America’s experience with President Donald Trump has demonstrated yet again how miserably ill-prepared we are to push from their perch leaders who are bad. Leaders who have shown no capacity for leading either wisely or well. Given this inability to protect ourselves against leaders like these we rely on systems to save us. For example, we have depended on regular presidential elections to replace presidents who are bad with presidents who are good or, at least, better.
From time to time, however, the system is revealed as inadequate to the task. It is widely agreed, for instance, that the electoral college is no way to pick a president – that it should be eliminated in favor of a direct popular vote. Trouble is the electoral college is deeply entrenched. It goes back to the beginning of the Republic, and strong political interests defend it no matter its deficits.
A different matter is the approximately eleven-week stretch between the day American presidents are elected and the day they are inaugurated. Inauguration day used to be even later – originally it was in March. But in 1933 it was moved to January 20, where it has stayed ever since.
Most countries have no such yawning gap. In most countries newly elected leaders take office within a couple of weeks – in Great Britain it is the next day. Still, the United States persists in maintaining its antiquated system, in which the length of time between casting a vote and implementing that vote is atypically long.
The reason given for the extended transition is to ensure it will be smooth. For the outgoing administration to have sufficient time to show the incoming administration how to run the railroad. Well, in the heyday of the railroad this might have made sense. Now it no longer does. In fact, as the current transition has evidenced, the risks of prolonging the time of the changeover are considerable.
I need not spell out here why this year’s transition from one administration to the next has been especially deleterious. The real point in any case is a larger one. It is that given how miserably bad we are at removing bad leaders, whatever reasonable measures we can take to shore up our systemic defenses against them ought to be implemented.