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It's Not as Bad as You Think

10 Election Insights from a Political Historian

Story by
Nancy Joseph

In the heat of our contentious election season, rife with frayed alliances and scandalous videos, a historical perspective can be reassuring. Fortunately Margaret O’Mara, associate professor of history, offers that perspective. O’Mara has studied dozens of US Presidential elections and featured four particularly influential ones in her book Pivotal Tuesdays: Four Elections That Shaped the Twentieth Century. “Studying political history, having a really long view, helps put what’s happening right now in context,” says O’Mara, who agreed to share some insights with Perspectives readers.

1. It’s not as bad as you think.

Donald Trump calls Hillary Clinton “evil.” Hillary calls Trump supporters “deplorables.” The vitriol may seem outsized this year, but it’s nothing new.

paintings of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson

When it comes to nasty, few elections compare to the John Adams-Thomas Jefferson battle in 1800, says Margaret O'Mara.

“Although modern conventional wisdom has it that American presidential elections are nastier and more polarizing than ever, few…compare with the down-and-dirty partisan warfare on display in the election of 1800,” O’Mara observes in her book, referring to the race between incumbent John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Adams supporters warned that religiously tolerant Jefferson was a “howling atheist” who would confiscate the Bibles of God-fearing people. Rumors of Jefferson’s affairs with slaves led to denunciations of his “Congo Harem.” Jefferson supporters, in turn, accused Adams of having a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” The candidates’ friendship was destroyed by the toxic election, though they reconciled toward the end of their lives. Hillary and Donald, take note.

2. The party’s not over.

Asked whether the fractured Republican party will survive, O’Mara assures that history is on the GOP’s side. “The last time we had a major party go away we had a civil war on our hands,” she says, referring to the Whig Party. “It takes a lot. What I’ve learned writing my book and through other research is that our two major parties are incredibly durable.”

3. Donkeys once roamed elephant territory.

A century ago, the Republican party was the party of the Northeast, big government, and greater regulation of business. The Democratic Party was the party of Jim Crow and the segregated South. “The fact that the South is now Republican territory would have blown people’s minds 50 years ago,” says O’Mara, who marvels at the two parties’ dynamism over time. “African Americans switched to the Democratic Party, which became the party of civil rights, which led to an exodus of white Southerners to the Republican party. Constituencies that you think will always vote one way will move, usually because of some catalytic event.”

Margaret O'Mara

“Studying political history, having a really long view, helps put what’s happening right now in context,” says Margaret O’Mara.

4. We all benefit from two strong parties.

Regardless of personal beliefs, it is in everyone’s best interest for both parties to thrive. “America works best when you have two really healthy, robust parties with ideologically distinct views but a shared understanding that our republic is set up to enable compromise,” says O’Mara. “You go from the edges and find a way to meet in the middle. That’s the way these institutions are supposed to work.”

5. No compromise, no progress.

Unfortunately, many in Washington have shunned compromise for more than two decades, to crippling effect. “Since 1994, the government has been so sharply divided along partisan lines, and the national GOP has been so committed to smaller government, that a lot of policy answers have involved stopping government from doing anything by creatively legislating,” says O’Mara. “That saddens me not only as someone who studies American politics but as an American citizen. We pride ourselves on having strong views, but our government was designed for back and forth. That’s what has made this country work.”

6. Bucking tradition by doubling down.

Primaries play to each party’s most engaged constituencies, but candidates usually move toward the middle during the general election. Not this time. “One way that Trump has disrupted the apple cart is that rather than doing that, he’s doubled down on his most dedicated base,” says O’Mara. “That has thrown the GOP establishment in disarray. They see it as the time to talk to the middle, to appeal to the independent voters.”

7. Economic woes are a campaign staple.

Americans struggling in a stagnant economy may have fueled the Trump candidacy, but the weak economy has been a familiar refrain since the 1970s. “You look at the rhetoric around the Clinton-Perot-Bush election in 1992, or the Carter-Reagan election in 1980, and it’s the same thing — that economic promise is gone,” says O’Mara. “For a really long time, a whole chunk of the American work force has not realized the same gains as the extraordinary generation of prosperity after World War II. A lot of Americans mistake that strange moment of prosperity from 1945 to 1970 as the norm. But that was never the norm. There were a whole lot of exceptional things that played into that prosperity. The idea of ‘Make America Great Again’ is misleading.”

8. Media savvy has always been important.

“In every election, mastery of media — and a message that is right for that media — has been an important bellwether of how far a candidate was going to get,” says O’Mara. When radio was king, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was masterful at conveying reassurance with both his voice and his message. During the first televised presidential debate, JFK’s robust good looks made Richard Nixon look weak by comparison. Until the 1980s, voters tuned into a handful of newscasts, making it easy to control the message. Today the media landscape is far more fractured, presenting new challenges. “We went to a 24-hour news cycle with cable television, and now with blogs and other social media there’s a radical transparency like never before,” says O’Mara. “Unfortunately there’s not a lot of time to be super thoughtful and do a lot of research, because everyone is just grasping for content.”

9. Prefer a political outsider? Welcome to the 70s.

“We are now a good 40-plus years into the era of hatred or suspicion of government institutions, for both Democrats and Republicans,” says O’Mara. Since the Vietnam War and Watergate, many candidates have tried to position themselves as Washington outsiders. In 1976, Jimmy Carter reminded voters that he was a peanut farmer as well as a governor. In 1980, Ronald Reagan, another governor, benefited from being viewed as a movie star despite two decades in politics. “Obama was also an outsider in many ways, chiefly because of his race and his youth,” says O’Mara. “The burden that Hillary Clinton now bears, the great irony of the first female candidate of a major party, is that she’s been in the public eye so long. She’s seen as the ultimate insider, a symbol of a party establishment.”

10. Think local and vote.

Many voters tend to exhaust all their attention on the Presidential race and ignore state and local elections. O’Mara says that’s a big mistake. “Particularly in Washington state, it’s easy to think that because we’re not a swing state, our votes don’t matter. But there’s a lot on the ballot this November — as there is every November — that will have a local impact, including who we choose as legislators, local leaders, judges, and other elected officials. All of that will have a huge impact on your life and your community. That’s something not to lose sight of.”