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Peaceful Transfer of Power: A Democratic Mandate

Background

You probably know about elections - a vital democratic process in which voters select one candidate over another to serve in political office. Because elections are a critical mechanism for citizens to choose their leaders, they are necessary for any representative democracy. But no one is re-elected forever. What happens when a sitting representative retires, gets voted out of office, or reaches their term limit? 

Explanation

When one representative leaves office for any reason, there is always a transition period wherein a new leader takes their place. In other forms of government, this transition might involve violence or war as different factions fight over who deserves governmental control. In democracies, however, there is supposed to be what is called a peaceful transfer of power.

Definition

A peaceful transfer of power is the process of existing leadership conceding power and passing governmental control onto their successor, usually a newly elected representative. As the word “peaceful” suggests, this process is nonviolent and free of conflict, and recognizes the right of the people to select their leaders.

How It Works

In the United States, presidential candidates typically start the planning process for taking control of government early, often months before they have even won the election. This usually involves the formation of a presidential “transition team,” which vets prospective appointees, develops a preliminary policy agenda, establishes relationships with Congress and executive agencies, and determines initial priorities for action, among other things. After the election, the transition team begins hiring staff for the president-elect and making the necessary preparations for taking over government operations. The official presidential transfer of power takes place during the inauguration, a ceremony in which the president-elect is sworn into office, usually by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. The inauguration is typically followed by an inaugural address from the new president, a signing ceremony to mark the first official actions taken by the new administration, a celebratory luncheon, and a military procession to conclude the festivities.

History

When George Washington stepped down as president after two terms in office, he established an important precedent - that American leaders would make way for their successors, whoever they may be. John Adams made this tradition official when he left the White House shortly before the inauguration of Thomas Jefferson, who had defeated Adams in his bid for re-election. This was the first time that an American president directly conceded power to their political rival following an election, and it established the peaceful transfer of power as a hallmark of the United States government.

In John Adams’ time, presidential inaugurations occurred on March 4th following the November elections of the previous year. The Twentieth Amendment to the Constitution shortened the transition time by setting a new date for presidential administrations to end: January 20th. The Presidential Transition Act of 1963 established a formal process for transferring executive powers from one administration to another. One of its provisions requires that executive agencies designate an official to be in charge of transition planning and implementing succession plans. Additionally, the Act requires the establishment of both a White House Transition Coordinating Council and an Agency Transition Directors Council that unite high-level authorities such as members of the Cabinet and officials from the Office of Management and Budget, the Office of Personnel Management, the Office of Government Ethics, and others. Finally, the General Services Administration must coordinate transition planning across agencies and act as a liaison between transition teams and the federal government, specifically through its appointed Federal Transition Coordinator position. The Presidential Transition Act has been amended several times to expand on the procedures necessary to ensure that the government continues to run smoothly while new leadership takes over.

Why Care?

The successful transfer of power is a key element in a stable representative democracy. Without the peaceful transition from one leader to another, voting rights would be violated and the will of the people would not be recognized, subverting the principles of our government. In the absence of a peaceful transfer of power, we risk what is known as democratic backsliding - an erosion of the quality or integrity of our democracy that undermines our political institutions. It is our responsibility as citizens to ensure that the transfer of power is not seen as a suggestion or a luxury for presidential administrations, but as a collective expectation and a democratic mandate.

Think Further

  1. How does democratic backsliding weaken our government?
  2. What might be the consequences of a contested transfer of power, in which the incumbent representative does not allow the elected candidate to take over?
  3. What other mechanisms should exist to ensure a peaceful transfer of power?

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Learn More

  1. Pruitt, Sarah. “How John Adams Established the Peaceful Transfer of Power.” History, 17 Sept. 2020, https://www.history.com/news/peaceful-transfer-power-adams-jefferson.
  2. Iannacci, Nicandro. “‘Nothing less than a miracle’: The Constitution and the peaceful transition of power.” National Constitution Center, 21 Oct. 2016, https://constitutioncenter.org/blog/nothing-less-than-a-miracle-the-constitution-and-the-peaceful-transition-of.
  3. Zvesper, James. From Bullets to Ballots: The Election of 1800 and the First Peaceful Transfer of Political Power. Claremont Institute, 2003.