During the past few weeks, we’ve heard yet more media laments from our self-appointed guardians of political civility, warning us that this campaign is about to go over a cliff. The usually sensible James Fallows of the Atlantic reiterated his complaint about “the way press coverage seems biased not against any particular candidate but against the entire process of politics, in the sense that politics includes the public effort to resolve difficult issues.” The often astute Joe Klein of Time warned that the election was becoming so trivialized — with discussions of flag pins and the like — that we would lose our chance to have “a big election this year.” The frequently insightful E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post concurred, arguing that what once looked like a big election, focused on the big issues, “has given every sign in recent weeks of becoming a small one.”
The eloquent Hendrik Hertzberg of the New Yorker went even further. He described a recent debate moderated and televised by ABC, in which the questioners asked Barack Obama about Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s patriotism and other assorted personal issues, as “akin to a federal crime . . . [featuring] new benchmarks of degradation.”
Boys, get used to it. After all, it’s rather un-American to have an election that focuses on the “big issues.”
It helps to remember that this is the nation that chose in 1884 between the competing slogans of “Ma, ma, where’s my Pa?” (attacking Grover Cleveland for fathering an illegitimate child) and “Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine, the continental liar from the state of Maine.” (When Cleveland won, his supporters sang, “Hurray for Maria! Hurray for the kid! I voted for Cleveland and I’m damned glad I did.”)
What was an issue in the campaign of 1860 — one that should have focused on the “big issues” like no other? It was how ugly Abraham Lincoln was, with one paper describing him as “a horrid looking wretch . . . a cross between the nutmeg dealer, the horse swapper, and the night man.”
As to elections that have focused on other trivialities, Paul F. Boller’s Presidential Campaigns: From George Washington to George W. Bush and a number of similar works have recounted how political enemies went after Andrew Jackson’s wife, FDR’s dog, Martin Van Buren’s clothes, and James Fremont’s drinking habits. Thomas Jefferson’s failure to fight in the Revolution was a big issue in 1800, and one Connecticut paper warned that, if he was elected, “murder, robbery and rape, adultery and incest will all be openly taught and practiced.”
Even when we’ve purported to have a discussion of “big issues,” it’s not clear how elucidating it has been. Woodrow Wilson promised to keep us out of war in 1916, and then led us right in — a path followed, more or less, by Lyndon Johnson in 1964 with Vietnam. FDR’s program to deal with the Depression in 1932 bore little resemblance to what he actually did after he took office. John F. Kennedy’s victory in 1960 was hardly due to his discussion of “big issues,” since one of the principal issues he exploited was a completely fabricated missile gap between us and the Russians.
Playing the game
Why can’t we have a “civilized” discussion of the issues? Part of it is because the voters are smarter than that. They know that politicians will say pretty much anything to get elected, and they also know that no one can foresee the issues a president will have to confront. So, they focus on what some critics might call “small issues” but others might define as the key issue of “character,” since in the end, that’s what really counts.
In part, it’s because politics in this country early on became a branch of popular culture — prized as much for its entertainment value as its social one. To a large extent, that tradition continues, if only because the key events in our political universe are brought to us through television, which is, after all, a medium of entertainment. It’s no coincidence that ever since they began in 1960, the presidential debates have resembled the quiz shows that were popular in that era (Twenty One), and remain so today in a slightly different form.
Related and equally important, Americans don’t take their politics all that seriously, which is why only about half of our fellow citizens even bother to vote, in sharp contrast with much of the rest of the world. Part of that is because many of our ancestors came here to escape forced political obligations, a tradition that still continues today.
But a larger part of it is also that most Americans assume, quite rightly, that, no matter how an election turns out, things will end up all right for the nation as a whole — as they almost always have.
Americans have usually enjoyed the freedom and good fortune not to have to care much about elections. Though Messrs. Fallows, Klein, Dionne, and Hertzberg may devoutly wish for this year to be different, you can rest assured it’s likely not to be.
BARACK OBAMA VS. JOHN McCAIN
Odds: even | this past week: even
To read the “Presidential Tote Board” blog, go to thePhoenix.com/toteboard. Steven Stark can be reached at email@example.com.