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The Most Important Election Since 1860?

That’s what the playwright David Mamet told guests of the Manhattan Institute last night (via Roger Kimball [1]). Mamet’s assertion is the kind of grandiose claim we’ve become accustomed to in this campaign. It’s also nonsense that exposes an amazing ignorance of American history.

Here are some of the choices and issues the country faced in the last 152 years:

1876: Republican Rutherford B. Hayes is elected with a minority of the popular vote on the promise to end Reconstruction.

1896: In a deep economic depression, Republican William McKinley defeats the the populist Democratic William Jennings Bryan on a platform of industrial protection and deflationary monetary policy (which is what the issue of silver or gold currency amounted to). McKinley establishes an electoral coalition that would dominate national politics for nearly 30 years.

1916: In the midst of the First World War, Wilson campaigns on a peace platform. We all know what he did after being elected.

1932: In another deep depression, Roosevelt wins a mandate to fundamentally change the relation between citizens and the national government.

1940: Roosevelt pursues and attains an unprecedented third term, which effectively commits the U.S. to participation in the Second World War.

1948: Truman beats Dewey, reinvigorating the FDR coalition on the basis of welfare policies and anti-Communism. In the primaries, Robert Taft is denied the Republican nomination, effectively sidelining non-interventionists and critics of the New Deal.

1972: Nixon defeats McGovern, partly by presenting him as the candidate of the counter-culture. The first “culture war” election, and a major step toward the shift of white ethnics to the GOP.

1980: You remember that one.

I have a hard time believing that these elections were less significant than the contest between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Not coincidentally, Gore Vidal wrote delightful novels about several of them.¬†By historical standards, I’d say that today’s election is comparable in importance to the titanic clash between Bill Clinton and Bob Dole. Given the quality of the candidates, that’s a big relief.

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#1 Comment By Carl On November 6, 2012 @ 5:42 pm

The first election I could vote in was Bush v. Gore in 2000. In the election, everyone went on and on about how similar the candidates were and how small the differences. Then it turned out that a vote for Bush was a vote for war in Iraq. Oops.

The moral of the story is it’s silly to say whether something is “important” in advance. It’s only in retrospect that we can know (or at least guess) what the effects of an election will be.

#2 Comment By JonF On November 6, 2012 @ 5:58 pm

I would have said 1968 rather than 1972: 1972 was a cakewalk for old Tricky Dick. 1968 saw the Democratic coalition split asunder courtesy of George Wallace, and the breach never was healed even though Jimmy Carter papered over it briefly in 1976. And given that the country was at war and in severe internal upheaval in 68 I think that also qualifies that year as a more important one than 1972.

#3 Comment By Michael On November 9, 2012 @ 8:32 am

Yes, it seems that bloviating about the “election of the century” comes with the onset of political advertising.

I don’t believe that Roosevelt’s election had anything to do with US entry into WWII. It’s true that the US was a deeply anti-semitic country then, parochial in its political sentiments and indifferent to the suffering in Europe and other places; but the Japanese would have attacked in Pearl Harbor regardless of the name on the door of the Oval Office.

Truman designed and implemented the policies that became known as the Cold War, was a prominent public backer of Zionism and the new state of Israel, ordered the bombing of Hiroshima and was in domestic matters more of what today would be called a “blue dog” Democrat than a yellow one. He was notably indifferent to oil-based “real politik” in the Middle East and, at one point, submitted a bill to Congress to draft striking workers into the US Armed Forces.

The only election on your list that really strikes me as truly significant in its immediate and its long-term impact on the United States’ political structure is the election of 1876. That election came after almost 15 years in which elections across the country had been either maintained or undone by Federal usage of military force.

The question decided in 1876 was, Can the country successfully elect a president without on-the-ground action by the military (“Mexicanization” as it was known in those days). The answer turned out to be “yes,” but in an almost astounding irony, this affirmative was achieved through a cycle of double-dealing and corruption that blows the doors off a Watergate or Abramoff scandal of modern times.

The election of Obama is not in that class. I do believe it will be recognized as a direct and unequivocal repudiation of the public positions of the opposition party. The ACA is here to stay. Overt misogyny has received a fatal wound. Relying on “wedge issues” to split the electorate is losing its effectiveness. The country is moving on.

These are the lessons of this election. The White Man’s Party is becoming a rump party in national elections. Look at the last three Republican Presidential candidates — George Bush, John McCain and Mitt Romney. None of these men had any business being in the driving seat of a major political party. Until the GOP abandons the hope of finding a Willie Stark in the dark corners of its past, it will continue to be GoofsOnParade and continue to lose at the polls.

“We have the right message on the finances. We have to get out of people’s lives, get out of people’s bedrooms, and we have to be a national party, or else we’re going to lose.” (Rep. Steve LaTourette (R-OH)) Why isn’t anybody listening?