Nasty politics? Puhleez! Get a historic grip.
US politics is exasperating - always has been. But through the calumny and distortion, we've selected decent, if not always excellent, presidents.
"Let's step on them!" exhorts the early 1950s Republican election poster hanging in my basement. It features the party's pachyderm with his foot planted squarely on two squirming figures, one a mustachioed Stalin look-alike labeled "Communism," the other a spectacled, briefcase-toting bureaucrat labeled "New Dealism."
Whenever I hear the complaint that today's politics has reached unprecedented levels of nastiness, I recall that poster from what was supposed to be a "golden age" of politics, brimming with civil discourse, bipartisanship, and national unity. In fact, politics for our parents' "greatest generation" was just as boisterous, nasty, and over the top as it is today - indeed, as it always has been, for Americans.
Why? Because our democracy is grounded in realistic expectations about how politics would be conducted, once the rule of the "enlightened" few gave way to the sovereignty of the everyday person. The Founders believed, as James Madison noted in Federalist No. 10, that "So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts."
The idea is that democracy would liberate individual self-interest and narrow political ambition to an unprecedented degree, thereby skewing our politics toward a fairly low common denominator. But the Founders believed that our dispersed, decentralized political institutions could harness and counterbalance this crude political energy, moderating it and directing it toward some semblance of the common good.
Our nation's politics has seldom failed to live down to these humble expectations. As David and Johnny Johnson note in "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the White House," our presidential contests have always been marked by scurrilous charges, innuendo, and outright lies.
Andrew Jackson was described by his opponents as a drunkard, bigamist, adulterer, gambler, and murderer. Abraham Lincoln likewise was viewed as an "awful woeful ass," a "dictator," a "coarse vulgar joker," and a "grotesque baboon." To Republicans in 1884, Grover Cleveland was a "lecherous beast," an "obese nincompoop," and a "drunken sot." But through all the calumnies and distortions, we have selected decent, if not always excellent, presidents, whose virtues were maximized and vices minimized by mutually vigilant, separated powers of government.
Almost as enduringly american as nasty politics, though, is complaint about the nastiness of our politics, and efforts to reform it. The desire to tame partisanship characterized the civil service reform movement after the Civil War, as well as the "Mugwump" rebellion against corruption during the Grant administration.
But concern about the baseness of American political discourse grew to a fever pitch at the turn of the 20th century. That era's "Progressive Movement" aimed to shift political power out of the hands of corrupt local political machines, into the hands of newly emerging national professional elites - university and think-tank scholars, philanthropists, enlightened federal administrators, and journalistic intellectuals. Their training and status, they argued, enabled them to take a detached, objective, superior view of the public good. A new "enlightened few" had emerged with a claim to rule, albeit in the best interests of the unwashed masses.
Over the past century, this spirit prompted innumerable reforms in the way we select presidential candidates, always in the name of fine-tuning popular rule, always with the effect of further enhancing the influence of the worthy. Yet modern-day heirs of progressivism in universities, think tanks, and journalism continue to punctuate each new election cycle with complaints about a politics that is debased, trivial, and simplistic. They prefer a politics that soberly, rationally, calmly discusses the "real issues." Some "deliberative democrats" now even suggest that we set aside a nationwide "deliberation day" a week before the presidential election, when all Americans would gather in small groups at local community centers for enlightened discussion.
Deliberative democrats tell us that "simplistic" partisan politics is no longer sufficient, because our problems - global warming, nuclear proliferation, the growing gap between rich and poor - have become complex, cosmic, and difficult to grasp. To a citizen more likely to be concerned about the quality of that school down the street, the abstract, distant, but apparently urgent problems identified by experts mysteriously, but inevitably, turn out to be comprehensible and solvable only by the experts themselves. They frame the range of reasonable options to be made available for public consideration, which are then to be discussed in the staid, dispassionate, professorial manner at which professionals excel. Ironically, for all their disdain for the Founders' politics of self-interest and ambition, today's progressives still practice it, only now concealed beneath the nonpartisan mantle of objective public-spiritedness.
Is incivility a new and growing threat to American politics? No. American politics has always been robust, edgy, overstated, and "simplistic." Today's much-bemoaned 30-second attack ads are surely no more irrational, emotionally provocative, or unfair than posters of elephants stomping on Communism and New Dealism, which are meant to be viewed as two peas in a pod, according to the postermaker.
Only in the eyes of certain elites is our politics today more than ordinarily nasty. And the solutions to that nastiness just happen to augment the influence of those very elites. Though they argue for a transcendence of the Founders' low expectations for American politics, even they live down to them. In the closing days of this election season, American citizens should celebrate, enjoy, and throw themselves into the exasperating, wonderful spectacle of our presidential election.
And when they hear complaints about our debased politics, they should reflect on this lament: "The age of statesmen is gone.... God save the Republic ... from the buffoon and gawk ... we have for President."
That was the New York World in 1864, commenting on the renomination of Abraham Lincoln.
• William Schambra is director of the Hudson Institute's Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal.