Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Walter A. McDougall contends the main purpose of electoral politics is to entertain and reassure the public.
“One of our American civic religion’s more endearing myths is freedom of speech,” says Walter McDougall. “The most sensitive issues are banned from political discourse lest some candidate commit the ultimate gaffe of accidentally telling a truth.” In Freedom Just Around the Corner: A New Ameri – can History, 1585-1828 (2004) and Throes of Democracy: The American Civil War Era, 1829-1877 (2008), McDougall reveals how issues get shoved aside in American electoral politics until they can no longer be papered over or evaded. As McDougall sees it, “The principal purpose of American politics is simply to win elections!”
How did we stray from the Founding Fathers’ dream of creating a republic free of party factionalism?
Founders of representative governments seem always to dream of transcending party politics. English Whigs in 1688, Americans in 1789, Confederates in 1861 and Latin American revolutionaries after 1808 all imagined new nations united in republican virtue and common purpose. But not even George Washington could prevent his “revolutionary brotherhood” from splitting up over conflicts of principle, distrust and rival ambition.
The surface issue was whether the United States would tilt toward Britain or France in the wars of the French Revolution, but Washington declared strict neutrality, and no sensible statesman challenged the wisdom of that. But there were deeper divisions. Were Jefferson’s “Democratic Republicans” right to suspect Hamilton’s “Federalists” of wanting to replicate elite British-style institutions in America? Were the Federalists right to suspect Republicans of wanting to replicate radical French-style institutions? That issue was real, but grotesquely exaggerated in the propaganda of the two factions. Imagine Jefferson burning Bibles and erecting guillotines!
So the propaganda was motivated by personalities?
Not at first. The partisans truly believed the future of America was at stake and quickly learned to exploit fear-mongering and negative campaigning. But personalities did take center stage in the dramatic presidential campaign of 1800. Would sheer ambition, as personified by Aaron Burr, pervert the American republic along the lines of a Renaissance Italian city-state? Or could personal striving be harnessed to serve public good? Thankfully, Hamilton and Jefferson alike displayed the character to ensure that the latter prevailed.
But we were left with a party system.
Once parties entered the political arena there was no doing away with them. Parties were needed in order to exploit, rig or stretch the rules of the electoral game. Parties were needed to organize and motivate partisans, and manufacture and mobilize public opinion. Thus, when the Federalist Party self-destructed by opposing the War of 1812, the Democratic Republican leaders Madison and Monroe hoped for permanent one-party rule. But Jefferson was right to suspect their own party would soon split in two. By 1828 the wing of the party that supported Andrew Jackson came to be known as Democrats, or The Democracy, and the wing led by John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay were called National Republicans. Again, genuine differences of principles, mutual paranoia and clashes of personalities and ambitions all played their parts.
You write of Andrew Jackson: “He shrewdly refused to elaborate what he stood for….Jackson was an ‘against-er,’ and voters relished that.” How did he figure this out?
I don’t know that he did. Jackson didn’t plot his presidential career so much as he thought himself entitled to it by dint of his military heroics, mass popularity and plurality of the vote in 1824, when a deadlock led the House of Rep resentatives to select John Quincy Adams. In fact, if the wild Scots-Irish frontier chieftain hadn’t been constrained by his political handlers, operatives and cronies, he might have made all sorts of self-destructive remarks, or who knows, even shot a man or two during the campaign! But the Democratic brain trust prevailed upon Old Hickory to play the dignified country squire and family man, attend church once in awhile and above all say nothing controversial. So Andy Jackson boasted of running on no platform at all, whereas John Quincy Adams had plenty of platform and paid heavily for it in 1828: He lost in a landslide.
Which set the stage for the seismic political shift symbolized by Jackson’s inauguration.
Yes, Washington City was inundated in March 1829 by Jacksonian “hurra boys” waving hickory sticks, buck-skinned westerners, urban day laborers, immigrants, federal job seekers, panhandlers, hustlers and crooks. Such “democracy” came as a shock. The Founding Fathers had been careful to guard their republic against all sorts of bad ends, but they never imagined the Federal City overrun by frontiersmen who loved only cheap land and credit, whiskey, tobacco, guns, fast women, fast horses and Jesus— though not necessarily in that order.
What had they imagined?
Bottom line? They thought the new nation’s politics must be about an empire of liberty, republican virtue, the pursuit of happiness and a new order for the ages. What Jackson’s victory proved was that American politics were first and foremost about winning elections. And true to form, the demise of the National Republicans begat a new second party, the Whigs. They cherished many sound principles, but also true to form, they soon learned to copy the Democrats’ formula for winning elections through hoopla, hokum, glad-handing, pandering, smearing opponents, passing the booze, promising spoils and, when necessary and possible, creatively counting the ballots.
What keeps the system from descending into pandemonium?
The ubiquity of pretense in our culture and politics. Americans pretend lots of stuff about their politics, history, religious faith, and national ideals and destiny, in order to hold their diverse, continental nation together and permit the majority, at least, to enjoy peace and prosperity, and feel good about being American. This is a prominent theme of European travelogues about democracy in 19th-century America.
Like Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America?
Not just Tocqueville, but Fanny Trollope, Harriet Martineau, Charles Dickens, Philip Schaff and others. All of them remarked upon the outrageous pretense of Americans who boasted of liberty, equality, free speech, freedom of religion, moral and material progress while ignoring all their oppression of enslaved Africans, Native Americans, immigrants (especially Irish Catholics), not to mention poverty, bigotry, primitive education and arts, public and private corruption, and cloying, lowest-common-denominator Protestant conformity, which was that era’s version of “political correctness.” Yet the foreigners were forced to admit that somehow America worked! Her politics functioned and economy boomed, in good part because corruption, self-interest and pretense greased the skids of progress. Meanwhile, most Americans minimized friction among themselves by honoring conspiracies of silence over issues like slavery that threatened their sacred union.
But they also wrote about how Americans loved politics—especially rallies, souvenirs and all, no?
You bet. American voters between 1815 and 1850 registered the highest turnouts on record, despite presidential campaigns that assiduously avoided serious discussion of any serious issue. No doubt the pervasive grassroots organizations of the parties account for that. So does the fact that politics were the national pastime in the early and mid-19th century. In the absence of organized sports and other national amusements, politics were the rooting interest, the source of totems that gave people identity, and the occasion for stump speeches, debates and well-lubricated rallies that rural folk would ride miles to attend. A politics that made people feel empowered but in fact did not threaten to change very much was a popular pastime indeed. No wonder those foreigners marveled at the contrast between the passion Americans expressed during campaigns and the ease with which the losers accepted the verdict and went back to their daily routines.
Then why do we have periodic upsurges in vitriol?
The big “But” that recurs in our history is this: Whenever some pressing national issue can no longer be pushed aside, the result is invariably an identity crisis and displays of extreme partisanship. By the 1850s all sorts of political, economic, social and religious trends reinforced a conviction among Americans North and South that they could no longer postpone a decision over the future of slavery. One result was the highly principled, fiercely contentious, four-way presidential contest of 1860, which in turn bred secession and a civil war that might never have happened or been nearly so horrible if Americans had confessed the need to resolve slavery 30 or 40 years earlier.
So in critical elections policy can actually be central.
Yes, but even mudslinging-as-usual can sometimes mark a watershed. Think of 1876, when Americans celebrated their Centennial by staging a thoroughly corrupt election between two parties running on anticorruption platforms. It served them right that nobody won, whereupon lawyers from both parties descended on Florida and other states in which the vote was contested. But it turned out to be a critical election by default: The Republican backroom brokers promised to withdraw the last federal troops from the South and pretend Reconstruction was a success in exchange for the Democrats’ promise to pretend that Rutherford B. Hayes was duly elected.
Why have third parties failed to gain traction in our system?
For a third party—or new second party— to prevail, a large plurality of voters must roll the dice on radical change in a year when one or both major parties are divided. That’s how Lincoln won in 1860 with 39.6 percent of the vote. But most of the time Americans are content just to pretend they want radical change and pretend the two-party system provides it.
Any thoughts about the current presidential campaign?
The novelty of an African-American candidate calls to mind 1928 and 1960, when the Catholics Al Smith and Jack Kennedy broke barriers. The stage we’re at in the Iraq War calls to mind the Vietnam war-weariness of 1968, with George W. Bush playing the role of fellow lame-duck Texan Lyndon B. Johnson (which curiously casts John McCain as Hubert Humphrey and Barack Obama as Richard Nixon). Another analogy might be 1976, since Republicans are again attempting to win a third term despite being burdened by an unpopular war, weak economy, energy crisis and credibility gap. That would cast Obama as Jimmy Carter and McCain as Gerald Ford. But this spring, when Obama and McCain emerged as the likely nominees, I thought of 1992.
Because it seemed inconceivable that either of them could win, just as it seemed in early 1992 that G.H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Ross Perot were all losers. But for a professional historian, the only responsible response to your question is to duck it. After all, we can’t guess at the significance of this year’s election until we know, not just who wins, but how well his administration addresses those pressing national problems the voters either expect him to solve—or else help them forget for another four years.
Originally published in the December 2008 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.