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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.…”
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.