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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
Speaking and writing and canvassing are common to elections all over the world. What is peculiar to America is the amazing development of the “demonstration” as a means for raising enthusiasm. For three months, processions, usually with brass bands, flags, badges, crowds of cheering spectators, are the order of the day and night from end to end of the country. … A European, who stands amazed at the magnitude of these demonstrations, is apt to ask whether the result attained is commensurate with the money, time, and effort given to them. His American friends answer that, as with advertising, it is not to be supposed that shrewd and experienced men would thus spend their money unless convinced that the expenditure was reproductive. The parade and procession business, the crowds, the torches, the badges, the flags, the shouting, all this pleases the participants by making them believe they are effecting something; it impresses the spectators by showing them that other people are in earnest, it strikes the imagination of those who in country hamlets read of the doings in the great city. In short, it keeps up the “boom,” and an American election is held to be, truly or falsely, largely a matter of booming.…
The length of the contest is a survival. The Americans themselves regret it, for it sadly interrupts both business and pleasure. It is due to the fact that when communication was difficult over a rough and thinly-settled country, several months were needed to enable the candidates and their orators to go round. Now railways and telegraphs have drawn the continent so much together that five or six weeks would be sufficient. That the presidential election is fought more vehemently than congressional elections seems due to its coming only half as often; to the fact that the President is the dispenser of Federal patronage, and to the habit formed in days when the President was the real head of the party, and his action in foreign affairs was important, of looking on his election as the great trial of party strength. Besides, it is the choice of one officer by the whole country, a supreme political act in which every voter has a share, and the same share; an act which fills the whole of the party in all of the States with the sense that it is feeling and thinking and willing as one heart and mind.…
To explain why the hard-headed self-possessed Americans go so wild with excitement at election times is a more difficult task. … In trying to account for this fact, it is well to begin by taking the bull by the horns. Is the world right in deeming the Americans a cool and sober people? The American is shrewd and keen, his passion seldom obscures his reason; he keeps his head in moments when a Frenchman, or an Italian, or even a German, would lose it. Yet he is also of an excitable temper, with emotions capable of being quickly and strongly stirred. … Moreover, the Americans like excitement. They like it for its own sake, and go wherever they can find it. They surrender themselves to the enjoyment of this pleasure the more willingly because it is comparatively rare, and relieves the level tenor of their ordinary life. Add to this the further delight which they find in any form of competition. … The presidential election, in which two men are pitted against one another over a four months’ course for the great prize of politics, stirs them like any other trial of strength and speed; sets them betting on the issue, disposes them to make efforts for a cause in which their deeper feelings may be little engaged. … It is not the profundity of an idea or emotion, but its lateral extension which most quickly touches the American imagination. For one man who can feel the former a hundred are struck by the latter; and he who describes America must remember that he has always to think first of the masses.
These considerations may help to explain the disproportion that strikes a European between the merits of the presidential candidate and the blazing enthusiasm which he evokes. It is not really given to him as an individual, it is given to the party personified in him, because he bears its banner, and its fervour is due, not even so much to party passion as to the impressionist character of the people, who desire to be excited, desire to demonstrate, desire, as English undergraduates say, “to run with the boats,” and cheer the efforts of the rowers. As regards the details of the demonstrations, the parades and receptions, the badges and brass bands and triumphal arches, any one can understand why the masses of the people—those who in Europe would be called the lower middle and working classes—should relish these things, which break the monotony of their lives, and give them a sense of personal participation in a great movement.