Tuesday, March 15, 2016

If I Were Writing the History of This Year’s Presidential Election

If I had the novelist’s privilege and somewhat more than the novelist’s usual power, I would be inclined to look to history for writing the story of this year’s coming election.

Specifically, I would look to 1852, when, on the fifty-third ballot, the Whig Party—passing over incumbent President Fillmore and the fiery, principled Daniel Webster—nominated General Winfield Scott, a showy, fussy military man whose platform ended up being virtually indistinguishable from that of the Democrats.  It didn’t help that Scott himself was known for being quite antislavery, while the party platform was pro-slavery, which meant that neither the anti-slavery northern Whigs nor the pro-slavery southern Whigs could feel happy voting for Scott.

The similarity of platforms led to a personality-based campaign, low voter turnout, and a landslide win for the Democratic nominee, Franklin Pierce.  Scott won only four states: Kentucky, Tennessee, Massachusetts, and Vermont.  Daniel Webster, who had run as the Union Party candidate when the Whigs failed to nominate him, had died during the campaign, but nevertheless won significant votes in Georgia and Massachusetts … which says something about how the voters were feeling about their choice of Pierce vs. Scott.

For Scott, read Trump; for Pierce read Clinton; for the Whigs, read the Republicans.

(Personally, in a Trump/Hillary campaign, I’d feel
strongly tempted to write in Antonin Scalia.
Heck, what harm could it do?)
By the next presidential election, in 1856, the dying Whig party held its last convention, where they unanimously endorsed not a candidate of their own, but the American Party candidate, Fillmore.  The Whig party never regained its former political clout, and dissolved a few years later—some Whigs from both geographical sectors had joined the nativist American “Know-Nothing” Party , while many of the anti-slavery northern Whigs had been instrumental in creating the new Republican Party.

The Republican Party in 1856 nominated Frémont, with the slogan “Free speech, free press, free soil, free men, Frémont, and victory!”  The Democrats, having nominated Buchanan, threatened that a Republican victory might lead to civil war.  Buchanan won, perhaps in part due to a rumor, started by the American Party and capitalized on by the Democrats, that Frémont was—horrors!—a closeted Roman Catholic.  Significantly, however, Frémont beat Buchanan in free states, while in the South the campaign became a contest between Buchanan (D) and Fillmore (A).

In my fantasy world, after the Republican Party dies in the Trump/Hillary contest, Paul Ryan and a Few Good Men (and Ladies) would found the Good Young Party (ahem), while the remaining Republicans would be free to endorse whatever spoiler candidate best represents their emptiness (Mitt Romney? or is that too unfair, even to Mitt Romney?).  The GYP would probably lose the 2020 election, but it would be a glorious defeat.

In 1860, of course, the Republicans famously came back with Lincoln, who was seen at the convention as a moderate, compromise candidate: the front runner, William Seward, was considered too radical, while Salmon Chase and Edward Bates had made choices which alienated various segments of the Republican coalition.  The party platform notably did not call for the abolition of slavery, but opposed its extension; abolitionists were angered by the decisions, and general did not trust Lincoln.

Meanwhile, the Democratic convention in Charleston was so contested that, after Douglas still failed to gain the necessary votes for nomination on the fifty-seventh ballot, the party adjourned without a nominee.  Reconvening a month later, they managed to nominate Douglas—but only after a substantial number of the most radically pro-slavery delegates had walked out due to disagreements over the party platform.

Ultimately, of course, Lincoln won, firmly establishing the Republican Party as the successor to the Whigs; the South seceded; and the progress of the Civil War led to the Emancipation Proclamation and eventually to the freeing of all slaves.

Once again in my fantasy world, the GYP party candidate wins in 2024, and ends up sends a resounding number of federal programs back to the states during his term (though his campaign promise was limited to a humble vow to balance the budget).

A part of me (probably the part Treebeard would label “hasty”) enjoys imagining this all happen.  It’s tempting to see, in the current Republican Party, one that—as the Whigs were—is made up of unsustainable coalitions which need to be realigned.  But even if today’s Republican coalition is unsustainable (and that diagnosis may be more of a wish than a fact) there is no guarantee that the results of its dissolution for the country would be anywhere near as salutary as they (eventually) were in the nineteenth century.  There is no reason, in other words, to think that a better party might rise out of the ashes.  And in fact, there are reasons to assume the contrary.

For one thing, there were no less than seven parties in 1852, and the American Party did remarkably well in the 1856 campaign, suggesting that there was already a willingness among Americans to experiment with voting outside of a two party system.  We are not so norm-defiant today: not even Ross Perot’s spoiler in the 1990s quite reached the epic proportions of the American Party’s success in the South in the 1850s.

It also doubtless helped the burgeoning Republican party of 1856 and 1860 that the Democrats, as the Whigs had been, were increasingly divided over slavery.  But the Democratic party of today—despite punishing “front-runner” candidates like Hillary with insurgents like Bernie—seems to have no great difficulty in coming to compromise at the end of the day.

More importantly, whereas the Whigs were specifically divided over slavery, today the Republican Party is divided on multiple issues—making it more difficult to create a new emergent coalition if the party were to break down.  It may be that the cry for a smaller federal government could perform a similar function to the cry to stop the spread of slavery; but I suspect that such negative messages, while they can work, tend to fly better when there is a clear human rights aspect.  “Stop spreading slavery!” is (and should be!) a more effective message than “Stop federal encroachment!”

Moreover, the Democratic Party of today is not so clearly the enemy when it comes to federal encroachment as Democratic Party of the 1850s was when it came to slavery.  While it is true that most Democrats have hardly seen a government expansion that they don’t like, it is also true that they don’t advertise this fact as one of their good qualities.  The Democratic Party of the 1850s, however, were proudly and adamantly pro-slavery.  It’s much easier to critique one’s opponents on the basis of a flaw which they own than on the basis of a flaw to which they occasionally coyly admit.

Finally and perhaps most importantly, there does not seem to be any degree of willingness among the Republican Party leadership to part ways over the issues that divide the party’s constituents.  Republican voters may be exercised about immigration, abortion, regulation, failures in education, economic malaise, the collapse of the family, or what have you; but Republican Party leaders have shown no interest in leaving the party, as Whig leaders were once willing to do.  The “Tea Party,” while a valiant effort to start the debate on tired political doctrines afresh, has largely remained subsumed under the Republican banner (though both the “establishment” Republicans and the “Tea Party” types remain uncomfortable with the alliance).

Overall, I think our problem is that there are so many problems—not just in American government but in American society—that hoping for them to be altered by a political realignment—as opposed to good old-fashioned one-on-one proselytizing by individual citizens amongst their neighbors—is futile.  The society of the 1850s was sick when it came to slavery, and the glaring nature of that abuse is so great that it is almost impossible to compare to any other matter.  But our society is sick on a whole range of things, most of which (with the possible exception of abortion) are less obviously evil to many than slavery was. 

As I suggested above, there might be hope for a party or a candidate who, consolidating the various issues facing the party into what seems to be a major concern of many voters—the excessive expansion of government power—could simultaneously show that the real and potential abuses produced by a large federal government are in fact problems on the order of a grave moral evil.  But to convincingly make such a case to the public at large would demand a level of rhetorical and dialectical eloquence which no candidate in recent years (no, not even the Great Communicator) has achieved.

And even if a politician were to make such a case as well as such a case could possibly be made, it still might fall on deaf ears.  For to argue that the government is taking away your liberty presupposes that you have some appreciation of and desire for that liberty; and the love of liberty—as opposed to the love of license—cannot exist in a soul that does not also possess certain other qualities.  Civic virtue is based on one’s broader moral health; civic virtues cannot exist in a soul that does not possess moral virtues.

And our culture has lost the moral virtues.  We lack, rather obviously, the virtues understood as being “religious” or “theological”: faith, hope, and charity.  But we also lack the virtues that Nature herself cries out to us that we need: the cardinal moral virtues of temperance, prudence, justice, and fortitude.  And we not only lack these virtues: we do not always even admire them anymore.  Until that admiration, at least, is restored, I see no particular reason to look forward to a change in our political structure, in the vain hope that it might prove more salutary for our societal health than current arrangements.

“Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people.
It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”—John Adams.

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