The Washington Post ran an article this past Sunday on the most important presidential elections in American history. The assumption is the upcoming election of 2012 will rank right up there with many others as a watershed moment. This is a very popular assumption, and it is very wrong.
One important election to which the article pays very little attention took place in 1800. The Federalist and incumbent John Adams squared off against his Republican Vice President, Thomas Jefferson. The Federalists had occupied the presidency since the promulgation of the Constitution and had done a great job alienating small government types centered in the south and west (which back then was everything between the Appalachians and the Mississippi). President Washington stood strong against the Whiskey Rebellion, President Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts and both of their administrations had decidedly Anglophile foreign policies. To Republicans like Jefferson, all of this meant that the Federalists aimed to imitate the English monarchy America had fought so hard to jettison.
Thomas Jefferson led a spirited opposition to both Washington’s and Adams’ Federalist program. He resigned as Washington’s Secretary of State because he felt his counsel was continuously ignored. As Vice President, he helped vilify John Adams at every turn, leaking stories of Adams’ bad temper and obsession with the trappings of royalty to the press. Along with James Madison, he helped draft what would become the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions that sought to invalidate the Alien and Sedition Acts that Adams had signed into law. The resolutions were the first bold statements in favor of nullification, the idea that a state can choose not to follow a federal law if they deem it unconstitutional. Although the resolutions went nowhere, nullification would rear its head later during the presidency of Andrew Jackson and again on the eve of the Civil War.
So when 1800 came around, Americans had a clear choice between continuing the strong government program of the Federalists and experimenting with the states’ rights agenda of the Republicans. The campaign was vicious, with each side’s press corps working overtime to destroy the characters of the opposing candidate. Adams was attacked as an obese Anglophile monarchist. Jefferson was attacked as a Jacobin who owned and cavorted with slaves. Once the votes were tallied, no man had received a majority of electoral votes. It was up to the House of Representatives to choose from the top two candidates, which were Jefferson and the shady Aaron Burr. After several contentious votes, Alexander Hamilton used his pull in the House to throw the election to Jefferson. Although he hated Jefferson, he thought Burr was too dangerous to be president. This would be the beginning of a rivalry between Hamilton and Burr that would end with the fatal duel in Weehawken, New Jersey.
Once the election was decided, John Adams sat dejected in an unfinished ramshackle residence located on a swamp called the District of Columbia. He reflected upon what a Jefferson Administration might mean for the country. At no point did he ever consider contesting the results of the election, or of using his power as commander-in-chief to declare some sort of martial law that would extend his presidency indefinitely. Instead, he dutifully vacated what would become the White House and went back home to Massachusetts. It was an epic moment in the history of western civilization. For the first time in anyone’s memory, the reins of power transferred peacefully from one group to another. It was a validation of the principles of constitutional government and a hopeful sign that the fledgling republic could survive political turmoil without descending into civil war. The two men at the center of this battle would have an icy relationship until, towards the end of their lives, they struck up an extraordinary correspondence. That correspondence would only end when both men died, which happened to be on the same day: July 4, 1826, 50 years to the day of the Declaration of Independence.
The upcoming election this year promises to have nothing on 1800. On the surface, there might be similarities between the two incumbents, John Adams and Barack Obama. Both men were educated at Harvard. Both men were very conscious about being presidential and bringing a sense of gravitas to the highest office in the land. Like Obama, Adams did things that caused howls in his own party. He made peace with France despite his own party’s call for war, especially after the humiliation of the XYZ Affair. This opened up Adams to criticism of being a closet Republican. Obama has been accused of selling out the progressive wing of his party, whether it was by not fighting for a public option during the healthcare reform debate or refusing to call the Bush Administration to account for war crimes or by supporting a law that puts Social Security on the road to extinction. It seems that an argument can be made that Obama is a modern-day John Adams.
In reality, the similarities are only skin-deep. Adams’ peace overtures to France were based on what he knew to be the best interests of the country. Despite the saber-rattling of his own party, he knew that war with France would be impractical. The United States had no military to speak of and no way to mobilize one in time to avoid defeat. France, for all of the turmoil its revolution was causing at the time, was still a world power that was already fully mobilized and doing a heck of a job defeating the monarchies of Europe. As Washington pointed out in his farewell address, the United States was a fledgling country that needed time to develop. At the very least, war would hinder that development and, in the worst case, would kill the United States in its cradle. Adams had to sacrifice good politics in favor of good policy. Making peace with France would surely lose him his base and the election, but it would ensure the survival of the United States for the foreseeable future.
On the other hand, Obama cares not for good policy. Everything he does is a political calculation. Fighting for a public option would have surely cost him millions in contributions from Big Pharma, not to mention feed into wild criticisms of him being a radical socialist (just remember the utter insanity of many of the town hall meetings about healthcare reform). Going after Bush for war crimes and rolling back the surveillance state created by the Patriot Act would prevent Obama from having the same type of latitude Bush enjoyed as president. Going out of his way to compromise with a Republican Party hell bent on his destruction makes him look like a consensus builder and rational centrist. Unlike President Adams, what is good for the country and the people in it matters little to President Obama. His calculations are based upon how he can keep the corporate funding rolling in and how he can pander to the other party’s base in order to pull in the airhead “centrists” who pine for “bipartisanship”.
This is not even mentioning his Department of Homeland Security’s crackdown on Occupy Wall Street. What we have in President Obama is someone who does the bidding of the same corporate elite that pulled the strings of George Bush. For all of his faults, President Adams was his own man. He did not need to placate rich people in order to secure his job. Securing his job took a back seat to following his conscience. President Obama has a conscience, but the shape of that conscience is determined by the people and policies that promise to keep him in office.
The upcoming election of 2012 is not another 1800. It is not another 1828, 1864 (the choices in 1860 were much murkier) 1896, 1932 or 1964. Those were years when Americans knew they were at a crossroads. They had a clear choice before them. 1800 was a choice between Federalism and Republicanism. 1828 was a choice between internal improvements and white supremacy. 1864 was a choice between seeing the Civil War to its end and letting the south go its own way in order to secure peace. 1896 was a choice between big business and small farmers. 1932 was a choice between the same old laissez-faire and a “new deal for the American people” (whatever that meant at the time). 1964 was a choice between a federal government that actively sought to remedy inequality and one that wanted to handcuff government’s ability to do much of anything. With all of these elections, a different outcome than the one that actually happened would have clearly set the country down a much different path. 2012 is not one of those elections.
The election of 2012 has much more in common with 1820, 1852, 1888, 1976 and 2000. All of these elections took place in an atmosphere of political stasis. There was very little to distinguish the candidates from each other. Working backwards, the 2000 election was notable for its puny turnout and characterizations of it being the Seinfeld election: an election about nothing. 1976 was a choice between a fiscally conservative Republican and a fiscally conservative Democrat (a harbinger of the New Democrats of the post-Reagan era). 1888 was a squabble over tariffs, with both candidates being in full agreement over the right of corporations to step on the throats of workers (including children). 1852 was between a pro-slavery Democratic Party and a Whig Party so divided over slavery that they were unable to unite behind any platform at all. These were all elections in which the status quo had nothing to fear from the outcome. So it is with 2012.
The election of 1820 was noteworthy for being the last election in American history when a candidate ran unopposed (The other such elections involved George Washington, with whom there was no competition in the minds of the people). James Monroe rode the wave of the Era of Good Feelings to a second term in the White House (properly named after we had painted over the damage the British had caused it during the War of 1812). The Federalists were done and the entire United States, north, south and west, was effectively a Republican nation. The economy was booming, the British were ejected from the Ohio River Valley and the United States had vast stretches of land in the Louisiana Territory that promised unlimited resources. For white men in the Era of Good Feelings, America seemed to offer boundless possibilities. Jefferson’s Republican Party took the credit and James Monroe was the beneficiary.
What we have today is an Era of Bad Feelings. Instead of the promise of endless expansion, Americans of all colors and genders are facing an age of severe limits. Not only is our job market and quality of life deteriorating, we cannot even look forward to another generation of the United States being the undisputed superpower of the world. Unemployment is a permanent condition for millions of Americans. The ones lucky enough to find jobs are working in the low-wage, low-skilled service sector that grinds people up and spits them out. The workers (especially teachers) that used to have union protections and job security are rapidly being stripped of their livelihoods. Other countries like China and India promise to be major players in the 21st century. The American Dream that was the promise of the Era of Good Feelings came and went and now it withers on the vine.
Going into November, we essentially have a perverted version of 1820. It is an Era of Bad Feelings where we essentially have one candidate and one party. Sure, there will be two major people and they will each clad themselves in one of the two major brands, but they will both work for the same interests. Americans essentially have no choice. There is one political party and it is the Corporate Party. It is the party that will do everything in its power to provide boundless opportunity for those who already have it all. It is the party that will continue to destroy the lives of anyone who works or cannot find work for a living. Whether it is Barack Obama or Mitt Romney or Rick Santorum who take the oath of office on January 20, 2013, America will go down the same path.
The sad thing is, many of those low-wage and unemployed Americans will deck their cars with bumper stickers and hang American flags outside of their windows. They will go to the voting booth under the illusion that they are making a difference, or at least choosing the lesser of two evils. When November 2016 rolls around, if it rolls around, the votes that they cast 4 years prior will be shown to have no impact at all. It will be like nothing ever happened.