Connections: In politics, nothing new under the sun

To an historian, all the money spent during campaigns seems silly. Millions, perhaps billions, are spent to present the same opposing positions in almost the same words fighting with the same tactics.

About Connections: Love it or hate it, history is a map. Those who hate history think it irrelevant; many who love history think it escapism. In truth, history is the clearest road map to how we got here: America in the twenty-first century.

November 4, 2014 Election Day: the more things change…

“There are two ideas of government. There are those who believe that, if you legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, their prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea, however, has been [that] you legislate to make the masses prosperous.”

Just change the words “leak through” to “trickle down”, and you have the substance of every campaign debate in American history. Is it a quote from campaign coverage 2014? No, it is William Jennings Bryan speaking in 1896. (See note)

imagesPolitics and political arguments haven’t changed. It may be fair to say that every election in the last century has presented the voting public with those same two choices.

If the central political argument hasn’t changed, why do candidates spend millions getting the word out to the public? The reason may be that there are new and sophisticated political strategies; a profound new basis for successful campaigning in the new century.

“Call in favors; know the weaknesses of your opponent and exploit them; flatter voters shamelessly; give them hope; promise everything to everyone, and know the world turns but changes very little.”

Is that the slick modern strategy? No, that was Quintus Cicero’s political advice to his brother Marcus Cicero, a candidate for the highest office in the Roman Republic, 64 B.C.

If the central political argument hasn’t changed in two centuries, and political tactics haven’t changed in recorded history, what’s new? Perhaps there is a new secret of political success. Modern pundits analyze campaigns and reveal the secret of political success in the 21st Century.

“There are two things that are important in politics: the first is money and I can’t remember what the second one is.”

Polling station

Reported on CNN in 2014 during a broad ranging discussion of campaign finance? No, if that is the secret of political success it is old news. That is a quote from Mark Hanna, considered the first American political strategist, speaking more than 100 years ago. Hanna was the man who fashioned the successful presidential campaign of William McKinley and the defeat of Bryan not once but twice, in 1896 and 1900.

To an historian, all the money spent during campaigns seems silly. Millions, perhaps billions, are spent to present the same opposing positions in almost the same words fighting with the same tactics. It seems there is nothing new under the sun or in politics.

Wait a minute; maybe the specific issues change. For example “wedge issues”: abortion, same sex marriage, contraception, and legalizing drugs. Those must be thoroughly modern; new issues in the new century.

Not so. “Moral” issues have been fought in the American political arena since the early 1800s when the Temperance movement was born. Moreover, the reasons espoused for legislating morality have not changed in two hundred years.

Those who wanted prohibition of alcohol consumption through legislation said it was “a victory for public morals”; used the Bible to bolster their argument, and said the proposed legislation would promote both individual health, and the common good.

images-1Those who opposed legislating prohibition said it limited personal freedom and thereby violated human rights.

Then as now, both sides were willing to entertain Constitutional amendments. If the Constitution allowed such immoral behavior to go unchecked then the prohibitionists wanted an amendment. If the Constitution allowed legislation that limited individual liberty, then the anti-prohibitionists wanted an amendment.

As the issue shifted from alcohol consumption to drug consumption to contraception to abortion, the arguments for and against remained the same.

Why are political strategists paid so much when, year after year, candidates take the same positions using almost the same words? Perhaps what candidates need is not expensive campaign strategists but an inexpensive history book. The candidates could demonstrate fiscal restraint during the campaign, and afterward we would have an elected official who knew something about American history. That would be refreshing.

Until that day, we citizens are left to ignore the wasted money, overlook the silly campaign rhetoric, hope the rhetoric does not reflect an inherent silliness in the candidates, and go to the polls and vote.

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Note: William Jennings Bryan was invited to speak in Pittsfield in July 1919 by the Temperance League. He called prohibition “man’s greatest moral victory.”

Mark Hanna “kicked back” between political triumphs at his son Dan’s Berkshire Cottage in Stockbridge. The Dan Hanna estate, Bonnie Briar, was a gracious white house with the largest barn in Berkshire. It was the site of the first Berkshire Symphonic Festival (Tanglewood) concert, and later the DeSisto School. Today it stands vacant.

President McKinley was a friend of the Plunkett family and of Berkshire manufacturing. He made more than one trip to the Berkshires during his presidency 1897 – 1901.