by Bruce Dunlavy
(My blog home page and index of other posts may be found here.)
In a couple of months, an election will decide who is to be the president of the United States for the next four years. This time around, the main candidates seem to be of unusually poor quality and the campaign itself seems low and vulgar.
America’s first contested presidential election, in 1796, pitted two well-bred and well-educated Founding Fathers. John Adams, sitting vice-president, opposed Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence. The two represented opposite ends of the American political spectrum, but both were articulate men who represented their positions well.
How did we get from John Adams versus Thomas Jefferson to Donald Trump versus Hillary Clinton? From a campaign of integrity between two men of ideas to a campaign of insult, innuendo, and sleaze between two people each of whom is running against the only person they could conceivably beat in an election?
The answer is that we got from that first campaign to the present one because it wasn’t very far to go. The 1796 election was not polite, and the candidates were not universally beloved.
For example, that election was the first to see the playing of the “race card.” Jefferson was accused of being non-white, of favoring emancipating all slaves, and of planning a national future of miscegenation and other sexual debauchery. For their part, Jefferson’s people characterized Adams as a secret royalist who wanted to be king and – worse yet – was fat.
The campaign was nasty and underhanded enough that retiring President George Washington groused about it afterward in his Farewell Address. But the same two candidates carried on in even worse fashion in their 1800 rematch.
Since then, we have seen equally nasty campaigns, such as the 1884 contest between perhaps the most unpopular pair (until now), James G. Blaine – called “The Continental Liar from the State of Maine” – against Grover Cleveland of New York. Blaine was regarded as having run a corrupt “pay to play” system that influenced the awarding of railroad contracts to companies he owned stock in. Cleveland was depicted as immoral, the father of a hidden illegitimate child in Buffalo. The campaign was a mud-wrestling match of the first order. In 1912, Theodore Roosevelt broke from the Republican Party, which nominated William Howard Taft. The two campaigned aggressively, calling each other names such as “pinhead” and “fathead,” hardly a model of elevated discourse.
We have also had plenty of marginally-qualified candidates. The election of 1920 saw each major party nominate an Ohio newspaper publisher, neither of whom was of the standard one might hope for. The eventual winner, Warren Harding, was chosen by the Republicans “in a smoke-filled room in some hotel,” supposedly because he looked presidential.
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French novelist Gustave Flaubert once observed, “Our ignorance of history makes us slander our own times.” When Donald Trump says he wants to “make America great again,” it is implicit in his statement that America was once great but no longer is. Everyday conversation is replete with commentary about how things have gone downhill – more than ever we are in danger of being murdered, more than ever our tax burden is unbearable, more than ever government is controlling our lives, and so on.
In fact, none of those are true. The violent crime rate in the United States is the lowest it has ever been. Taxes are at sixty-year lows; in the 1950s, the highest marginal income tax rates were over 90 percent. Forty or so years ago, every commercial air flight was dictated by the government down to what the airlines, routes, times, and fares would be. Until the 1970s, Federal law prohibited individuals from owning their own telephones; they had to be rented from a designated service provider. The cultural and domestic customs of today are not the serious degeneration from 100 years ago that we are led to believe, as well-described by Stephanie Coontz in her superb book The Way We Never Were. While it is true, she notes, that there are more children of divorce today, there are still a higher percentage of children living with at least one of their parents than was true in 1900, and there are proportionately fewer lifelong singles and childless women today. Other historical inquiries have debunked the story that Americans file more frivolous lawsuits than they used to, and that morals have degraded since the 1700s.
Nevertheless, it has always been people’s habit to ascribe greatness and glory to the past, decadence and decline to the present. The first line of the first great work of French literature, The Life of St. Alexis, written in the Eleventh Century, is translated, “The world was good in the time of the ancients.” Or, more loosely, “Things were better in the old days.” In the 2014 novel The Wake, Paul Kingsnorth’s protagonist remarks, “our fathers was freer than us, our father’s fathers (freer than our fathers).” The notion that the world is in decline and that people and life were better in the past is a very old idea indeed.
Everything was better in the old days! Every generation says that the great people of their day were better than those that have come after. Today’s baseball player is worthless compared to Babe Ruth. Today’s rappers are pipsqueaks alongside Tupac and Biggie; today’s great tenor is no Jussi Bjoerling. Our modern politicians are terrible when held against Theodore Roosevelt.
Of course, when Babe Ruth played, he was “not as good as old Buck Ewing.” Tupac was just noise when his contemporaries thought of Grandmaster Flash. Jussi Bjoerling, in his day, was “no Enrico Caruso.” Theodore Roosevelt’s contemporaries saw him as a pale reflection of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was never popular in his own day, either.
So we go back and back in time, with everybody getting better and better as we recede into the B.C.E. era. And who were the greatest people of all time? Why, the Greek heroes, of course: Achilles, Agamemnon, Menelaus, Ajax, Odysseus, and all the rest. Why does it end there? Because that’s the start of history, with Homer’s Iliad. Before Homer it was half remembered myth and legend. After Homer, it became institutionalized wisdom. As Horace taught us, “Many brave men lived before Agamemnon; but all are overwhelmed in eternal night, unwept, unknown, because they lack a sacred poet.”
The opposite is also true. There were many evil people and much misery in the world of the ancients, too. And the people and conditions of 2016 – perhaps even the election of 2016 – will be fondly remembered as “good old days.”