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On Electing a President
A former British ambassador and noted historian explains why "hard-headed self-possessed Americans go so wild with excitement at election times"
October 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 6
“…largely a matter of booming”
Every four years the American people—or at least somewhere between 55 and 65 per cent of those eligible to vote—draw aside the curtain to the voting booth, peruse a ballot, pull a lever, push a button or print a rubber-stamped “x,” and elect the next President of the United States. It is a common ritual, one familiar at least in theory to anyone who has reached the age of reason. So familiar, in fact, that we tend to forget that each man or woman who participates in this modest act is carrying on one of the oldest political traditions in human experience. For it should be remembered that the United States, one of the youngest nations in the world, is at the same time the world’s oldest practicing democracy.
But there are those who maintain that all this has changed, and not for the better: that television and massive press manipulation have reduced the candidates to pious automatons mouthing the conventional wisdoms expected of them; that cybernetics and sophisticated voter samplings have destroyed the element of chance, much less of surprise; that the whole process has been corrupted by the corporate powers-that-be anyway and that the act of voting is a meaningless gesture; and finally that the voter, suffering from an overdose of media input and disillusioned to the point of cynicism, no longer cares a damn. In a fashion unique to this end of the twentieth century, these critics insist, we have taken what was once a noble contest between men and issues and made of it a television game show.
Yet we wonder whether this technocratic society of ours has really been able to change things that much. We wonder about it when we remember the “Log Cabin and Cider” campaign of “Old Tippecanoe” William Henry Harrison in 1840.
We wonder about it, too, when we consider the observations of a man who took a long, hard look at this old ritual of ours nearly a century ago. He was James Bryce, once ambassador to the United States from Great Britain. The words that follow are from his American Commonwealth, one of the most prescient books ever written about America. It was published in 1888, and his thoughts on the Presidential campaign as an institution may come as a surprise to many:
A presidential election in America is something to which Europe can show nothing similar. … The canvass usually lasts about four months. It begins soon after both of the great parties have chosen their candidate, i.e. before the middle of July; and it ends early in November, on the day when the presidential electors are chosen simultaneously in and by all the States. The summer heats and the absence of the richer sort of people at the seaside or mountain resorts keep down the excitement during July and August; it rises in September, and boils furiously through October.
The first step is for each nominated candidate to accept his nomination in a letter, sometimes as long as a pamphlet, setting forth his views of the condition of the nation and the policy which the times require. … Together with the “platform” adopted at the national party convention, it is the official declaration of party principles, to be referred to as putting the party case, no less than the candidate himself, before the nation.
While the candidate is composing his address, the work of organization goes briskly forward, for in American elections everything is held to depend on organization. A central or national party committee nominated by the national convention … gets its members together and forms a plan for the conduct of the canvass. It raises money by appealing to the wealthy and zealous men of the party for subscriptions, and, of course, presses those above all who have received something in the way of an office or other gratification from the party. … It allots grants from the “campaign fund” to particular persons and State committees, to be spent by them for “campaign purposes,” an elastic term which may cover a good deal of illicit expenditure. Enormous sums are sometimes gathered and disbursed by this committee, and the accounts submitted do not, as may be supposed, answer all the questions they suggest. … The committees print and distribute great quantities of campaign literature, pamphlets, speeches, letters, leaflets. … Even novelettes are composed in the interests of a candidate. I found mention of one, written by a literary colonel, in which “the lovers, while in the most romantic situation, are made to talk about the protective tariff.…”