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It’s official—election fatigue has set in. People are tired of reading, writing, tweeting, and blogging about it. So frequent are Donald Trump’s inflammatory statements we’ve come to expect them on a regular basis. So familiar are Hillary Clinton’s aversions to forthrightness that her pneumonic cover up hardly came as a shock.
Less than two months away from casting our fateful ballots, and you’ve likely heard the following sentiment repeated, incessantly, in some form or another: this it the craziest election ever. Listen to the media and you’ll probably believe it, too—never before has the fate of the United States hung so delicately in the balance.
Except it has. A lot. During damn near every presidential election, actually.
It was just four years ago that Democrats spouted their fear of a Mitt Romney presidency, and four years before that that electing John McCain would have extended the disastrous Republican reign begun by George W. Bush. The media has a way of explaining, and presenting things in hyperbole, no matter the historical precedent for what exactly is going on—not to mention 24 hours of airtime to fill on cable news channels.
The media’s insatiable appetite mixed with ever-advancing mobile recording technology allows us to follow candidates and campaigns around the clock, from small-town rallies to big city fundraisers. According to Dr. Lara Brown, director of George Washington University’s graduate political management program, it’s that pervasiveness that makes this year’s election crazier than all the rest.
“Our media environment is such that there’s this incredible speed with which we hear about campaign events,” Brown tells BTRtoday. “We are able to witness via cellphone video Hillary Clinton stumbling getting into her car. We’re noticing every moment and noticing every moment all the time.”
As fresh as this year’s election seems, with all new (and immensely dislikable) characters, it’s a refrain that’s gone back more than 200 years. Just ask French historian, diplomat, and author Alexis de Tocqueville, who wrote the following in his famed book “Democracy in America”:
“A presidential election in the United States may be looked upon as a time of national crisis. Long before the date arrives, the election becomes everyone’s major, not to say sole, preoccupation…As the election draws near, intrigues intensify, and agitation increases and spreads. The citizens divide into several camps, each behind its candidate. A fever grips the entire nation. The election becomes the daily grist of the public papers, the subject of private conversation, the aim of all activity.”
Sound familiar at all?
Part of our lack of perspective when it comes to election insanity stems from our views of the past. Looking back, things seem more pleasant and buttoned up, innocent, and even more respectable—so much so, Trump has supporters yearning for some undetermined portion of American yesteryear. But there are plenty of examples of American elections not staying entirely above board.
Take, for example, the Coffin Handbills—pamphlets printed with the names of people allegedly killed by 1828 presidential hopeful (and winner) Andrew Jackson. Or perhaps President Harry S. Truman’s assertion that Dwight D. Eisenhower, decorated World War II general, would be a dangerous, war-mongering choice during the 1952 election.
Perhaps the best example, though, comes from the 1884 election between James G. Blaine and Grover Cleveland—one that profiles eerily similar to this year’s political bout. Blaine, a senator from Maine, entered the election as a quintessential example of a corrupt politician—letters of his had been published detailing his selling of Congressional votes for pay and personal gain, one even etched with the phrase “burn this letter.”
Cleveland, on the other hand, was no model citizen. Years before his presidential run and New York governorship, he fathered an illegitimate child with a woman named Maria Halpin. Not the worst offense in the history of politics—until you factor in Halpin’s custody being revoked and Cleveland pulling power strings to have her committed to an insane asylum (from which she was subsequently released due to, you know, lack of insanity).
Now imagine for a moment if there was concrete proof—a message ending in “delete this email!” perhaps—of nefarious or detrimental activity on her private email server? Or if Donald Trump’s shady personal and business dealings were revealed with indisputable evidence? (Okay, let’s just pretend that hasn’t already happened).
Were the media privy to this kind of scandalous information, firestorm wouldn’t begin to describe what we’d see unfolding before our eyes. Already endless event reporting would somehow be increased, pundits would begin working double time, and the proverbial election knob would be cranked up to 12 before being ripped off altogether.
“When our media was mostly written, it had a different impact on you as the observer or the voter or the reader than when you’re actually seeing the video or heading the words being spoken from the candidate’s mouth,” Brown said.
But as 1884 proves, salacious election activity and mudslinging is far from new. It’s our new media and social media that brings it to us.
“I think when we look back, we get this sense that campaigns weren’t as raucous as they are now,” Brown says. “And the truth is, they were.”
That’s not to say the 2016 election is anywhere close to normal. Trump has proven that even the most heinous statements can eventually be overlooked, and Clinton has come off as downright Nixonian in her dogged pursuit of the political office she’s had her eye on for decades. Lest we forget, the United States had plenty of growing yet to do in the late 19th century, not to mention the lack of nuclear weaponry at ours (and many others’) disposal.
But as with most other subjects, historical precedence is important when it comes to presidential elections. It shows that the problems and inconceivable atrocities of today might not be quite as bad as we think they are. Our cultural standards and norms may change, but if history tells us anything, it’s that presidential elections will always seem insane, no matter who wins in 2016.