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Injecting Some Joy Into Our Chicken Little Politics

December 18, 2023

As American culture continues its devolution from a society that valued resilience to one that rewards brittleness, it’s no surprise that we’ve become a nation of panicked worrywarts. In the United States today, the sky is always falling. Our quadrennial national elections are events to be dreaded, not enjoyed. The stakes are too high for any of that, we are told. The 2024 election, as you must have heard, is said to be the most crucial in our nation’s 250-year history.

I understand the concern. It does seem sometimes as though society is fraying at the seams. But viewing elections as apocalyptic events that only end in one of two ways – a temporary reprieve or abject disaster – isn’t helping matters. It’s making them worse.

Although political campaigns were usually tough, often nasty, there was an element of fun missing today. I’m thinking of a 2013 interview in which Richard Heffner, host of “The Open Mind,” made Williams College professor Susan Dunn laugh aloud. Dunn was on the show to discuss her book about the 1940 presidential campaign between Franklin Roosevelt and Wendell Willkie. Heffner recalled how he and fellow New York teenagers passed out pro-Roosevelt fliers that said: “A horse’s tail is soft and silky. Lift it up and you’ll find Willkie.”

Actually, Willkie was the furthest thing from a horse’s ass, as FDR knew better than most people. After winning his third term, Roosevelt tapped his erstwhile opponent for the most sensitive diplomatic mission of his presidency: Willkie was the emissary chosen to personally assure Winston Churchill that under Roosevelt’s leadership America would provide the war materiel to keep Great Britain from falling to Nazi Germany.

One risks being called a “neocon” for invoking that historic example, but it certainly is a contrast with how Donald Trump and President Biden bicker over Ukraine while Vladimir Putin’s invading army tries to swallow it whole. Instead of cooperating with each other to resist despotism (or promote peace), the 45th and 46th U.S. presidents – and their supporters – have used Russia’s war on Ukraine as a proxy for their personal political vendetta. Impeachment, of course, is once again on the table.

Also missing from modern American politics – and Joe Biden is old enough and experienced enough to know better – is an element of joyfulness.

Two 20th century Democratic presidential candidates, one in 1928, the other six decades later, proclaimed themselves “Happy Warriors.” They lost their campaigns, but not their spirit. Al Smith lost to Herbert Hoover, and later soured on his old protégé Franklin Roosevelt over the New Deal. But like Willkie, Smith rallied to FDR’s side over Lend Lease, supporting the program in an influential radio address that touched Roosevelt. “Very many thanks,” FDR wired Smith on Sept. 29, 1939. “You were grand.”

Hubert H. Humphrey, the other Happy Warrior, ran unsuccessfully for president three times. The first loss came in the 1960 Democratic primaries to John F. Kennedy; the second to Nixon in ’68; the third in 1972, when a new generation of Democrats looked to George McGovern to end the Vietnam War. Neither Humphrey nor his supporters were bitter. Here is what HHH told a group of newspaper reporters in his hotel suite after withdrawing from his last campaign and vowing to finish his term in the U.S. Senate:

“There is a change of mood in the country. I can’t quite identify it but there is a change and I don’t think I would be as good a man in public life as I will be had I missed the chance to test that change. I’m a more sensitive person now to what really is going on than I would have been had I just become smugly content with being a United States senator, $42,500 a year for six years … I have been out and I have tasted the fruit of the land.”

That’s how losing candidates once behaved. It’s not exactly Trumpian, is it? But Trump is a symptom, not the disease. To be gracious in defeat requires acknowledging defeat, not only in politics, but in life. The nation’s two major political parties have trouble doing that.

Hillary Clinton has spent the better part of seven years saying Trump only beat her in 2016 because of the Russians and their bots. She said similar things about George W. Bush’s victory in 2000, though she blamed the U.S. Supreme Court for that one, not the Kremlin. There are still John Kerry supporters who whisper black helicopter-style conspiracy theories about the voting machines in Ohio in 2004. In Georgia, Stacey Abrams raised tens of millions of dollars by saying for four years that she hadn’t really lost to Brian Kemp in 2018.

When it comes to sore losing, however, Trump is in a league all his own.

In 2016, Trump hinted that the election might be rigged preemptively, as it were just in case he lost. We all know what Trump and his sycophants and Jan. 6 mob did in 2020, but few people remember that in 2012 Trump tweeted the same kind of jive on behalf of Mitt Romney. Mistakenly believing that Romney had carried the popular vote (the GOP ticket actually lost by 5 million votes), Trump disparaged the Electoral College as a “travesty.” Trump also urged Romney’s followers to “fight like hell” and “march on Washington,” adding, “We should have a revolution in this country!” Sound familiar?

After the riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, it’s no surprise that Trump’s current candidacy freaks people out, especially since Trump continues to make similar comments even while under indictment in several jurisdictions. The criminal charges may be politically motivated, and they certainly are a novel interpretation of the law, but it’s undeniable that the man who dispatched a mob to Capitol Hill to try and stop the Electoral College vote wants back in the White House. And so, instead of visions of sugar-plum fairies dancing in their heads, millions of Americans – led by the current president and the pundits – are having Christmas season nightmares.

In this environment, how can anyone savor the uncertainty of election season or be gracious to those on the other side? The stakes are simply too high, we are continually told – word for word. “I’m running because democracy is at stake,” said President Biden.

Many others are saying the same thing. “A second Trump term would instantly plunge the country into a constitutional crisis more terrible than anything seen since the Civil War,” David Frum declared in The Atlantic.

Duke University political scientist Herbert Kitschelt told Tom Edsall of the New York Times, “This is going to be the most important election since 1860, because it is going to be about the future of this country as a democracy.”

Boston University history professor Heath Cox Richardson, a breakout COVID-era social media star whom the Times anointed as the “breakout star” of Substack, says she has “absolutely no doubt” that a Trump victory next year would spell the “end of American democracy.”

There are reasons to be skeptical of this storyline. I’ll mention three.

The first is that Biden, the Democrats, and much of the legacy media already used the “democracy is on the ballot” line as a talking point in the 2022 midterm elections. That pitch worked for them, up to a point, helping to blunt the expected Republican “red wave.” Yet, the Republican Party did take over the House of Representatives, and though it’s hardly been smooth sailing on Capitol Hill, we don’t have a dictatorship.

Second, there’s something inherently incongruous about saying that an election threatens democracy. Aren’t elections themselves manifestations of democracy? To put it mildly, asserting that a loss by my preferred candidate is the end of the world lacks even a modicum of humility. The idea, apparently, is that Donald Trump is sui generis and that if he wins in 2024, it will be the last election Americans ever have. But how would that possibly unfold? How would one man turn America into Putin’s Russia or 1930s-era Germany? Hamas did it in the Gaza Strip, but the United States has been at this democracy thing for 250 years, with legal traditions and checks and balances. The notion of a coup by a sitting president seems far-fetched, hysterical even.

The final problem with the sky-is-falling talk is that every presidential election in my lifetime has been billed as the “most important” of all time. Every single one.

“This is a life-changing election that will determine America’s future for a very long time,” Joe Biden said in 2020. “Character is on the ballot. Compassion is on the ballot. Decency, science, democracy. They are all on the ballot. Who we are as a nation. What we stand for. And, most importantly, who we want to be.”

The media echoes these dramatic visions so faithfully that we’ve gotten a little defensive about it. “Presidential candidates always hype the coming election as the most important in our lifetimes, CNN’s Stephen Collinson wrote in 2020. “This time it might be true.”

Trump plays around with this concept, too. “And I used to say it about 2016: ‘This is the most important election,’ – and I meant it,” Trump said recently before adding, “This is now the most important election in the history of our country.”

Perhaps that is so, but can it really be true every four years?

Eight years ago this week, Brookings Institution economist Henry J. Aaron also proclaimed 2016 to be “The Most Important Election Since 1932.”

Why limit it to the Great Depression and the election that gave us Franklin Roosevelt? In 2012, Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum told an audience in Tulsa, “I believe this is the most important election in your lifetime, no matter how old you are.” Fellow GOP contender Newt Gingrich did some quick math and went Santorum one better. Campaigning in New York City that year, the former House speaker termed 2012 “the most important election since 1860.”

Four years before that, in 2008, Barack Obama injected a dose of hubris in the familiar formulation. “This is certainly the most important election in my lifetime – not just because I'm running.”

Four years prior, at the Boston convention where Obama gave the speech that launched his national profile, John Kerry accepted the 2004 Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, by declaring, “My fellow Americans, this is the most important election of our lifetime.”

That year, my RealClear colleague Tom Kuntz, then working as an editor at the New York Times (Tom now edits RealClearInvestigations) noticed the ubiquitous nature of this expression. Under the puckish headline, “The Most Important Article in Our History,” Tom documented some of the previous expressions of this “most important election ever” sentiment from 1864 (when it might have actually been true) through 1888, 1924, both of Jimmy Carter’s elections, both of Ronald Reagan’s, and one of Bill Clinton’s.

Tom had a delightfully subversive kicker on that story, courtesy of George W. Bush. The incumbent president was asked that summer by Larry King, “Is this the most important election ever?”

“For me it is,” Bush replied.

That’s the spirit, Dubya, the one that’s been missing from our politics. Not just a balanced perspective, but good humor and a sense that politics can be fun.

Al Smith didn’t make it to the White House, but late into their old age his fellow working-class Democrats on Manhattan’s Lower East Side could remember how their man stood up for the “Wets” against the “Drys” – meaning he opposed Prohibition – and how some cheeky supporters conjured up a great slogan: “Vote for Al Smith and Make Your Wet Dreams Come True.”

This article was originally published by RealClearPolitics and made available via RealClearWire.

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics and executive editor of RealClearMedia Group. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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