May 06, 2004

Everyone hears it today... politics is more and more partisan, far worse than anyone has ever seen it before. Viciousness and libel, petty bickering and political meltdowns, backstabbing and throat-slashing, all and more seem to be bubbling up faster and faster, like a fetid scum-covered gyser getting ready to erupt. But is it really that bad? Is it really that different? Has it in fact gotten worse over time?

Hardly. In the very first contested election in the United States, that of 1796, Thomas Jefferson was portrayed as a bloodthirsty atheist and a puppet of the French, who represented only "cut-throats who walk in rags and sleep amidst filth and vermin." John Adams was referred to as, at best, "His Rotundity", was accused publicly of planning to cancel the Constitution and have himself crowned king, and of having two English mistresses secretly imported to keep him comfortable on the campaign trail.

Twenty years later, newspapers supporting Andrew Jackson referred to his incumbent opponent John Quincy Adams as "The Pimp" because he introduced the Tsar of Russia to a young woman whom the Tsar later had an affair with. Dark insinuations of "gambling furniture" being installed in the White House turned out to be a pool table purchase. Not to be outdone, newspapers in support of Adams ran this piquant rejoinder:

"General Jackson's mother was a COMMON PROSTITUTE brought to this country by British soldiers! She afterward married a MULATTO MAN, with whom she had several children, of which number General Jackson IS ONE!!"

By the time Abraham Lincoln was running for president, things had not gotten much better. Democratic newspapers referred to him as "Honest Ape" and ran cartoons of him so racist they would get a modern newspaper shut down and its editors lynched. In 1876 the choices, according to the newspapers of the time, were between an alcoholic syphilitic grifter (Samuel Tilden) and a battlefield corpse robber who once shot at his own mother (Rutherford B. Hayes).

More modern presidential elections were no better. Republican "hatchet men" attacked Democrats as corrupt, incompetent, and even Communist in the 1952 presidential campaign. In 1960 candidate Kennedy accused his opponent of being "experienced in the policies of retreat, defeat, and weakness." In 1964 LBJ, with the willing assistance of a sympathetic media, portrayed his opponent Barry Goldwater as a reckless warmonger who would press "the button" on a whim.

This all culminated of course with the Nixon administration, whose paranoia and willingness to use any lever of power institutionalized the "dirty trick" machine and gave us The Plumbers and Watergate. But even that spectacular debacle failed to drive the nastiness underground. Carter was a religious wacko, Reagan both criminally stupid and criminally diabolic, Bush a liar, Clinton a spineless philanderer, and GW Bush a criminally stupid and criminally diabolic thief.

It has always been nasty, it always will be nasty, and in fact if anything has gotten less nasty over time. As children we don't pay attention to how nasty it is, and look up from our Big Wheels to a man who is an institutional father figure. Teenagers and twenty-somethings, facing the blow-torch intensity of a professional candidate's charisma for the first time, see "their" candidate as the good guy being attacked in shocking and deeply unfair ways by "the bad guys" on the other side. We don't do that, no sir. Well, we wouldn't have to if they didn't make us.

It doesn't help that the media, who's gnat-like attention span is matched only by their utter lack of historic perspective, wail and rend their shirts at the first sign a campaign is "going negative." In the worrisome event a candidate obstinately refuses to actually "betray" the issues and go "on the attack", reporters are of course not opposed to giving the campaign a shove or two by dredging up a bimbo, drug deal, or service gap on their own. After all, we don't want the campaign to be boring, do we?

It's ok to wish it weren't so, but in the wishing we are simply pulling the covers over our heads hoping the monsters stay hidden in the dark. It's also ok to revel in the chaos of it all, sitting in the bleachers roaring with the rest of the plebes as one erstwhile gladiator guts his opponent in our own queer Coliseum. More importantly, we should all learn to look past it, see it for the contrived irrelevance that it truly is, and hold all of their feet to the fire until they start producing facts and positions instead of hyperbole and distraction.

But don't forget to bring the popcorn. I hear Kerry's latest attack ad is really something to see!

Posted by scott at May 06, 2004 03:33 PM

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Thank you for giving some historical perspective to this. Without data, the "in the old days, we played fair" statements about politics usually run unchallenged.

Posted by: Jon on May 7, 2004 11:07 AM

I vividly remember from my American History classes tales of fistfights on the floor of the Senate, especially in the run-up to the Civil War.

Thanks for that. Historical romanticism seems to afflict every age. We have evolved - we just have more room to grow.

Posted by: The Zero Boss on May 7, 2004 06:13 PM
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