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December 1, 2011 / Sandy Asher


It’s become fashionable over the past two decades for those who write about American politics to categorize our system as dysfunctional.   Right- and left-wing authors differ over whom to blame, but their urgent tones are remarkably similar.  A tiny sampling:  Sean Hannity, Deliver Us From Evil: Defeating Terrorism, Despotism, and Liberalism (2005); James Carville and Paul Begala, Take It Back: A Battle Plan for Democratic Victory (2006); John Dean, Broken Government; How Republicans Destroyed the Executive, Legislative and Judicial Branches (2007); and Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum, That Used To Be Us:  How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back (2011).

Bookstores might do well to house these and similar titles in an America the Unbeautiful section. So pervasive is present pessimistic thinking that Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary defines politics as “political activities characterized by artful and often dishonest practices” alongside the usual “the art or science of government.”  To much of the media, dishonest practices high and low now constitute the new political norm rather than abuse.

The gloomiest political analysts project the continuation or worsening of the current mess into a future that inevitably bodes the death of American democracy.  Small wonder, then, that so many Americans think the self-correcting mechanisms and institutions of our government no longer work.  Traditional safeguards appear to be hopelessly out of whack to deal with today’s crises:  Fair competition among political parties, scrutiny by the press and reform critics, tensions in the coequal branches of government, and the checks and balances imposed by law and the Constitution seem to be falling by the wayside in a tidal wave of rancor.  A poll released in the fall of 2011 found that only 9% of Americans approved of the job Congress was doing, reflecting public frustration with the failure to address major problems — from lack of jobs to soaring deficits, and from assuring the financial integrity of Social Security to lessening income gaps between rich and poor.

Doubt and consternation are natural reactions when the entire government seems to be running amok.  In the spring of 2011, for instance, only at the eleventh hour did Congress agree on budget cuts and a raised debt ceiling to keep the government from shutting down.  A normally simple maneuver, this one occurred only after noisy and drawn-out recriminations by both parties, despite overwhelming public clamor for a deal.

Heaving great sighs, modern doom-predictors decry “politics as usual,” as if that phrase explained what ails our nation these days and why we’re headed toward the cliff.   But politics has always been politics, and “as usual” is a clear confirmation of that fact.   Doubt and consternation can be tempered by stepping back for a perspective that takes in more than the here and now.

Complaints about “politics as usual” generally fall into one of three categories:

1.  Politicians behaving badly.

2.  Politicians treating one another badly.

3.  Politicians making it impossible to get anything done.

But is any of this new?

Politicians behaving badly.   This form of “politics as usual” is as American as apple pie.  Chesapeake planters of the late eighteenth century assured their re-election by treating the electorate to drinks before and after they cast their ballots. The spoils system that developed gradually in the first half of the 19th century saw victorious politicians awarding jobs and appointments to party supporters, with little regard for qualifications.  Political machines and their corrupt bosses have a long history of flourishing in America’s largest cities.  Lyndon Johnson, as majority leader of the Senate, dominated that body by placating, wooing, cajoling, arm twisting, and flattering potential allies like no one before or since.

Twenty-first century public embarrassments are easily matched by past examples.  In the 18th century, Alexander Hamilton carried on an adulterous affair with Maria Reynolds, a part-time prostitute, and was blackmailed by her husband.  In the 19th century, President Grover Cleveland ‘fessed up to fathering an illegitimate child, thus inspiring the popular chant, “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?  Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha!”   The 20th century brought us the peccadilloes of Nelson Rockefeller, John Kennedy, Gary Hart, and . . . no need to go on, but we could.  The 21st century has added only the novelty of cell phone pornography and sexting to this very long story.

Politicians treating one another badly.  Presidents and candidates, including the Founders, were known to sling mud at their rivals and enemies in ways that make today’s diatribes seem tame:

  • John Adams about George Washington: “That Washington was not a scholar is certain.  That he is too illiterate, unlearned, unread for his station is equally beyond dispute.”
  • Benjamin Franklin about John Adams:  “He is always honest, sometimes great, but often mad.”
  • Arthur Lee about Benjamin Franklin:  “There never existed I think a man more meanly envious and selfish than Dr. Franklin.”
  • Fisher Ames about John Hancock: “Hancock thought himself a Jupiter, and filled his Olympus with buffoons, sots, and blockheads.”
  • John Quincy Adams about Andrew Jackson: “A barbarian who cannot write a sentence of grammar and can hardly spell his name.”
  • Andrew Jackson about William Henry Harrison: “Our President Imbecile in Chief.”
  • Teddy Roosevelt about John Tyler: “A politician of monumental littleness.”
  • Ulysses Grant about Andrew Johnson: “He is such an infernal liar.”
  • Woodrow Wilson about Ulysses Grant: “He combined great gifts with great mediocrity,” and on Chester Arthur: “A non-entity with side whiskers.”

The elections of 1796 and 1800 were extremely nasty contests, characterized by vituperative newspaper editorials, scathing leaflets, and character assassinations written and distributed by the rival camps.  Jefferson’s Federalist opponent portrayed him as a drunkard and an enemy of religion, and broached the scandalous possibility that he’d fathered his slave Sally Hemming’s children.  The Federalist Connecticut Courant predicted that Jefferson’s victory would lead to a society in which murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest would be openly taught and practiced.

Sound familiar?

For his part, Jefferson hired hatchet man James Callender, who wrote during the 1800 campaign that Adams was mentally deranged, intended to have himself crowned an American monarch, and planned to appoint his son John Quincy Adams as his successor to the presidency. Democratic-Republicans falsely asserted that while serving as ambassador to Russia, Adams procured mistresses for himself and his cohorts.

Former Vice President Aaron Burr and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton fought a duel on July 11, 1804. Hamilton was mortally wounded.   Southern Senator John Randall and Secretary of State Henry Clay also fought a duel.  Fortunately, neither participant was hurt.   And in the summer of 1856, Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina accosted Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner at his desk, beating him unconscious with a cane for impugning Brooks’s uncle’s honor.  A level of bad behavior worthy of the Jerry Springer Show!

Politicians making it impossible to get things done.  Greater civility among political rivals might be nice, but the fact remains that when parties disagree on fundamentals, fur flies and significant cooperation is highly unlikely. The January 2011 shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords inTuscon, Arizona, did not significantly change the way business was done on the Hill, though the horrific event exposed the vulnerability of all representatives. The symbolic crossing of aisles by some Republicans and Democrats to sit alongside one another for the President’s State of the Union address soon afterward had no long-term effect on (nasty) politics as usual.

Politicians have always been human and therefore prone to human failings.  American politics has always been about acquiring power to influence the behavior of others — to make them do things or to prevent them from acting freely.  American politicians have always been driven by personal ambition that makes them willing to test the boundaries of permissible behavior for winning and holding on to office.

And yet good things — even great things — have gotten done in the past, are getting done now, and will continue to get done.  Eighteenth century personal animosities did not halt the creation of the United States of America.  During the Progressive Era of the 1890s -1920s, legislation passed that democratized the political process through initiative, recall, referendum, and the direct election of Senators.  In the aftermath of World War I, a constitutional amendment gave women the right to vote. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 opened up new possibilities for African-American and other minority voters.  The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 made a profound difference in many lives.

Disillusionment about the American political scene traditionally ebbs and flows as the economy improves or declines, and according to whether the nation is at peace or in wars going poorly.  Dire prophecies about the future of American politics — and the fate of our democracy — miss the mark because they are based on unrealistic interpretations about how the national government has operated since it came into existence.  

Gloom and doom are by no means something new.  According to James Madison, “. . . all men having power ought to be mistrusted.”  Thomas Jefferson, toward the end of his life, was extremely pessimistic about the long-term viability of the American nation he helped create.  In a letter to John Holmes, a Congressman from Massachusetts, he said, “I regret I am now to die in the belief, that the useless sacrifice of themselves by the generation of 1776 . . . is to be thrown away by the unwise and unworthy passions of their sons, in that my only consolation is to be, that I live not to weep over it.”  Madison, again, writing in 1829, gave the great American experiment only a hundred more years.  “Remember,” he said, “democracy never lasts long.  It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself.  There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”

We’re now well into our third century.

Modern predictors of gloom and doom ignore the past and play on our current worst fears — sometimes out of conviction; often as a means toward self-serving ends.  Fear garners votes.  Fear sells books.   Again, nothing new.  Writing in the first half of the 20th century, H.L. Mencken declared, “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.”

The whole aim?   No.  Not all of our concerns are imaginary.  Those that are genuine are worth calm and close examination, but history assures us, to paraphrase our own Mark Twain, that the reports of democracy’s death have been greatly exaggerated.

There is no sharp break between the politics of yesterday and today or between the politicians of yesterday and today. Politics as usual has always been the only kind possible for the American system of governance.  It does not rule out good things being accomplished by even less-than-stellar politicians who become legislators, as long as they are held accountable by an informed electorate.


 In addition to the titles mentioned in the first paragraph above –

The American National Elections Study at

 Joseph Ellis, American Sphinx:  The Character of Thomas Jefferson (1996)


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Leave a Comment
  1. Wendy Gourley / Dec 1 2011 1:01 am

    Thanks for sharing some clear level thinking. Anything not shouted at me is always a welcome change.

    • Harvey Asher / Dec 1 2011 1:01 pm

      Thank you, Wendy. Rest assured I speak softly and don’t even carry a big stick.

  2. Meryl Baer / Dec 1 2011 2:07 am

    Great commentary. Too bad so many Americans are ignorant of American (political) history.

    • Harvey Asher / Dec 1 2011 1:02 pm

      Glad you enjoyed it, Meryl. It’s never too late to learn — and have a few laughs along the way.

  3. robink336 / Dec 1 2011 7:23 am

    Thanks for this one! Maybe aay a little about how this country’s economy seems to be based on blatant consumerism. I love how the media tells us that it’s okay to shop now. And people BUY IT.

    • Harvey Asher / Dec 1 2011 1:04 pm

      Appreciate your stopping by, Robin, and the “like.” I’ll be addressing economics a short way down the road.

  4. Priscilla McFerren / Dec 12 2011 6:52 pm

    Perspective — a word found far too infrequently. I have now read the previous and current blogs here and feel richly rewarded for having done so. I’ll look forward to reading your future musings and the calm and clear-headed perspective your voice intones. Almost as good as having a conversation with you.
    Priscilla McFerren

    • Harvey Asher / Dec 13 2011 12:02 am

      Thanks for you kind comments, Priscilla. Good to hear from you!

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