Monday, November 10, 2008

Comparing the Election of 2008 to... Part I: 1800

[okay, I never did get the graphics issue resolved to my satisfaction, so I'm going to just write it out long-hand. And because I'm doing that, I might as well start with...]

Two parties that cannot stand each other, hurling mud and invective against the other faction's candidate. False charges, threats of violence, even revolution if the wrong person wins. A lot of fuss for two men in powdered wigs, but that's 1800.

Senator Obama's elevation to the White House is a big deal. Considering the long history of black Americans, for one to win a presidential election is a milestone, one that cannot be ignored. We can ruminate on the current significance of that in some future conversation; right now, it's time to play History Lesson and put this election into its proper historical context. And for our purposes here, that means forgoing the race angle as much as possible; race is simply too much of a non sequitur to be brought up at every turn and twist. Thus, apologies now to everyone who wants to harp on that point.

Let's look at the big points of comparison between the two elections, 1800 and 2008:

  1. Unpopularity of the sitting President --without a doubt this played a major role in the elections of both Jefferson and Obama. John Adams's Federalists had come close to bringing the nation into a war to which a significant number of Americans objected. To pay for this war, taxes had been increased, further angering opponents of the war. Worried about the effect that opposition newspapers were having on volatile electorates, the Congress passed the Sedition Act of 1798, effectively criminalizing anti-government speech. Ironically, the Sedition Act had the effect of galvanizing the Republican opposition instead of stifling it. When the Quasi-War hysteria passed, many supporters of the Federalist faction began second-guessing the Adams Administration. In the 2008 election, we had a president who (evidently, according to Gallup) is the most unpopular president ever recorded, an economy with rising unemployment and much anxiety about the financial infrastructure. Oh, and said president led the nation into a once-popular-but-now-not-so-much-even-though-most-Americans-now-think-we've-won-or-are-winning war.

  2. Regional appeal of the opposing candidates. Jefferson's support came solidly from the South and the trans-Appalachian states, but he only won the election because he carried the swing states of Pennsylvania, Ohio and New York. Obama's support is perimeterial in nature (is that even a word? It is now, heh), with the coastal states and the Great Lakes solidly lining up behind him, and key swing states --including Pennsylvania, Ohio and New York-- also coming into line. Obama also picked up support in other traditional (last 30 years) Republican areas, so in that sense, he is much less a creature of the regions than Jefferson.

  3. Nastiness of the campaign. In both elections, the candidates themselves eschewed the sort of negative attacks that Americans find distasteful from their presidents, but love to see from their subordinates. McCain was noticeably more negative as the campaign wore on, and some believe that it held him back (while others consider it his fatal flaw that he didn't "go negative" sooner). The attacks on Jefferson and Adams by their respective opponents are the stuff of legend. Federalists warned that Jefferson would import the guillotine from France and begin executions of his opponents. Republicans warned that Adams wanted to institute a hereditary monarchy and aristocracy. Both sides' supporters published false, malicious and/or misleading statements about the other guy --in fact, this was used by the Federalists as continued justification for the Sedition Act. In that sense, nothing much has changed in over 200 years, although the number of Republicans demanding the jailing of the New York Times staff remains quite small. (NB there is a real sense, on the other hand, that an Obama Administration may punish those perceived to be "hostile"; witness the bumping of reporters from Obama One is the closing days from papers whose editorial pages supported McCain.)

  4. Congressional coattails. In 1800 the Republicans rode the wave of dissatisfaction to commanding leads in both chambers of the Congress, with a 68-38 majority in the House but only a 17-15 majority in the Senate (one vacant House seat, two vacant Senate seats). While the Democrats already controlled both chambers going into the 2008 elections, they have managed to increase their margin to fifty-odd votes in the House (435 members total) and are close to 59 seats in the Senate (including the two independents who caucus with them; also depending on the final vote tally in the Minnesota race). Significantly, though, Jefferson may have had the better deal, as the Senatorial filibuster had not yet come into existence and debate could be closed by a simple majority vote. In the end, there would be limits to Jefferson's power over Congress, such as the rise of the "Tertium Quids" who ultimately out-Jeffersoned Jefferson in their adherence to strict constructionalism. Party unity in the present day, however, is generally much more structured, although the Blue Dog faction in the House may yet pose problems for Obama and his close ally, House Speaker Pelosi. (Aside: the grand irony is that Jefferson's coattails almost did him no good, as this election was an electoral tie owing to shenanigans involving Republican electors and rumors that Aaron Burr, the designated running mate, may have actually wanted to be at the head of the ticket. As such, the outgoing Federalist-dominated House actually decided the election, ultimately choosing Jefferson as the "known" devil over the "ambitious" Burr.)

  5. Ramifications for the judiciary. I doubt severely that we will see the kind of repercussions in the judiciary in the modern day that the nation saw in the wake of the 1800 election. The court system was simply far too small and limited to have any real impact --or so it would seem. Yet Federalists so feared the Republican take-over that they deliberately stacked the judiciary in an attempt to limit the power of the Republican government. From this came the case of Marbury vs Madison,from which I take great pleasure in discussing how Chief Justice John Marshall out-constructed Jefferson and Madison and argued that an ultra-strict reading of the Constitution actually gave the Court the power to deny itself an ability (mandamus), yet in so doing achieve the greater power of interpreting the Constitution, even to the point of being able to nullify acts of the Congress which it felt violated the Constitution. Jefferson and his allies would then spend the next few years targeting judges for impeachment, ultimately with very limited success. Given the nature of Senate procedure today, especially the reluctance of the Senate to formally adjourn (thus giving the President the opportunity to make recess appointments), there will be no similar court-packing today.

    6. The popular vote. Not that it mattered in Jefferson's time, since the vast majority of the electors were chosen by the state legislatures (Electoral College 1.5, as I like to call it), nevertheless Jefferson won about 68% of the popular vote in those areas where electors were thus chosen. Obama's margin is much much smaller, on the order of 53% or so.

--okay, I think that will do for a start. Comments are most welcome. Coming next time: the election of 1824.

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