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Why do presidential inaugurations matter?

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An important ceremony: the U.S. Capitol during President Donald Trump’s 2017 inauguration. AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

As one president’s term ends and another begins, there is a ceremony. Its importance is one of symbolism rather than substance. The Constitution is clear: On Jan. 20, there will be a transfer of power. There is no mention of an inauguration.

By definition, ritual acts have no direct effect on the world. A ceremonial event is one that symbolically affirms something that happens by other, more direct means. In this case, the election – not the inauguration – makes the president, although an oath is required before exercising his power.

Nonetheless, ceremonies matter. Having spent two decades studying ritual, I can attest to that. So can the recent history of inaugurations: In 2009, Barack Obama misplaced one word when reciting the presidential oath of office. As a result, he decided to retake the oath the next day. And in 2017, Donald Trump insisted that his inauguration was attended by a record-setting crowd, even as everyone’s eyes saw otherwise. He saw the size of the attendance as a measure of his legitimacy.

A painting of George Washington's first inaugurationThe first inauguration of a president of the United States, George Washington, happened in New York City on April 30, 1789. Ramon de Elorriaga, via Wikimedia Commons

Ritual efficacy

Throughout history, all human societies have used rituals to mark major events and transitions: personal landmarks like birthdays and weddings, group accomplishments such as graduations, and government transitions of power. Those ceremonies send signals that command our attention and strengthen the perceived importance of those moments.

Ritual actions involve formality, precision and repetition. A priest must wear a special garment; a prayer must be uttered word for word; and a mantra might be recited 108 times. These features make rituals appear similar to more goal-directed actions: A judge banging a gavel resembles a carpenter hammering a nail. Due to these similarities, our brains assign those acts actual power.

This is what my collaborators and I found in a soon-to-be-published study. We showed people videos of basketball players shooting free throws and asked them to predict the outcome of each shot. Half of those videos showed the players performing a brief ritual, such as kissing the ball or touching their shoes before shooting. The other half did not include any ritual.

Participants predicted that the ritualized shots would be more successful. They were not. But their minds unconsciously tied the arbitrary actions preceding those shots with their expectations for the outcome.

President Ronald Reagan is sworn in, Jan. 20, 1981.President Ronald Reagan is sworn in, Jan. 20, 1981. U.S. National Archives

Special moments

Collective rituals carry the weight of tradition, which gives them an aura of historical continuity and legitimacy. Even though they do change from time to time, they are often perceived as unchanged and unchangeable.

For instance, Thanksgiving celebrations have been modified several times, often by presidential decree. Yet, a recent study reported that people found the mere suggestion of altering holiday traditions morally offensive. Rituals “represent group values and hence seem sacred.”

Public ceremonies like inaugurations are wrapped in pageantry. They involve music, banners, speeches and more – the more important the moment, the more extravagant the ceremony. When we attend a ritual loaded with splendor, it is as if a little voice inside our brain is telling us: “Pay attention, because something important and meaningful is happening.”

The only provision in the Constitution is that the new president must be sworn in. Thirty-five words is all that is required: “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

When Jan. 20 falls on a Sunday, the inauguration is held on the following day. In that case, the oath is administered twice: privately on the Sunday, when the actual transfer of power takes place, and publicly again on Monday, for ceremonial reasons.

The exuberance and theatricality transforms what could be a mundane, ordinary moment into something memorable and noteworthy.

The Capitol during Bill Clinton's inaugurationBanners and flags adorn the U.S. Capitol during Bill Clinton’s first inauguration in 1993. U.S. National Archives

Intuitive appeal

Ceremonies speak directly to some of our basic instincts, triggering intuitions about their efficacy, symbolism and importance. Human institutions have adapted to reflect – and harness – those instincts to strengthen the perceived importance of our social institutions and the unity of civil society.

This is, in fact, why heads of state who are not popularly elected tend to hold more flamboyant public ceremonies than their democratically chosen counterparts. Even in countries where kings and queens are powerless, their enthronements are celebrated with far more splendor than the inaugurations of elected leaders.

But there is a flip side to this. Populist leaders, who are successful thanks to their ability to capitalize on people’s instincts, are almost always fond of ritual exuberance. For his inauguration, Donald Trump reportedly requested a military march, complete with tanks, missile launchers and jet fighters.

The Department of Defense apparently declined most of these requests, out of worry that the inauguration would look like a totalitarian power display. But many of Trump’s supporters liked the idea precisely for that reason.

When Trump finally managed to get tanks in the streets for a July Fourth parade in 2019, one of his fans wondered: “If Korea can have a military parade, why can’t we?

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Joe Biden’s inauguration will be scaled down and mostly virtual. Donald Trump is not planning to attend, thereby missing the opportunity to see a smaller inauguration crowd than his own.

Photos: Scenes from Inauguration Day 2021

Dimitris Xygalatas does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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