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Precedents, and Why We Keep Them

By  |  January 19, 2017, 10:00am  |  @DaveScharoun


Spearheaded by efforts from Georgia congressman John Lewis, as many as sixty congressional Democrats have now said that they will boycott Friday’s inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump. It’s a startling disruption of a tradition that dates back to the founding of our republic (besides that one time, of course, where we went to war over the results.) Congressman Lewis has gone as far as to say that Trump’s presidency is “illegitimate,” while other Democrats have cited reasons that range from solidarity with Lewis to a Twitter poll of their followers that encouraged them not to attend.

Just an ocean away, in the tiny African nation of Gambia, President Yahya Jammeh has rejected his defeat in the country’s presidential election and announced a suspension of the constitution, escalating what could turn into a bloody standoff between the forces of Jammeh and the nation’s incoming president.

There is nothing that makes our people or our government intrinsically superior to that of Gambia’s, except for those in our history who cared deeply enough about the stability of our republic that they set aside their political differences and helped to facilitate a peaceful transition of power. Refusing to take part in that transition signals to the world that our constitutional system is unhealthy, and that it is buckling under the weight of partisan politics. Above all else, it is the responsibility of our nation’s political leaders to ensure that this trend towards degradation is not exacerbated.

While this is not the first time that some members of Congress have chosen to sit out an inauguration (nor is it the first time for Congressman Lewis,) this year’s widespread boycott only accentuates the massive rift that currently exists in our nation’s political climate. If one party chooses to take part in a widespread rejection of the results of an election, the opposing party will eventually respond in kind, until inaugurations become partisan affairs wherein half the nation and its representatives in Congress believe that our executive branch has no authority to govern. Not all precedents, of course, are good ones.

On that note, I have no doubt that four, or eight, or twelve years from now, when the Democrats inevitably take back control of the Oval Office, there will be those on the right that will choose to boycott the ceremony, citing special or extraordinary circumstances. It will be wrong then, just as it is wrong today. In the heat of a presidential election, circumstances will always seem extraordinary. But when the well-being of our democratic system is at stake, it is imperative that those circumstances are set aside.

Congressional Democrats face a choice with Friday’s inauguration: follow the precedent of our forefathers, or follow the example of Gambia. I know which country I would rather be living in.