Election Day is tomorrow. It’s been a tough year for the democratic ethos, what with billions of dollars of often anonymous money thrown into the campaigns. Yet, if there is one sign that, underneath it all, the heart of democracy faintly beats, it is this: pandering.
Barack Obama storms into big rallies, smiling and laughing and revving up the crowd, acting like the life of the party. You know he’d rather be squirreled up at home surfing his iPad or watching Sports Center. Mitt Romney emotes his concern for the unemployed and declares that he will save Medicare and Social Security just weeks after declaring himself a “severe conservative.”
These men are pandering. To whom are they pandering? To the voters, especially to the undecided voters, that small percentage who are usually ill-informed and uninterested.
That these looming figures – one the commander of a death-star military, the other a multimillionaire maker and breaker of company towns – must pander to the whims of 20-something dropouts and befuddled seniors tells us something. Putin does not have to do that; Ayatollah Khomeini does not; whoever succeeds to the party leadership in China will not; even the techno-politicians who become presidents of France rarely need to. But American presidents, for nearly two centuries, have served the panderocracy.
Gentlemen Democracy Declines
It did not start out that way. The Founding Fathers envisioned a republic of dispassionate, informed, and civic-minded stewards of the common good – that is, white men of wealth such as themselves. For the most part, the politics of deference lasted, with occasional disruptions, from the colonial era into the early Republic. If town elders were too controlling or taxed too much, they could face a riot or even get themselves tarred-and-feathered by the otherwise quiescent lower orders. But for the most part plain folks let the gentry run the place. The idea that leaders should defer to followers drew ridicule such as John Adams’s dismissal of Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” for its “absurd democratical notions.”
But such notions spread in the nineteenth century. It became easier for men to vote and the commoners got to it. (On the history of voting, see this earlier post.) The big triumph of the coarse over the refined was, of course, Andrew Jackson’s election in 1828. Eight years later, Jackson made sure that Martin Van Buren, who was not only his vice-president but also a developer of the grass-roots organizing that got Jackson elected, would follow him into office. When Van Buren was inaugurated, Sydney George Fisher, a rich and casually employed Philadelphia lawyer, expressed the dismay of the “better” class: The Van Buren inauguration marked the renewal of “an administration [Jackson’s] distinguished by ignorance, folly, passion, and corruption . . . [and] a career sufficient refutation of the absurd idea . . . that people are competent to self-government.”
It only got worse. That Abraham Lincoln, a Shakespeare-quoting and financially successful lawyer, felt that he needed to run as a rail splitter from a log cabin exemplifies the downward pull of the crowd. In an interesting study of rhetoric on the stump, Kenneth Cmiel describes how nineteenth-century candidates abandoned classical oratory for “middling” styles of speech: not too elevated, though not too vulgar.
Political reformers of the Progressive Era hoped a century ago to re-elevate the discourse in part by pushing the immigrants and the illiterate out of the electorate. But here we are: The men and occasional women who would be president are out there dropping their g’s (Obama’s habit), throwing in the gollies (Romney’s), kissing babies, chowing down fried foods on a stick at county fairs, and telling you what you want to hear.
It’s enough to make John Adams and Sydney George Fisher in their graves sputter again about the absurdity of it all. It’s a heck of a system, to paraphrase Churchill, but the best we’ve got. Be sure to vote.