Phil-osophically Speaking – September 17, 2010

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Reflections on American Democracy

Primaries are bruising events, often more contentious than general elections because they are intra-party affairs which tend to result in family fights. This year’s primaries provide an opportunity to reflect on the grandest of all spectacles: American democracy.

An election, at its core, is a power struggle. But excluding one catastrophic event in the middle of the 19th century, America settled matters with ballots instead of bullets. When John Adams became the first sitting President to lose an election he did not call in the Army and Navy to uphold his authority but, without an iota of fanfare, left Washington in his carriage on the morning his successor was to be sworn in as America’s third president.

This seminal moment in American history seems unremarkable today, but, in those early years, the world was fraught with monarchial and despotic governments where power changing hands was the result of a coup or military conquest. The newly minted Constitution defined the powers of government but it was political parties that gave organization to the nation’s power struggles. Political parties, despite the vitriol it engendered, became a necessity for a country that so conspicuously relied on the consent of the governed.

James Madison, the Father of the Constitution, and our most subtle political theorist, was also the father of American politics, understanding the need for ascertaining and molding public opinion. He was one of the founders of the first party newspaper, the National Gazette, and more importantly, the first political party, the Democratic-Republican Party.

Then, only elites were able to vote: white, male, 21 and a property owner. This seems repressive, but by 19th-century standards it was wildly liberating. Meanwhile, America was changing; a change propelled by a swath of geographic accretions. After the American Revolution, the size of the United States doubled and the Louisiana Purchase added a mind-boggling 900,000 square miles. In 1819, the Adams-Onis Treaty secured Florida from Spain. With a super-abundance of land, property qualifications fell by the wayside and politically empowered the common man.

Andrew Jackson, hero of the Battle of New Orleans, not only embraced but embodied the new creed. Jackson looked different, sounded different and I’m sure smelled different than the aristocratic and educated elite that preceded him to the White House. His great popularity made it clear that politics had to be retailed to the wants and desires of the common man.

While Jackson was the face of the new politics, his successor Martin Van Buren was its prime architect. A superb political mechanic, he became the spiritual descendent of James Madison.  He grasped the function of public opinion, the importance of the common man and the need to turn popularity into an instrument of political power. He became America’s first systematic national politician. “To the victor” said William L. Marcy, “belong the spoils” and from that apothegm Van Buren constructed the modern day patronage system to reward party loyalists and in the process became the prototype of the ward healers a half-century later.

As it turned out, the newly formed Whig Party learned all too well from Van Buren ultimately beating him at his own game. Their candidate, William Henry Harrison, another war hero, was ballyhooed for wearing backwoodsman’s garb, having been born in a log cabin and an imbiber of hard cider (the drink of the common man). The haughty Van Buren, it was claimed, wore ruffled shirts, drank Madeira and slept in a bed that resembled the one that had belonged to King Louis XIV.

That none of this was true hardly mattered as a wave of propaganda swept Harrison into the White House. In fact, Harrison was born in a three-story mansion at the family’s plantation in Virginia. His father, Benjamin, was not only a wealthy planter but also a signer of the Declaration of Independence. But in a world without the trappings of mass media — who was doing any fact checking? Harrison was overwhelmingly elected.       

But while the people became the center of America’s political universe, the 24/7 campaign with its news, commentary and perpetual pulse checking was still years into the future. As late as the 1890s, William McKinley boasted of never having left his front porch during the presidential campaign. Contrast this with former Mayor Rudy Giuliani who eschewed most of the early primaries to make a splash in the Florida primary. In the era of the 24-hour news cycle, this was a fatal mistake, and after Florida, all that glowed of the Giuliani presidential bid were its burning embers.

There were other changes. As African Americans and women obtained a Constitutional right to vote, the use of opinion polls grew, even though they were sometimes unreliable. One telephone poll, in the 1936 Presidential campaign, predicted that Alf Landon would defeat Franklin Roosevelt but instead was crushed in one of the most one-sided elections in American history. No one seemed to realize that only a few people had telephones. These patricians had pilloried FDR as a traitor to his class so the results of a telephone poll were sure to be deeply flawed in predicting the result of an election.

With the advent of television bringing candidates right into people’s living rooms, polling and packaging became more sophisticated. During the 1960 televised Presidential debate between John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard Nixon, the telegenic Kennedy was perceived to have won the debate by most viewers where the majority of people who listened on radio thought Nixon won. But television wasn’t decisive with every segment of the population as more women, interestingly enough, voted for Nixon over Kennedy.

What the mass media did usher in was a huge price tag to run for high office. In Kennedy’s case, his father’s enormous wealth was a decided advantage. Kennedy wittily brushed aside his opponent’s claims that his family’s money was buying the election by reading at a dinner in NYC an imaginary letter from his imperious father, Joseph P. Kennedy: “Dear Jack: Don’t buy one vote more than necessary. I’ll be damned if I’ll pay for a landslide.” He didn’t. The 1960 contest that Kennedy won was the closest presidential election of the 20th century.

Still, money increasingly greased the wheels of politics. In 2008, the Obama campaign spent hundreds of millions on behalf of their candidate and you couldn’t turn a channel without seeing either Obama or McCain on television. Enormous sums of money were raised through the Internet from millions of ordinary people who had become involved in the political process. Facebook, twitting and tweeting and God knows what else continues to change the face of politics but despite all the technological advances, the instant communication, the non-stop news cycle, elections still boil down to one common denominator: “We the People.” It was the one thing Madison understood so profoundly when he stepped outside the mirrors that reflected his world and prophetically glimpsed into the future. 

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