate, but in a democracy there are no spectators, we all must take responsibility. When we chose to marinate in demagoguery to justify our sense of righteousness, we contribute to the problem. When we mistake our opponents as our enemies, we undermine the effectiveness of our democracy.
So we make a challenge to you this election. No matter what your political beliefs are, someone or something you care about is going to lose. Someone or something you detest is going to win. Instead of seeing that loss as evidence of the demise of our country, think of it as proof that our democratic process is alive and well.
We leave you with some closing thoughts by Thomas Jefferson in a letter written to William Duane:
I may sometimes differ in opinion from some of my friends, from those whose views are as pure and sounds as my own. I censure none, but do homage to every one’s right of opinion.