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Trivial Matters Important to U.S. Elections

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In a great column for the Boston Phoenix, Steven Stark comments on some pundits’ growing concerns that what should be an election about Big Issues is devolving into an election about more trivial matters. Stark puts the whole matter in historical context:

[I]t’s rather un-American to have an election that focuses on the “big issues.”

It helps to remember that this is the nation that chose in 1884 between the competing slogans of “Ma, ma, where’s my Pa?” (attacking Grover Cleveland for fathering an illegitimate child) and “Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine, the continental liar from the state of Maine.” (When Cleveland won, his supporters sang, “Hurray for Maria! Hurray for the kid! I voted for Cleveland and I’m damned glad I did.”)

What was an issue in the campaign of 1860 – one that should have focused on the “big issues” like no other? It was how ugly Abraham Lincoln was, with one paper describing him as “a horrid looking wretch . . . a cross between the nutmeg dealer, the horse swapper, and the night man.”

As to elections that have focused on other trivialities, Paul F. Boller’s Presidential Campaigns: From George Washington to George W. Bush and a number of similar works have recounted how political enemies went after Andrew Jackson’s wife, FDR’s dog, Martin Van Buren’s clothes, and James Fremont’s drinking habits. Thomas Jefferson’s failure to fight in the Revolution was a big issue in 1800, and one Connecticut paper warned that, if he was elected, “murder, robbery and rape, adultery and incest will all be openly taught and practiced.”

Stark goes on to point out:

Why can’t we have a “civilized” discussion of the issues? Part of it is because the voters are smarter than that. They know that politicians will say pretty much anything to get elected, and they also know that no one can foresee the issues a president will have to confront. So, they focus on what some critics might call “small issues” but others might define as the key issue of “character,” since in the end, that’s what really counts.

Isn’t that true? I mean, George Bush promised to be a uniter and he promoted a foreign policy with a significant isolationist bent. How’d that turn out? Maybe we shouldn’t have brushed off as “trivial” the stories about his reckless streak and management failures. Just like it became profoundly clear that Bill Clinton’s philandering was indeed more than just a trivial matter.

So, maybe there is something important to be gleaned from stories about John McCain’s temper or Barack Obama’s perceived elitism. Obviously the big issues are still the most important but, as Stark duly notes, our nation has been using triviality as a part of the election process for almost our entire existence. All-in-all, I’d say we’ve managed to do pretty well for ourselves.