How to Destroy a Civilization by David Montgomery


During every inauguration, every commentator mentions our unbroken history of peaceful transitions of power. My reaction was always “so what else is new?” Events during the inauguration of Donald Trump, the 45th such transfer of power, led me to reflect on how fundamental that peaceful transition has been to our success as a nation.

As an object lesson, the opposite kind of transition was taking place in Africa almost simultaneously with our inauguration ceremonies. The President of Gambia lost an election, but then refused to transfer power to his elected successor, prompting intervention by other West African countries to install the duly elected president.

It should be no surprise that a list of countries that have failed to have peaceful transitions of power, suffering instead from leaders who refused to step down or violent uprisings to overthrow them, is a list of the poorest countries of the world. Political competition and acceptance of its outcomes seems to be prerequisite for sustained economic growth.

Historians Douglas North, John Wallis (of the University of Maryland) and Barry Weingast have observed that until Europe and North America adopted democratic institutions and peaceful political competition (which in turn led to unprecedented economic freedom and competition), the long-term rate of growth of global per capita income was zero. The world’s population was no better off in 1400 AD than it was in 2000 BC. The reason, which they have documented from the first recorded civilizations through the age of democracy, is that every period of economic growth ended when contending political interests resorted to violence to take power.

These reflections about history were prompted by the appalling decision of 67 Democrats in the House of Representatives (counted by the Washington Post on January 19) to boycott the Inauguration. Many of them called the candidate who clearly won by the rules of the United States Constitution an “illegitimate president.”

Their actions undermine the very foundations of our political system and prosperity, and they were echoed in the planned violence and vandalism that occurred during the Inauguration. Participants in the boycott and riots revealed their willingness to abandon the commitment to acceptance of whoever wins by the rules, a commitment that has proved to be the only bulwark against violent takeover of power.

Why does that matter so much?

It matters because of the clear historical connection between political competition and the stability of civilizations. Free political competition gives every interest group the hope that they will be able to win a future election and obtain more of what they want from the political system. This hope then leads to the prudential calculation that it is better to put up with an offensive political party or leadership until the next election than pay the near term price of rising in arms and the longer term expectation that the same thing could happen to them. This in turn avoids the cycle of growth, violent takeovers of power, and collapse that every previous civilization has suffered.

Of course, there was no near term price for the 67 courageous Democrats to pay. They risked only criticism by people for whom they evidently had no respect while partying with their like-minded constituents. At least, the black-shirted and hooded rioters who attacked innocent visitors and police while destroying businesses and vehicles might have realized that they could be arrested and face some punishment.

It is hard for me to imagine how anyone who took the oath of elected office could justify what the 67 turncoat Democrats did. Each of them campaigned for office, and after winning expected to be able to advance the interests of those who elected them. They benefited from the system of political competition and peaceful transition of power.

Then, in a hypocritical about-face, they joined with the ignorant and violent rioters to declare that they did not want the elected President to be inaugurated. The depth of the thinking behind their actions is revealed by their inability to articulate what they were asking for. Was it for Donald Trump to apologize and concede victory to Clinton? Right! Was it to break the system so that those who voted for the winner would not gain any benefit from participating in the process of political competition? Deplorable. Or was it to encourage the rioting and destruction that their less prudent followers engaged in for the same reasons? Intolerable. No matter what high-minded symbolism the 67 attached to their action, those were its likely consequences

The actions of the perfidious 67 and those who applaud them directly undermine the process of political competition on which our prosperity and greatness as a nation rests. They said, “it is alright to ignore the result of an election if you really don’t like the positions or personality of the winner.” That is exactly the opposite of the prudential and patriotic practice of political competition. It is only by accepting just such an outcome that the loser guarantees a chance of becoming the future winner.

The widely deplored polarization of American politics makes the magnitude of the betrayal by the self-serving 67 even greater. The electorate has been sorted into two blocs with more or less consistent views and values that are pitted against each other at every turn. That polarization and unwillingness to find areas of agreement increases the risk that one side or the other will listen to a leader who claims that violence is preferable to peace under the other party.

For eight years, conservatives like me were outraged as President Obama moved the country in what we saw as an increasingly disastrous direction. We bided our time and elected a candidate who supported many of the policies we favor. Now we expect at least some of those policies to be put into effect. Elections are supposed to have consequences.

Democrats are now doubling down on the actions of some to boycott the inauguration by announcing plans to block President Trump from carrying out any of the changes he promised. Peaceful political competition requires the expectation that participating and winning means something. Some level of compromise is necessary to maintain that expectation and soften the polarization of the electorate. Political competition has historically led to good times is because it makes leaders aware that to win elections they cannot just work for a narrow elite. Effective political competition induces leaders to adopt policies that are sufficiently conducive to the common good that they can remain in office. Even if members of Congress increasingly are elected for life, the twenty-second amendment guarantees political competition for the Presidency. That makes ungrudging respect for the outcomes of Presidential elections an absolute necessity.

David Montgomery was formerly Senior Vice President of NERA Economic Consulting. He also served as assistant director of the US Congressional Budget Office and deputy assistant secretary for policy in the US Department of Energy. He taught economics at the California Institute of Technology and Stanford University and was a senior fellow at Resources for the Future.

Letters to Editor

  1. Joan Murray says

    I am a Democrat, but I have always enjoyed discussing politics with my Republican friends, happily agreeing to disagree on many different issues.
    I am very patriotic and believe deeply that we must respect both the President and the office of the President.
    In the case of Donald Trump, however, I will not sit back and pretend that we are dealing with someone who is normal. Trump has a severe mental illness which psychologists have labeled “Textbook Narcissism.” It is not speculation that Trump has an illness; many psychologists have labeled him mentally unfit and a potential danger to the country.
    Never before have so many millions protested against one man, both nationally and internationally. When even a group stationed in Antarctica joins the protest, then one realizes that this indeed is not an ordinary man.
    While I of course wish Hillary had won, if Pence takes over from Trump then I will give him my full support and stand behind my President.
    I will never accept Trump as the legitimate president (believing both that the election was hacked by the Russians and that James Comey skewed the results), but more importantly, I will not support a President who is not of sane mind.

    • If “Textbook Narcissism” were a disqualification, President Obama and many other politicians were unqualified and illegitimate. The 67 and other left wing extremists simply don’t like his personality and policies. Many agree, but the whole point of the article is to point out how unpatriotic and damaging your extreme actions and reactions are.

      • Holli Mathison says

        Mr. Trump did the damage prior to taking office. He has insulted everyone except, perhaps, straight white wealthy men, and is now damaging our Country with his EOs while protecting his own financial interests. I understand that many Americans have felt disenfranchised under the leadership of the last few presidents, and that their concerns and needs must be addressed. I do not believe Mr. Trump is the man to bring about any improvements to anyone’s life but his own. I hope to be proven wrong and, unlike Mr. Trump, I will admit to it if I am.

  2. Willard T Engelskirchen says

    Your President tweeted that I, someone who did not vote for him, was his enemy. His failure to be truthful to the people is there for all of us to see. How many people were at the inauguration? His minions tell us to believe Trump…. despite his documented falsehoods.

    What do you expect?

    I note that you make no statement about the Women’s March. My wife and one daughter with some friends drove from Chicago to march. The other daughter marched (shuffled really due to the crowd) in Chicago.

    We are the enemy. The press is the enemy. Only Fox can be relied on. Alternative Facts rule. We are the enemy. We were told that very early.

    What do you expect?

  3. Rod Coleman says

    Mr Montgomery –

    Thank you for joining The Spy and sharing your views with Spy readers. I agree with your opinion above, but am very curious as to your thoughts on our new President’s unwillingness to accept the popular vote tally. Doesn’t his denial that he lost the popular vote and claim that 3+ million votes were illegitimate result in exactly the same damage to democracy as was caused by the 67 congressmen….perhaps worse, given the greater publicity and on-going “investigation”? And what suggestions do you have for getting past this mindless demagoguery on both sides?

  4. David Montgomery says

    Mr Coleman restates my point succinctly and well. I should probably leave it at that, but I will address some of the attacks on President Trump and the election as well. In response to Ms Murray, I dont think anyone should take armchair diagnoses of mental illness seriously, but I also agree with Mr Coleman that other Presidents were also labelled narcissists. I would add Lyndon Johnson.

    I will grant that it seemed during the campaign that President Trump never had an unspoken thought, and many were offensive, especially those directed at people of Hispanic heritage. But mental, I don’t think so. He was very rational in winning. I don’t believe it was an accident that he figured out the only way to win and played it successfully. He went out and won every one of the contested states that his opponent.

    Lets also look at the President’s first week. He delivered on exactly the promises that won him the electoral college. Trim government, reverse the arbitrary orders of his predecessor, bring back jobs, appoint the most qualified to cabinet positions, and secure the borders. You may not like those policies, but they are not deranged and his boisterous campaign should have made them no surprise. I am immensely gratified by the energy and work ethic that the President has shown. And he has shown his willingness to respect the views of his cabinet — his deference to Sec Mattis on torture being a case on point. That is not the behavior of a narcissist.

    Nor does it make sense to me that the results of the election should be thrown out because of leaks and investigations that embarrassed a candidate. Since all the leaks were true, they served to make voters better informed and makes political competition work better. And lets just admit that Director Comey has become a scapegoat for the monumental errors made by the Clinton campaign in refusing to woo white middle class Democrats in the swing states.

    Mr Engelskirchen noted that I never mentioned the Womens March. It never occurred to me that the Womens March was in any way comparable to the boycott of the inauguration. Marching to express a point of view, however misguided, is consistent with free political competition, not rejection of its outcome. Perhaps I was wrong and should reflect more on the purposes of the Womens March.

    Finally, I appreciate Mr. Coleman’s support and also wonder why President Trump brings up voter fraud in the way he does. A friend, who has much better insight into this kind of question than I, suggested that it is more calculation than chaos. To me, it seems pointless since he won fair and square by the rules of the game. My friend suggested that the investigation, and the battles with the press, etc., are a conscious effort to solidify the segment of his base that has enjoyed his battles with the establishment. And he may just be tired of hearing about how he is not legitimate, and instinctively fights back. I think political calculation will rein this in once the President gets into the swing of negotiation. He has shown that he understands about the Presidency being a bully pulpit and has gotten a lot of mileage out of tweets, but soon he will have to use that pulpit and the rest of his negotiating skills to gain leverage on the specific items where he needs broader (if not bipartisan) support. That is an opportunity for both sides to pull back from the brink without losing face.

    • Rod Coleman says

      Mr Montgomery –

      Thank you for taking the time to respond to my comment regarding your editorial. You state that President Trump may be using the voter fraud issue as “more calculation than chaos,” which seems to imply he is just playing to his base (using alternative facts no doubt). You go on to state that his pressing the issue “seems pointless” to you. Yet you completely avoid addressing my original question: isn’t Trump’s harping on supposed mass voter fraud, with no actual evidence at all of such fraud, equally as harmful to democracy as the inauguration boycott by the 67 congressmen?

      It would seem to me that if it’s OK for Trump to spout undocumented claims of voter fraud, then it’s OK for members of Congress to boycott his inauguration. Both are counterproductive and perhaps pointless actions. But to call out one side as an affront to democacy while giving the other a pass seems to me a bit unfair. In realms other than politics it might even be called hypocritical.

    • Bob Ingersoll says

      I find myself in complete agreement with Mr. Montgomery on his main point, that it was so damaging to our faith in government for 67 of our elected representatives to boycott the peaceful exchange of power at Trump’s inauguration. Shame on them.

      In the same vein, it was extremely harmful to have had the Republican congress publicly vow to stop every attempt Obama made to govern from his first day in office. There were many examples of their complete disregard of their governing responsibilities, however the most egregious example was the Republican Senator’s complete disregard of their constitutional duty to advise and consent in the case to a Supreme Court Justice nomination, ten months before the end of Obama’s term. I found it a little disingenuous for Mr. Montgomery to harp on all the horrible actions taken by the Obama Administration because he did not favor those actions, and then roundly criticize liberals for merely criticizing the Trump Administration’s earliest actions.

      Hardly a very balanced example of intellectual honesty for his introductory essay.

      • Roundly criticize liberals for “merely criticizing the Trump Administration”? The piece has no complaint with “merely criticizing” anything. The piece argues that elected officials who boycotted the inaugurations, refused to accept the electoral vote results of of the election, called President Trump “illegitimate” and otherwise aligned themselves with the positions of rioters and looters: a) risked encouraging civil disorder, b) were hypocritical because they themselves were elected under the same system, and (the main point) : c) undermine the peaceful transition of power that historically resulted in Northern Europe and North America sustaining long term economic growth.

        You state that you are in complete agreement with that. Montgomery’s piece does not “harp on all the horrible actions taken by the Obama Administration” (that would require a far more lengthy essay-just kidding); so there is neither imbalance nor intellectual dishonesty in his failure to use this piece to criticize Republicans. This is especially true of the examples you cite which have no equivalency to the acts of the 67 that, after all, are the subject the piece.


  1. […] While David is not affiliated with the new administration, and may at times be critical of Trump policies, the Spy is very fortunate to have someone of David’s exceptional background discuss and intellectually analyze the ideas and policies of the new president on a frequent basis. He starts in today’s edition. […]

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