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A Faculty Perspective On The Presidential Election of 2016

Posted by Nicholas Aieta on Nov 30, 2016 3:02:02 PM

Not So Atypical for America

As the presidential election of 2016 draws to a close, Americans are coming to grips with a variety of opinions expressed by their fellow citizens, political commentators and international figures. At the conclusion of the convention "season" this past summer, many Americans expressed concerns that the two candidates put forth by the Democratic and Republican parties were the worst nominees the parties had proffered in many decades. Here is a faculty perspective on the election.

While alarm bells sound, there remain a few key reasons to "keep calm and carry on" in our republic. While media accounts have just recently modified their superlative, "worst ever" references of the campaign to include "of modern times," average Americans probably do not immediately recall other tumultuous elections and transitions of power from early America, or from the not too distant 20th century.

Aaron BurrA 1792 portrait of Aaron Burr attributed to artist Gilbert Stuart hangs in the New Jersey Historical Society museum in Newark, N.J. (AP Photo/New Jersey Historical Society)

It's human nature to remember the most current candidates or freshest voices and to have visceral reactions to them. While Americans may be concerned about the quality of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton as presidential candidates, that concern may exist primarily because those are the two names in front of them currently.

Ask Democratic supporters about Walter Mondale in the 1980s (or then sitting President Harry Truman in 1948) and Republican supporters about Bob Dole in the 1990s (and sitting President Gerald Ford in the 1970s), and you might have people express memories of hand wringing and uncertainty. Northeastern University Political Science Professor Emeritus Bill Crotty has suggested that "This [2016] is not the worst of times, but it is a low point in a country with a history of political low points." Crotty and other pundits point out that historically, divided opinions about candidates are neither new nor uncommon and that such feelings often reflect large societal divisions.

Alexander Hamilton.jpgThis is a monochrome copy of an oil painting of Alexander Hamilton by John Trumbull. (AP Photo/Courtesy New York Public Library)

In extreme instances, these divided opinions have led to the creation of entirely new political parties. Indeed, both the Democratic and Republican parties came into being in the 19th century as a result of deep, and often violent, bitter divisions that separated regions, people and principles.

As historian Alan Taylor pointed out in a recent New York Times opinion piece, Americans tend to believe that politicians of the early republic were wonderful "for having set guiding and enduring principles" related to concepts of freedom and working together. Yet, as Taylor also pondered, "which founders, and which principles?"

The creators of the U.S. Constitution and the early America generation of founders sought to figure out rules and format "proper" behavior in Congress and other government entities, yet feuded with one another constantly through insults, duels and assaulting individuals when their will or ideas were ignored.

And, even though the first transition of power from one "party" to another took place peacefully in March 1801 when Thomas Jefferson was inaugurated, the fall-out from this event was deep. Jefferson's own vice president, Aaron Burr, already engaged in a long personal feud with Alexander Hamilton, saw this enmity end in their infamous duel and Hamilton's death in 1804.

Although it may be difficult for today's society to imagine political contests ranking more contentious and divisive as the 2016 presidential election, it too will soon serve as a simple footnote in comparison to presidential campaigns of generations to come.

This was a faculty perspective on the presidential election by Dr. Nicholas Aietaan associate professor of history at Westfield State University. He resides in Westfield.

Topics: Presidential Election

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