A 2014 study in the journal Comparative Political Studies found by examining thousands of transitions going back to 1788 that 68 countries had never had a peaceful transfer of power. But encouragingly, the same study found that when countries do manage peaceful transitions, the habit tends to stick. Each nonviolent handoff of power to an opposing party dramatically increases the chances that the next one will be chill as well.
We have a lot of political and cultural capital built up. Although this issue is going to print a week before inauguration, our good civil habits, paired with robust institutions, will almost certainly carry us through this transition. We will go back to the adult equivalents of yogurt and Minecraft. (Shrooms and cable news, perhaps?) We are, however, burning that capital at a dangerous rate. So much so that we risk ending up with a burning Capitol. It’s still not likely, but it’s more likely than it was four years ago.
What happened on January 6 wasn’t a coup. But it ended in multiple violent deaths in the halls of Congress, a citywide curfew in the nation’s capital, and a troubling uncertainty over whether our legislature would be able to meet a crucial electoral deadline. At the very least, our long record of peaceful transfers of power now has an asterisk on it, and there’s reason to fear worse in the future. As a not-so-great man once said: We’re going to have to see what happens.