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How to Get Elected
The American system of choosing a President has not worked out badly, far as it may be from the Founding Fathers’ vision of a natural aristocracy
August 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 5
Harrison was a plantation-born Virginian, then a semi-professional soldier who had won acclaim by repulsing an Indian attack in 1811 at the Battle of Tippecanoe. In the War of 1812 he was one of the few successful American generals. He had settled in the West and become identified with it. Generally speaking, the Whigs had tended to attract the more prosperous merchants, manufacturers, and planters in the nation; but in a flash of political insight their 1840 managers realized that they could present Harrison as a plain, western old soldier. They would out-Jackson the Jacksonians. Capitalizing quickly on the sneer of a Democratic spokesman that the colorless Harrison would be content to spend the rest of his life in a cabin equipped with a barrel of hard cider, the Whigs went to work. Van Buren, struggling with a serious depression that had begun in 1837, was depicted as an effete easterner who dined lavishly off gold plate in the White House (see page 108) while unemployed workmen starved and virtuous yeomen were driven to the wall by toppling farm prices. Harrison, on the other hand, became the people’s man. Monster processions were organized to extol the virtues of “Old Tippecanoe.” Perspiring Whig committee workers dragged floats bearing miniature log cabins, decked themselves in coonskin caps, and ladled out free cider to roaring crowds. Campaign newspapers blossomed with such doggerel as, “Farewell, dear Van,/ You’re not our man;/ To guide the ship,/ We’ll try old Tip.” It was sheer demagoguery, but with the help of hard times it worked beautifully. When the votes were in, Harrison had 234 electoral tallies to 60 for Van Buren. The total popular vote of nearly two and a half million represented a turnout of something like eighty per cent of the potential electorate, a record possibly unmatched since then.
Thereafter, no party ever faced the country without hymning the virtues of popular democracy. The pattern was finally set. From now on the political life of the nation would be carried on predominantly through two major parties, organized from the precinct level upward. Every four years these parties meet in convention to nominate “the people’s choice” for the highest office in the land. The voters set their seal on one or the other in November, and the Electoral College almost invariably rubber-stamps their decision. The process is obviously some distance from what the Constitution intended. But there is more to it than that. The full picture must distinguish clearly between ritual and reality—between the formal process of nomination and election, and the more interesting things that go on behind the façade of prepared speeches and official returns.
Ritual begins with the conventions. In the first place, they partake of the character of another American institution, the revival meeting, which was born about a generation earlier. Men went to revivals knowing what they could expect. They would hear eternal verities noisily affirmed, sinners and Satan scourged without mercy. They would be bound together in a common surge of emotion as they sang, prayed, wept, and finally rejoiced in the Lord’s salvation. On a more mundane level, the revival meeting (and later the political rally) filled social needs in a rural world short on formal entertainment, one in which families lived most of the year in isolation. It was a time for shared experiences; for reunion; for eating and drinking; and now and then, on the dark fringes of a torchlit gathering, for impromptu love-making.
The vestiges of this pattern show in the modern convention like fossil bones. There is the keynote oration, an opening sermon that warms and fuses the crowd. Later comes the statement of creed—the reading of the platform, rarely designed to convince anyone not already convinced of the party’s absolute purity and the opposition’s total depravity. The nominating speeches arouse local loyalties, and move the delegates up a steadily mounting slope of tension to the climax of the balloting. (If, as sometimes happens, the presidential nomination is a cut-and-dried one, some excitement is generated by the choice of the vice-presidential standard-bearer.) When the smoke has cleared, the ceremonial love feast follows, as the faithful devotees of the several candidates who have been at each other’s throats for months close ranks behind the nominee in a final spasm of oratory and cheering. The whole performance follows traditional ritual, like the successive stages of a bullfight.
Actually, of course, the thousand or so delegates are not freely choosing their man from a wide-open list. Four or five—and often just two or three—leading contenders are the only real possibilities, and they have spent months campaigning vigorously for support from the state organizations that have picked the delegates. These “genuine” potential nominees are almost always preselected by a system of restrictions as inexorable in their sieving-out as any examination system for the higher bureaucracy ever devised in ancient China.