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The Presidential election of 1828

With the voting over and done with (probably; maybe), it’s time we all sat down and tried to gain a little perspective. History is a great teacher, so let’s be its students for a few minutes.

Perspective, especially this close in, is tough to come by. But it is clear to anyone who paid any attention at all that this election taught us that in twentieth-century America, reason and political thought don’t matter, experience no longer counts, and accomplishments are merely things to be tossed aside. In point of fact, truth itself was too often cast aside, and lies were easier to form than logic.

Oh, I’m not taking sides in the presidential election. And I’m not necessarily referring to any local elections. I’m just commenting on the state of the American political conversation.

I kept thinking that someone would take on issues without taking on the character of the opponent. I saw some on the national level, but not much. Remember the debates? Did you feel better informed, or did you just need a mental bath?

What did I really see? Character assassination. And that is an old tool. Aristotle wrote about it four centuries before Christ, and he even gave it the high-sounding name of argumentum ad hominem. That is when you attack the person instead of attacking his position.

We—all of us fallen humans–bear some responsibility for this. People tend to look for people who think as they do. And they tend to look specifically for things that make their argument better. Psychologists call it confirmation bias, and (he said ironically), we see it everywhere.

Do you think Democrats play dirty pool, or do you think Republicans are the scoundrels? For most people, their party affiliation predetermines their initial predispositions, and those initial predispositions are less like points of beginning and more like ideas cast in concrete. In other words, most people won’t budge.

Think about the presidential election. If you are of one party, you believe that American finally got rid of a rogue and why isn’t it obvious to everyone; if you are of another party, you believe the election was stolen and that you have tons of information to support your position and why aren’t people in jail? Which is true? Neither? Both? What you believe—notice I did not say what is true—is too generally determined by your point of view.

In elections, does the truth even matter? My experience and this saddens me to no end, is that it seems to matter less and less.

Why are lies too effective? Mark Twain said it best: “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.”

But before we go all old-school, and wish for the way things used to be, let’s take a look at how things used to be.

As I pointed out last week when we were visiting the electoral college, don’t forget that we once had what was called the Democratic-Republican party. In 1824 it had won six consecutive presidential elections and was our only national political party.

John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts and Andrew Jackson of Tennessee and two others battled for the presidency (remember, they were all members of one party) so hot and so close that none of the four candidates could secure enough electoral votes to win. Co congress had to decide the election. Did their decision come from the best men in America sitting down to carefully reason amongst themselves? Hardly. House Speaker Henry Clay (he holds the same position that Nancy Pelosi holds today) met with Adams. After the meeting, Clay swayed enough congressional support to secure the presidency for Adams. Guess what happened next. Henry Clay was quickly appointed as Secretary of State by the newly-elected President John Q. Adams.

Jackson and his people revolted, left the Democratic-Republican party and formed what is now the Democratic party.

Let’s pause here for a moment. If you are a Republican, the lesson you take from that story is different than if you are a Democrat. See where we are going.

The 1828 election—which was really a follow-up to the 1828 election–is known as “the dirtiest campaign in U.S. history.”

Jackson, who felt that the presidency had been stolen from him, came out swinging. Jackson accused Adams of misusing public funds; Adams accused Jackson of murdering six of his own militiamen. Jackson’s wife had been previously married, and the Adams camp accused her of adultery. Jackson fired back that Adams, charging that when he was the American ambassador to Russia, used prostitutes to curry favor.

Jackson won—I’ll leave it to you to decide if it was because he played the dirtier pool– and that lead to him being elected president of the United States, the first Democrat to hold that office.

What conclusions can we draw? The outcome of modern elections—much like elections in prior centuries—is not determined by careful reasoning and clear thinking. Often, when politics goes to the lowest common denominator, we get the lowest possible elected officials.

Does that apply to the 2020 election cycle? You decide. I suspect that your beginning point predetermines your decision.