July 28, 2016 The impression that this election cycle is unique is a common feature in American politics.
By George Friedman
The United States now knows who the candidates of the two major political parties are. One of these two will most likely become president of the United States in January. As usual, each candidate and their partisans are predicting total catastrophe if the other wins. There are also claims that there has never been an election like this in history. As is normally the case, the candidate of the party out of power is claiming that the United States has reached a catastrophic point because of the current government. The other candidate is saying that the country is not collapsing but that it will collapse if the opposition’s candidate is elected.
This is pretty normal stuff, including the belief by much of the public that there has never been such an election before. But that is wrong. There have been others with much more at stake. The 1860 election resulted in a civil war that killed 600,000 soldiers on both sides. In 1968, the leading candidate of the Democratic Party, Robert Kennedy, was murdered after winning the California primary. Martin Luther King Jr. had been murdered a few months before and the Democratic Convention was held amid massive riots outside the convention hall. In the end, Richard Nixon was elected, about which no more needs to be said. In the 2000 general election, there was a recount in Florida and the case wound up in the Supreme Court. The Democrats continue to claim the election was stolen.
On a minor note, John F. Kennedy was the first Catholic running for president and some people seriously believed that he would be controlled by the Pope. Some also believed Ronald Reagan was a hack actor without any knowledge of the world and unqualified to be president. The same thing was said of Harry Truman when he ran in 1948, after serving as president for over three years. Chevy Chase portrayed Gerald Ford as too stupid to walk without falling over during the 1976 election. Barry Goldwater, in 1964, was accused by a bunch of psychiatrists who had never met him of being psychologically unstable. Lyndon B. Johnson was accused of being a criminal in 1964 because he became a multi-millionaire without ever holding a job outside government.
The point I am making is that the impression that there has never been an election like this one is common in every election cycle. And charges that one of the candidates is a criminal and the other is psychotic have been standard fare in American elections. My standard is whether electing either candidate will cause a civil war. Short of that, it is safe to conclude that the republic will survive either of them and the one elected, whoever it is, might surprise us.
The question is not why Americans regard this particular election as apocalyptic. The question is why Americans routinely regard presidential elections as apocalyptic, without realizing they are simply acting out an old script. One reason is a general one. Americans do not remember the past very clearly, particularly when it doesn’t directly affect their lives. America was founded without a past, but with a breathtaking future. As a culture, our focus has been there. We get caught up in the moment and we lack a sense of perspective because our memory of the past has been rendered fuzzy, with the hard edges removed.
A second reason is that this is the only time, once every four years, that all Americans have the opportunity to participate in the same election. Otherwise, we vote for state office or congressional district or tax assessor. But every four years, there is an opportunity to release our pent-up anger. Americans were taught to be suspicious of monarchs at the founding, and the president is the closest we get to a monarchy. It is natural that we should distrust our president. Thomas Jefferson would have approved of it – except in his own case, of course.
We may not remember why, but we have a culture of distrusting the president. Even Franklin D. Roosevelt, revered now, was reviled by many for the New Deal and by those who felt he deliberately failed to defend Pearl Harbor. The president is the only lightning rod we have and it should not be surprising that our feelings are so intense before the election and drop off afterward, save for a few diehards getting ready for the apocalypse, which is also a feature of American culture.
The fact is that the president has very little power. Donald Trump wants to make the country great again. It’s a concept he borrowed from Reagan’s campaign against Jimmy Carter. Nobody could oppose that. Americans constantly sense unprecedented catastrophe. In the 20th century, America was stunned by a virulent Great Depression, then stunned again by Pearl Harbor. Neither were expected and they reinforced the lesson taught in the Civil War that lurking beneath American peace and prosperity is a deep defect, a demon, that has seized us and is taking us to hell.
Hillary Clinton is running as a technocrat who can get the job done. She probably doesn’t remember that she is running on Herbert Hoover’s platform. Hoover, a brilliant engineer, wanted to bring technocratic government (though he didn’t call it that) to Washington to run it like he ran his engineering projects. Americans love the claim of competence but have learned from Hoover and his heir Jimmy Carter not to trust the people who believe in little but getting the job done right.
Trump comes across as the literary character Elmer Gantry, claiming to know the gate that leads to heaven, treating unpleasant questions as the work of the devil. Clinton comes across as a graduate student at the JFK School of Government at Harvard, spending her days studying and writing policy papers on obscure topics and at night doing the real work of schmoozing and maneuvering for some job or another.
Elmer Gantry and the grad school hustler are not exotic creatures. They are as American as apple pie. And there are many such stereotypes in American politics. A candidate for president must fit into this mold. Bernie Sanders was the aging hippie taking one more shot at trying to remember what he once believed. Jeb Bush was the man with the resume, the name and the money. He was the guy we all wished we were because he made it look easy – and for him it was.
In each campaign, we are presented with candidates who we have never met and whose real lives we know little or nothing about. The candidates are imbued with attributes that are about us, not them. Each are hated for reasons we fully understand and loved for the same reasons. Then the election is over and he or she takes office and we remember that the president really doesn’t have the power to make us great again or to develop solutions to problems we might have.
The founders designed the presidency to preside over the process of government rather than to govern. Governing requires the other branches of the federal government and the states. We overestimate the power of the president enormously. The presidential candidates act as if they will rule. But the president only presides over the government and the elections every four years, in our personal experience, create a drama that always ends in the disappointment of inauguration. The one we hated is not a fiend. The one we loved is not a saint. And so we move on to more important things like earning a living and picking up the kids, and the urgency of the election fades for all but the few who remain obsessed.
The point is that there is a time for every season and this is the election season. Many believe the candidates have never been as vile or wonderful as this crew and the future of the republic depends on who is elected. That’s nonsense. There is no charge, no crime and no personality quirk we haven’t seen before. We just don’t remember. It’s not that the election doesn’t matter. It’s just that we’ve been here before.