It’s something I’ve heard a lot this election.
“Look at our choices!” Voters cry as if Beyonce-Adele were the previous candidates for the major parties in the last election.
“Are you voting for her or against him?” Is a question most pollsters ask supporters of Hillary Clinton. Given the displeasure enunciated by the undecided voter once would assume, of course, that they were being forced to pick between a Hitler-Stalin-Mussolini triumverate where the only loser in the election would be peace and perhaps freedom of the press.
Instead, what we actually have is an incredibly competent technocrat running against a strong-man that just about every country on the face of the Earth with a democratic system has been forced to deal with at one point or another in it’s history. The degree of tyranny the general election public has to put up with is directly commensurate with the amount of freedom its system allows.
In the American system, the founders expressed great concern over the possible emergence of a figure like that of Donald Trump. There’s a great book called The Federalist Papers which contains plenty of warnings from the star of the hit play “Hamilton” as well as guest stars James Madison and John Jay. It’s okay if you didn’t know that John Jay was the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, but less excusable if you didn’t know James Madison was the fourth President of the United States.
It’s worth exploring the underlying assumption of this race that what we’re dealing with is a weak field that is depressing voter enthusiasm and that less voter enthusiasm equals lower voter turnout. We don’t have any evidence to support either assumption in this race, but historically between 54-57% of the adult population votes. That 57% came during a historic year in our democracy: 2008 when President Obama won with the largest margin since 1988. That 54% came during the 2012 election when Obama faced a relatively weak challenger in an election that showed very little voter fluctuation. Voter intensity, in other words, may have more to do with how excited both sides are for their candidates and less to do with one side or the other producing an excess of excitement.
Modern day elections are tough events to get excited about because of how they’re currently conducted. During William Henry Harrison’s epic campaign for the Presidency in 1840, the Whig candidate’s surrogates staged massive campaign rallies reminiscent of religious revivals conducted during the Second Great Awakening in America. Contrary to the idea of the Great Awakening however, the Harrison campaign served huge portions of food and even larger amounts of hard cider. “Log Cabins and Hard Cider!” Became one of many rallying cries for the Whigs as did the famous “Tippecanoe and Tyler too” mantra. Contrast that with Martin Van Buren and his exciting austerity policies;”Old Kinderhook” as he was known among his friends or “Martin Van Ruin” as he was known to his enemies, Harrison, even though he was the oldest candidate at the time to seek the office, must have seemed like quite the exciting pick for President in 1840.
Martin Van Buren’s first election was one of the least exciting elections in American history. The Whigs decided to run regional candidates with the hopes of denying Van Buren a majority in the electoral college. The ploy failed as Van Buren easily won a majority of the vote (51%) and the necessary votes in the electoral college. The election of 1836 however was an election where there really was no one good candidate. Think of how the election of 2000 would have turned out if rather than running Al Gore, Democrats thought: “hey, lets really try and screw things up with this election and get Congress involved!” The popular vote has only once been overturned by Congress and that was in the election of 1824 when John Quincy Adams offered Henry Clay the post of Secretary of State in exchange for his block of supporters in the House. The so-called “Corrupt Bargain” as the Jacksonites called it made sure that Adams was a one-term President.
The 2016 election doesn’t fit either narrative though, does it? Say what you like about “Little Van,” but the man had more nicknames than an illustrious show horse. “The Red Fox from Kinderhook,” “Old Kinderhook,” or my personal favorite: “Sweet Sandy Whiskers;” Van Buren had, without a doubt, the most nicknames of any President in the history of the United States. He was an interesting political character too. He made his mark in elections by running the New York political machine and turning out the vote for Jackson. His policies were more Herbert Hoover than George W. Bush, but they were disastrous just the same. Had he not tried to be such a political centrist, Little Van could have triangulated his way out of the specie problem that was at the heart of the Panic of 1837 and likely prevented Harrison from becoming a candidate in 1840. It was said by one of Van Buren’s supporters that if Harrison were offered a pension and some hard cider he’d be content to sit in his log cabin and read philosophy for the rest of his days. This backfired on the surrogate and his campaign giving rise to the “Log Cabin and Hard Cider” rallying cry among Harrison supporters.
There are perhaps only two other elections that would have candidates worthy of the title: worst candidates ever. The Calvin Coolidge – John Davis fight of 1924 makes a strong case for worst candidates except that Davis actually had a pretty good track record. It was how Davis ascended to the Democratic nomination that did him in. The two leading candidates for the Democratic nomination were William McAdoo of California and Al Smith of New York. Smith was the Tammany Hall candidate and had the support of a young FDR, who called Smith “the Happy Warrior.” Al Smith was also the candidate with the largest share of support coming from the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan was a powerful force in Democratic politics at the time. William Jennings Bryan rose to support a pro-Klan amendment to the party’s platform and his brother, Charles Bryan of Nebraska wound up becoming John Davis’s Vice-Presidential choice.
The nomination fight at the Democratic National Convention was the large, most protracted nomination fight in American history. McAdoo and Smith went head-to-head for over one hundred ballots with little change in the result from the first ballot to the last. When it became clear that neither candidate was going to get the 700+ votes required for the nomination (McAdoo was at around 430 while Smith stood pat at 241) the two men removed their names for nomination. Thus, John Davis was nominated on the 103rd ballot as a compromise candidate. Davis was a one-term Congressman from West Virginia who helped assemble the Treaty of Versailles ending World War One. He was the President of the American Bar Association before being nominated for President. Davis, for his part, denounced the Ku Klux Klan and attacked the Republican administration of Coolidge and his predecessor Warren G. Harding on charges of corruption. The corruption label failed to stick to Coolidge however as his administration had been much less corrupt than perhaps one of the most corrupt in history with Harding at the helm.
In the end, “Keep Cool with Coolidge” won with 54% of the vote and 382 electoral votes. This was a blowout win. Davis netted only 29% of the vote and 136 electoral votes, in part because he split the left-wing support for his candidacy with Robert LaFollete, the Progressive Party’s nominee from Wisconsin. Despite delivering just twenty speeches, LaFollete received 17% of the vote. Coolidge, renowned for his extraordinary napping abilities, is estimated to have spent at least one quarter of his Presidency napping. In a historian’s poll ranking the Presidents in 1962, Coolidge ranked fourth of the six “below average” Presidents placing above Franklin Pierce, but below Millard Fillmore. Isn’t that an exciting group to be a part of?
The worst election in American history must go to the election of 1856; a calamity of candidates and an election that would help spawn a Civil War. The candidates were John Fremont, former President Millard Fillmore now a member of the American or Know-Nothing Party, and the worst President in the history of the United States, James Buchanan. Fremont’s slogan was likely to long for people to memorize: “free speech, free press, free soil, free men, Fremont, and victory!” Try remembering all the freedom they want and you’ll likely forget who the candidate was. For it’s part, the term “free soil” did catch on with anti-slavery advocates like Abraham Lincoln. The difference in the early stages of the Republican Party were largely around whether the party would be a “free soil” party, that is opposing the spread of slavery or an abolishionist party rejecting slavery altogether.
Potential sectional disunity was one reason that Fremont was rejected at the polls. Democrats charged that the south would never recognize a Republican victory and that Civil War would be inevitable. The Republican response of “we don’t care” may have been true, but it was quite impolitic of them. It didn’t help Fremont’s cause that his father-in-law, influential Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton endorsed his opponent. The election came down to Illinois, Indiana and Pennsylvania, who sided with Buchanan in order to avoid Civil War. Now, what made Buchanan a bad President wasn’t just that he was a poor leader, although he was. The real problem with Buchanan came was his criminal neglect for the separation of powers. In what was a clear violation of this rule, Buchanan talked over the Dred Scott decision with Chief Justice Roger Taney to make sure that the decision was unanimous. Imagine a President today influencing an important Supreme Court decision. That would not go over well with members of Congress and likely the American people.
So, regardless of what you think of the 2016 candidates remember that there have been worse candidates for President (though Trump may turn out to be the worst of the worst.) Also, try and remember that using a private e-mail server isn’t quite as bad as being a sexual predator. The amount of false equivalency arguments made by the media this time around really is one of the most atrocious failings in the history of journalism.