Social Studies

Trump, the Peaceful Transition of Power, and How to Explain It to Students

By Sarah Schwartz — September 24, 2020 4 min read
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Talking about the presidential election is a regular part of the job for government, social studies, and civics teachers. This year, though, many may find themselves fielding questions about a possible outcome they’ve never discussed before.

On Wednesday, President Donald Trump was asked in a press conference whether he would commit to a peaceful transfer of power after the election.

“We’re going to have to see what happens,” Trump said. “You know that I’ve been complaining very strongly about the ballots, and the ballots are a disaster.” (Trump has railed against mail-in voting, making the unfounded claim that it will lead to widespread voter fraud. Many states are expanding mail-in voting due to safety concerns about in-person voting during the pandemic.)

As many news outlets noted following Trump’s remarks, a sitting president refusing to say he would accept election results is unprecedented in recent history.

The news set off a storm of commentary, from Democratic leaders who said that the president’s statements were a threat to democracy, and prominent Republicans who were adamant that regardless of his words yesterday, there would be a peaceful transition of power after the election.

For students, the president’s response may also launch new questions. Can he actually do that? If he did, what would Congress do? What would the states do? And what does the Constitution actually say about the transfer of power?

Still, some students may not have heard about Trump’s comments at all. “The first thing I would do is not assume that my students knew what I was talking about,” said Emma Humphries, the chief education officer at iCivics, a curriculum and advocacy group.

Teachers need to first create a shared reference point, she said. One teacher Humphries spoke with introduced the topic by showing an NBC Nightly News clip of the press conference where the president spoke.

Then, look at the actual documents. “What I see in all the news articles, from commenters on the left and the right, is ‘the Constitution enshrines a peaceful transition of power.’ So okay, where does it do that? Treat it as an authentic inquiry activity,” Humphries said.

Look at the Constitution

Teachers might start by presenting what Article 1 of the Constitution says about the frequency of elections, and how Article 2 describes the presidency. Eventually, they will want to end up at the 20th Amendment, she said, which concerns presidential terms and succession. That amendment, she said, “looked to shorten that transition period and lay out precisely what happens.”

Students can get a deeper, more critical understanding of the issue if teachers “really lean into the history of the transfer of power,” Humphries said, rather than focusing on the “personalities” involved. “Look at some of the most contentious elections, the ones where this was really an unknown,” she said, pointing to 1800, 1876, and even 2000, when the election between George W. Bush and Al Gore was pushed to a Supreme Court decision.

In the aftermath of that 2000 election, Education Week reported on teachers who were using the recount and Supreme Court case as a civics lesson, with one calling it “an excellent teaching tool.”

Still, others have made the case that Trump’s statement can’t be compared to the 2000 recount. In an article for the Atlantic, journalist Barton Gellman wrote that Gore accepted the Court’s decision, rather than continuing to push his case in Congress:

Speaking as a man with unexpended ammunition, Gore laid down his arms. “I accept the finality of this outcome, which will be ratified next Monday in the Electoral College,” he said. “And tonight, for the sake of our unity as a people and the strength of our democracy, I offer my concession.”

We have no precedent or procedure to end this election if Biden seems to carry the Electoral College but Trump refuses to concede. We will have to invent one.

Nuanced conversations about politics, related to these constitutional questions, have a place in the classroom, Humphries said, even while teachers refrain from taking a partisan stance.

She also suggested three resources, one from iCivics, that can support teachers in having discussions about this election, mail-in voting, and the transfer of power:

  1. “Contentious Elections and the Peaceful Transition of Power,” a lesson from the Bill of Rights Institute, helps students understand how the electoral college works, and the role it’s played in shaping elections in the past.

Photo: President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House Sept. 23. (Evan Vucci/AP)

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.