How to Get Elected


The campaign ritual, therefore, becomes an affirmation of unity. A good deal may be said against it. Its increasing costliness raises a serious problem of controlling the post-election influence of “fat cat” contributors, and is sheer destruction to minority parties. Its extravagancies of language are sometimes dangerously misunderstood by foreigners. While few issues are really and truly debated in a campaign, a good many sensitive issues are mauled and misshapen, and candidates are committed to positions—promises to “roll back” the Iron Curtain; to “keep us out of war”; or to perform other undertakings which cannot be achieved unilaterally—that may return to haunt them.

Yet overenthusiasm is a less deadly enemy than apathy, and the campaign performance, rousing the voters from their unconcern, guarantees that the victor will be more than a straw man. He may be a political professional who might as well have been chosen by a conference of pollsters, but the election constitutes a laying on of hands to signify that he will represent, when he speaks, something resembling the power of the people. When all is said and done, 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 calmly choosing leaders from its own ranks. Only one American election has actually been tragic. In 1860, the South refused to accept the result of the canvass, and the nation turned from ballot to bullet in a struggle that cost the lives of over half a million young men.

A system which, for all its hoopla, has produced in a century and a third vigorous leaders like Jackson, Polk, Lincoln, the two Roosevelts, Wilson, and Kennedy, cannot be regarded as anything but successful. Our democratic elective process is not quite blueprinted in the Constitution, but it does well enough in hard going. As Robert Bendiner, speaking of the quest for the White House, recently observed, “the United States could do worse than to be linked in history with that combination of sport, drama, crusade, carnival, and New England town meeting that we know as a presidential election.”