Wonkblog argues (i.e. Ezra Klein) that the U.S. record of peaceful democratic transition of power isn't that exception because other countries have had large numbers of them. Even though, by his account, the United States is number two in the world, and has thirteen times as many peaceful democratic transitions than about 80% of the countries in the world.
It’s probably fair to say that the U.S. has had an unusually long run, in both number of transitions and length of time those transitions have spanned. But between Robert Walpole and David Cameron, the United Kingdom has gone through 74 changes of prime minister, all without bloodshed. How democratic UK elections were in the early 18th century is a matter of legitimate debate, but they weren’t that much less democratic than early American elections, restricted as they were to white, property-owning free men.
And this isn’t even including countries with a history of successful, peaceful transition without democratic procedures.I would argue strenuously, however, that Ezra Klein is looking at the wrong numbers, and that these numbers suggest inappropriate inferences.
Key tipoff are the high numbers of peaceful Democratic transitions in Israel and Italy. Both have had lots of democratic transitions mostly because their very pure proportional representation systems have led to unstable parliamentary coalitions among the many resulting political parties, and as a result, frequent parliamentary elections.
Israel's current regime has a continuous track record of peaceful democratic transitions goes back only to the year when its second prime minister, Sharett, took office in 1954.
Italy's current run of peaceful democratic transitions goes back to 1948 when its second prime minister took office. The regimes in Germany is similar in age (but only for part of the country), while France has had at least one unconstitutional regime change since then, and both Spain and Portugal have shorter histories of democratic regime changes.
Democracies with a history of peaceful democratic transitions shorter than their oldest living citizens sound rather less impressive.
A Better Measure
As the examples above illustrate, the right measure is the number of years during which there has been a continuous history of peaceful democratic transitions. The raw number of transitions themselves matter only for the first two or three of them in most cases and an excessive frequency of peaceful democratic transitions (e.g. in Russia in 1917 or Weimar Germany) is actually a bad thing.
By that measure, the U.S track record of peaceful democratic transitions dates back only to 1865 (the aftermath of the 1860 election was anything but peaceful), and really not until Andrew Johnson took office, since a re-election of a national leader isn't really a democratic transition (nor is a re-election of the same majorities in Congress), merely a constitutional succession within a democratic system. The trouble with tracking mere number of constitutional successions (and in the U.S. case, really constitutional "elections" rather than successions of national leaders) is that it forces you to reach conclusions about how democratic the process was which are often problematic to evaluate.
The United Kingdom's record is older, although it did skip a constitutionally mandated election cycle during World War II, something that has never happened in the United States.
Japan's democratically elected parliamentary regime likewise post-dates World War II and many of its democratic elections since then have no led to changes in prime ministers - it was a dominant party system in which the LDP was dominant for most of the post-War time period.
Sweden is the only non-Anglo-American country in the chart Klein uses that is anywhere close to the Anglo-American nations listed, because it was able to continue to keep its democratic institutions in place during World War II.
Two of the real champions of peaceful democratic transitions, Switzerland and Iceland, are omitted from the list.
About Non-Democratic Regimes
A related, but not identical measure of political stability is the age of the current political regime. Many non-democratic regimes are quite stable (e.g. Saudi Arabia's monarchy). And, it is often a fair question to ask if a stable, not unduly tyrannical non-democratic regime is really worse than a turbulent democratic regime run by inexperienced amateurs.