As every American with a pulse and access to the airwaves is aware, we are in the midst of the Presidential primary season. We are awash in speeches, policy statements, televised debates and town hall meetings, punditry, and impressive—for sheer hutzpah and shamelessness—spin.
The current cycle in American presidential politics is unlike any other I can remember, and I’m old enough now to possess, in varying levels, of course, personal memories of campaigns stretching back to 1968.
The first Presidential election I followed closely occurred in 1976, when I was a sophomore in high school and living in Norway. I read every word I could about the primary battles between Gerald Ford (whom I met decades later in Kansas City at a lunch held every year in honor of Harry Truman’s birthday) and Ronald Reagan, about a then largely unknown southern governor and peanut-farmer who was vying for the Democratic party nomination, and the ultimate electoral duel between the quasi-incumbent Ford and Jimmy Carter.
I scoured assiduously through our European editions of Newsweek and Time magazines, studied daily the accounts printed in the International Herald Tribune (which, owing to the advent of the internet and other factors, no longer exists), and labored to decipher the stories and editorials of the Norwegian and Swedish newspapers we had access to.
I asked mom and dad as many questions as I could think of: Who are you voting for? Why? Who does so-and-so remind you of politically? Why do the Norwegians prefer candidate X? Who do you think will win? Why do the people in Europe care so much about our Presidency? Why don’t we care more about THEIR elections? Both my parents had been fairly heavily involved in local and national politics not long before, so they seemed a fascinating font of informed opinion. Dad had run for state office in Tennessee roughly 15 years prior and through that experience became friends with some fairly influential players on the national scene, chief among them then Senator Howard Baker (“what did the President [Nixon] know and when did he know it?”) who later became Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff. Both the process and the outcome fascinated me, particularly as it came in the immediate aftermath of the Watergate crisis.
Flash forward four decades. I am considerably less engrossed. Certainly more cynical. A bit—what, exactly? Worn out by the whole spectacle. Philosophical. I realize, finally, that some variant of the statement “This year’s election is the most important one in our lifetimes” will be repeated in two or four years, and in two or four years after that, ad infinitum. This does not necessarily mean that it’s false each time it’s uttered, but over the years I’ve grown increasingly indifferent to its call for action, for enthusiasm on behalf of one candidate or outrage at another. I hate the personal attacks and the transparent, rampant dishonesty endemic to political campaigns. Ambrose Bierce’s dictionary entry on “Politics” resonates: “A strife of interests masquerading as principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage.” The wall-to-wall, moment-to-moment coverage available online and on television exhausts me. And we’re still in February! Ohio’s PRIMARY election isn’t for another three weeks. Uff da.
Ugly words will be spoken on the stump and written in the op-ed pages. Demonstrations will be held outside arenas and convention halls, some utilizing vile slogans and defamatory content. There will be charges and counter-charges, dirty tricks and noxious robo-calls. Shrill facebook messages will be posted and “friends” will be tempted to defriend other “friends” (the horror!)!
Yet, while elements of our election cycle can be alarming or repulsive it’s impossible not to be amazed by how peaceful and decorous our process is, comparatively speaking. Oh, there might be a handful of out-of-control protests that go down, resulting in some arrests and a few bloody noses (see, e.g., Chicago, 1968), but it’s highly unlikely that a violent coup or deadly revolution will take place. Better still, we’ve entered a moment when our own interested teenager is asking Krista and me the same sorts of questions I once asked my parents and developing her own protean opinions about candidates and policies. That’s a salutary development. It offers an opportunity for healthy family debate and political apologetics. And with any luck it’ll be four decades or so before she becomes as jaded and ungrateful for our political system as I.