Thursday, June 17, 2010

When Politics Was a Lark

In the comments responding to Lord John Whorfin's recent post on ancient political themes to resurrect for a new era, the election of 1884 leaps to the fore. Desmoinesdem recalls that the Democrats were branded as the party of "Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion," prompting Whorfin to recite the bouncy couplet "Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine – Continental Liar from the State of Maine."*

Another catchphrase from that contest was "Ma, Ma, where's my Pa?" a taunt directed at Blaine's opponent Grover Cleveland, who may or may not have fathered a child out of wedlock. The taunt backfired when Cleveland refused to disavow the child, and he won anyway, prompting his supporters to gleefully answer,"Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha!"

Also, too: Mugwumps.

My own crackpot theory is that the period between Reconstruction and World War I — when it was clear that the U.S. was going to survive as a nation, but before it had assumed the mantle of world leadership — was America's adolescence. The nation was industrializing, and prospering, more or less, but it had no international responsibilities. The Presidents were callow political hacks, big-man-on-campus types, known more today for their fanciful facial hair styles than for their policies. The Lincoln-Douglas debates and the Gettysburg Address gave way to sing-song rhymes and slogans born of a nascent culture of advertising.

But surely the frivolity and whimsy of Gilded Age politics is preferable to the grim cable-news political culture of today. If your go-to rhetoric once a new president is elected is to accuse him of being a fascist/communist/socialist who wants to destroy America, you don't leave yourself much room to maneuver. You're pretty much required to compare all his policies to Hitler's from here on out. Both sides engage in this apocalyptic stuff, but it's undeniable that the Tea Party, abetted by the media, has taken it to a whole new level.

Well, nothing much to do about it, I guess, but wait and hope for a relatively peaceful transition of the U.S. to "hegemon emeritus" status, like the U.K., so that we can hopefully emulate the more down-to-earth regard that the British have for their head of government.

*Issue for further study: Does the relative ease of rhyming "Maine" in campaign doggerel hinder the presidential aspirations of politicians from the Pine Tree State?

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