JACK SPENCER: Bad to worse, but still the best

Elections can be frustrating and infuriating. Often the candidate selections we face seem to offer a choice between dumb and dumber or force us to vote on the basis of which one we distrust the least.

It has been said that elections aren’t won by overestimating the intelligence of voters. That could explain why we’re almost always suffering through campaign ads that talk down to us, as though we were village idiots or easily misled children.

Politicians seldom venture into the areas that concern us most. Whenever possible they avoid addressing the tough issues, the awkward issues, the real issues. Watching some campaigns is like studying the art of insincerity, mock concern or viewing script readings in a drama class.

We have ceased to be shocked when politicians with rubber backbones pretend to take strong stances. Watching candidates promise to run on the issues while spending the bulk of their time and money on mudslinging has become such a common practice that we hardly notice it anymore.

Politics in our republic fosters an environment in which the most valued survival techniques involve being slick and clever. It’s a marketing paradise; an advertising agency haven, and the domain of the half-truth.

All in all, it resembles a messy, drifting discussion with a wayward adolescent that started with a few points of disagreement, but somehow — hours later — turned into an argument about topics that have nothing to do with the original conversation. The important questions get ducked, the few answers given could be interpreted 20 different ways; and any hint of a satisfactory outcome is as rare as a snowball in Tahiti.

However, there is a silver lining; it is tarnished silver to be sure, but priceless nonetheless.

One of the greatest blessings bestowed upon the United States was the presidential election of 1800. To many, the campaigning of 1800 made it the first “modern” election in U.S. history. It was a contentious and slanderous political fight that virtually masked the deeper and profound issue at stake.

John Adams had defeated Thomas Jefferson in 1796, and the 1800 election was a rematch between those two candidates. The major difference between them was that Adams — like George Washington before him — favored a more powerful and centralized federal government than suited Jefferson and his followers. Jefferson vehemently advocated for following a less powerful, decentralized course.

In spite of the lofty issue at the heart of the contest, the actual campaigning devolved into smear tactics. Adams’ followers claimed that if Jefferson was elected he would take the U.S. down a path of civil unrest and bloodshed that would rival the French Revolution. They labeled him “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.”

Meanwhile, Jefferson’s followers called Adams a fool, a hypocrite, a criminal and a tyrant. Jefferson actually hired a “hatchet-man” named James Callendar to do a professional job of smearing Adams. Callendar set about the task of convincing voters that Adams wanted to attack France — a claim that was totally untrue but that proved very effective.

Callendar served jail-time for slandering Adams. Later, when Jefferson failed to pay him off sufficiently, Callendar, in 1802, publicly broke the story that Jefferson was having an affair with one of his slaves.

How could all of this be considered a blessing for the United States?

First, it showed all following generations, including us today, that since the very foundations of our nation, a basic (possibly “the basic”) debate at the core of our political divisions is about defining the proper role of government. It was so 214 years ago, and remains so to this day.

Second, it revealed that, by its very nature, democracy is disorderly in the extreme. Free speech, coupled with the right of “the people” to choose their leaders, inevitably strays far from the relevant pathways. Like it or not, candidates must be allowed to say what they want and try to avoid saying what they’d rather not say. As maddening — and at times out-and-out disgusting — as the results of this might be, the alternatives would be far worse.

If ever a time comes when all of our issues are settled amicably, without words of distraction, strongly expressed dismay, discontent, disagreement — and yes, even seemingly nonsensical mumblings; that’s when we’ll know that freedom in the U.S. has become extinct.

Winston Churchill probably said it best: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

After Jefferson won the 1800 presidential election, the first peaceful transition of political power between opposing parties in U.S. history took place. That peaceful transition, in spite of the raucous, dirty and divisive campaign, set the tone for how all similar transitions of power have taken place after U.S. elections ever since. That too was a blessing this nation received from our first “modern” political campaign.

Jack Spencer is Capitol Affairs Specialist for Capitol Confidential, an online newsletter associated with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy (MCPP). MCPP provides policy analysis. The political analysis represented in this column does not necessarily reflect the views of the Mackinac Center.