Tuesday, February 21, 2012

American Presidential Elections

autograph of President Eisenhower

autograph of President Washington

autograph of President Franklin Roosevelt

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Thank you from the Clarke Historical Library staff]

American Presidential Elections

by Frank Boles

The Clarke Library celebrated President’s Day, February 20, with an exhibit of presidential autographs, lent to the library for the celebration, and a presentation by myself about presidential elections.

A few points made during the presentation included:
  • Going negative, whether by the candidate or more likely the candidate’s surrogates be it a partisan newspaper or a well-funded super-PAC, is an old game first observed in the election of 1800. It may not be a particularly uplifting part of presidential campaigning, but its presence does not necessarily indicate the hopeless downward spiral of the nation.
  • Sometimes both the candidates are seriously flawed, such as in the election of 1884, but the system has coped with the problem before and survived. If in the end voters aren’t thrilled with either alternative, there will be a next time.
  • There is no magic technology to improve elections. When pundits suggest that somehow the internet will renew the process, it probably isn’t true. In the twentieth century the nation has been there and done that with both radio and television, and it didn’t work.
  • Primaries may be endless exercises in trivial retail politics and these days with more debates than even the most committed political junkie can listen to, but they have become the indicator we use to test the viability of each person who seeks the job and, in however clumsy a way, to pull the selection of presidential candidates away from party professionals and place it into the hands of the voting public.
In conclusion, I offered the audience two quotes that sum up how one can look at presidential elections. A pessimist might agree with E. B. White who wrote in 1944 that,

“Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half the time.”

However, an optimist is more likely to listen to the pragmatic if slyly phrased wisdom of Winston Churchill, who in 1947 said,

"Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried.”