Taking time away from the follies – or worse – of the current US presidential campaign, J. BROOKS SPECTOR steps back a bit to look at the longer cycles of American political life, before steeling himself to look once again at this, the last week of America’s presidential choice in 2016.
Right from the beginning of the American experiment, right back to George Washington’s time, every four years, without fail – despite wars, a massive civil conflict, even a major global economic collapse – the US has held its presidential elections regularly and has routinely replaced incumbent presidents with new chief executives.
One way of thinking about these rotations of power is that the country’s elections are often divided into elections where the vote is essentially a referendum on one candidate (up for re-election or as a supporter of the incumbent), or as a vote for a new direction in the nation’s political landscape. (This time around at least, we shall leave aside the more cynical notion as promulgated by some political theorists that these elections largely represent a rotation of elites – and that nothing much of consequence ever changes, except for the names and labels.)
There are only a few days left before the next national election takes place on Tuesday, November 8. (“Finally!” we hear you moan. “It can’t come soon enough!”) So, for at least one day, we shall take a break from the increasingly bizarre imposition of an investigation into disgraced ex-congressman (and the estranged husband of key Clinton aide) Anthony Weiner’s perverse electronic behaviour – with its still-theoretical connection between the e-mails saved on a laptop documenting that very appalling behaviour and Hillary Clinton’s actual presidential campaign.
And we can even take a pause from considering the dispiriting, increasingly parallel universe-channelling and the outrageously baroque rhetoric coming out of Donald Trump’s mouth, let alone the reporting on his bizarre, tawdry lewdness, his bromance with Russia’s leader as that nation hacks its way into the Democratic Party’s electronic servers, or his machinations and manipulations of the US tax code to whittle down his taxes to the size of a gnat’s eye. And so, just for today, let’s take a short breather from all that and look, instead, at the longer cycles of the electoral process, and what it has meant – and still means – for the American experience.
The United States has often been described as a broadly centrist nation politically – or, depending on the analyst or historian, slightly positioned to the left or to the right of dead centre. As its political landscape moves to the left, the pressures on that political pendulum (and especially a choice for president) eventually shifts it rightward, or vice versa, over time, as the pressures for change build up within society and the economy, thus helping drive a presidential selection.
But beyond the specifics of a particular candidate’s personality or attractiveness, there is a second dynamic at work as well. That is the selection of new presidents as exemplars of new hopes and perceived competence by voters, most frequently after a failed or catastrophic presidency. In fact, all of these oscillations operate concurrently in the broader sweep of history, affected by and affecting actual events.
Let us briefly explore the larger circumstances of earlier presidents such as Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, Richard Nixon, and George Bush and Barack Obama.
Lincoln is frequently accorded the title of the country’s greatest president. This is not simply for his successfully leading the nation through the Civil War, despite its cost in material and human terms, and on through to the ending of slavery. But he also deserves that nod for having encapsulated the perfectly phrased intellectual grounding for the democratic principle and generating a national acceptance of a broader, more inclusive definition of the purposes of government as being “of the people, by the people, for the people”. In delivering such a concise but all-encompassing statement, Lincoln’s influence lives on into the present – and it has been felt well beyond the American experiment.
But the thing about Lincoln is that he succeeded James Buchanan after the election of 1860. And Buchanan is often accorded the rating as the nation’s singularly worst president (although he might have a little competition from someone like Richard Nixon in many people’s judgements). Buchanan was frozen into immobility after the results of the 1860 election became known.
When that happened, South Carolina (followed quickly by 10 other southern states) declared its secession from the country over the stark reality of Lincoln’s election and assumptions that his programme would inevitably include the abolition of indentured servitude. In truth, through trial and error tactics, a range of flexible strategies, and a persistent struggle to find subordinates who could carry out these plans, Lincoln ultimately reassembled the shattered nation – and he had even laid out a road map for a peaceful reincorporation of the rebellious states into the nation – until he was killed in 1865, just a few days after the surrender of the rebellion.
An assassination’s bullet put an end to such a magnanimous possibility and Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s vice-president, succeeded him. Johnson was temperamentally unsuited to the task at hand – a problem that prevented his ability to work with an angry, emboldened Congress that was determined to punish the southern states, and this clash between a southern-born president and a triumphant Republican Congress led to his impeachment (although not his conviction). Johnson’s successor in 1868, General Ulysses Grant, had been a superb military leader, but he too became an abysmal president, giving free rein to the 19th century American equivalent of state capture. With a string of business-friendly Republicans and Democrats both, this time it took nearly 40 years until that conservative impulse was eventually overwhelmed in presidential politics by new demands.
As a result, consider the circumstances of Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency. Thrust into the White House, also after the assassination of his predecessor, William McKinley, a thoroughly conservative business-led president, Roosevelt chose, instead, to be the cheerleader for the use of the government’s apparatus on behalf of the reformist progressive agenda instead of continuing with his predecessor’s very different approach to governance. Roosevelt’s own hand-picked successor in 1908 was his vice-president, William Howard Taft. But Taft, once elected, so back-pedalled to that McKinley-esque style of business-friendly, limited government that four years later, Roosevelt broke ranks with his own party and ran against Taft as an independent candidate.
However, Roosevelt’s entrance into the election divided Republicans, thereby allowing Woodrow Wilson to gain the White House as a Democratic Party-aligned progressive (except on racial matters where he was fully in line with the racial segregationist, voter suppression policies of other southern Democrats). But Wilson’s own liberal idealism internationally, including his support for the League of Nations at the end of World War I, an ideal he had claimed as his own, ran into serious opposition from isolationist Republicans – and many citizens as well, regardless of party, who were eager to disengage from the European political and economic entanglements of the post-war settlement and to retreat to the relative safety of a “fortress America” secure from threats by virtue of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
Wilson’s successor, Warren Harding, was another in a long line of crabbed Republican, limited government conservatives, eager to turn back the clock to a time before the progressive movement had had any influence in politics. However, Harding was in the mould of Ulysses Grant, again allowing private business interests cozying-up to politicians to gain a back door into the pilfering of public resources.
But it took the first three years of the Great Depression to deprive a very business-friendly Herbert Hoover of a second term of office (coming into office after Harding’s successor, Calvin Coolidge). A quarter of the nation’s workforce had been cast out of work by the time of the election, many of the nation’s banks had collapsed, commercial credit had disintegrated, and the entire fabric of the national economy seemed poised to disintegrate. These were the circumstances that might well have led the nation to veer towards the kinds of desperate authoritarian experiments that had already overwhelmed so much of Europe.
Hoover’s successor was Franklin Roosevelt, a patrician politician from New York City who found a way to embrace a social welfare consciousness and reach out to the many millions of Americans who had virtually given up hope and who were already window shopping for a man on horseback to lead the nation from its miseries. Roosevelt and his social welfare policies and a kind of intuitive economic countercyclical policy – often of the trial and error variety – remade the national government, the economy and led to a fuller understanding of the role of government in dealing with economic disaster. This was a decisive swing of that political pendulum, as well as the replacement of a presidential administration drifting helplessly and dangerously under Herbert Hoover.
When FDR died early into his fourth term of office in 1945, Harry Truman succeeded into Roosevelt’s final truncated term of office and he then gained a full second one, as his administration continued the social welfare experiment. It also moved towards governmental recognition of the coming civil rights revolution by desegregating the military and federal government offices. Truman’s policies, however, effectively ran out of steam after two decades of Democratic Party rule. Moreover, the attrition of the Korean conflict allowed Republican candidate (and national military hero) Dwight Eisenhower to gain the presidency in a landslide victory. Eisenhower had vowed to end the Korean War and return the nation to a version of the normality of the peaceable kingdom that Republicans might well have been familiar with from their campaigns after World War I.
Now, skip forward to the victory of Richard Nixon in 1968, amid the chaos of anti-Vietnam War protests, the ongoing civil disruptions of urban riots, and the seemingly endless Vietnam War itself. The never-ending stalemate in that war had forced a decision on to Lyndon Johnson not to run again for the presidency. Instead, the nomination went to his vice-president, Hubert Humphrey, in the face of two anti-war candidates, Robert Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy, and a chaotic Democratic convention. A bullet had struck down Kennedy just after winning the primary election in California, and although Humphrey had the support of many Democratic politicians and himself was a prominent social welfare and civil rights liberal hero, he could never shake the cost and national disruption of war in Southeast Asia. This allowed Richard Nixon to gain the presidency by promising to deliver his secret plan to end the war and bring civil calm to the nation’s cities. Nixon’s victory was eased greatly as many southern whites, heretofore solidly Democratic Party supporters for a century, largely deserted that old allegiance and either sided with Nixon or the independent candidacy of George Wallace and his avowedly segregationist manifesto of “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever”. The pendulum had moved back to the promise of “law and order” as well as a dignified end to the war, in contrast to the civic near-chaos of the final years of the Johnson administration.
In our own time, aside from all the terribly problematic aspects of a Donald Trump candidacy, that candidate has ridden to the front in yet another swing of that pendulum, at least for some voters, away from the social progressivism of the Obama presidency that had replaced the feckless pro-business approach and foreign policy mindlessness of the administration of George W Bush.
A key aspect of the Trump candidacy, whenever its message has been clearly put, is that the election next week is a referendum on the Obama administration and that electing Hillary Clinton is effectively a four-year extension of that abomination, just with another (“corrupt, crooked”) person at the helm. The pendulum is ready to swing back again towards a businessman’s approach – at least in The Donald’s mind.
Of course the Clinton approach is that there is unfinished business from this progressive agenda and that allowing someone like Trump to occupy the White House would be like turning a nation over to someone without the temperament, knowledge, personality or experience to do the job – almost regardless of policies.
Watching these last days before the actual election is going to be an adventure in trying to understand how Americans judge that pendulum – is it time to shift and take their chances with someone like Donald Trump, or is there more to do on its current arc. We’ll know, soon enough, what the periodicity of this particular political pendulum is in America. DM
Photo: President Barack Obama laughs with former Presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush, prior to the dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, April 25, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
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