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The Arc of a Pendulum

Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com. In the article below he reflects on tomorrow’s election. Read his previous OUPblogs here.

Not all elections were created equal.

In 1800, Thomas Jefferson took his newly formed Jeffersonian-Republican party to victory on an anti-Federalist platform, arguing convincingly that George Washington and John Adams (with the Alien and Sedition Acts) had over-centralized power in the federal government.

In 1828, Andrew Jackson stood against the National Bank and federal funds for internal improvements in his contest with John Quincy Adams. The election inaugurated Jacksonian democracy and an anti-Jacksonian Whig/Republican party that would, together, create the oldest surviving two-party system in the history of the world.

The central question at the ballot box in 1860 was not slavery, but the states’ rights to secede in order to preserve the peculiar institution. This election was the purest expression of the Federalist and anti-Federalist debate of the Founding generation and it would establish the Republican party as the dominant party in American politics for decades to come.

In 1896, Democratic nominee William Jennings Bryan told his fellow democrats as well as members of the Populist party that he would not allow the industrial north and the coasts to force the gold standard on silver supporters, mostly farmers in the agricultural south and midwest. McKinley relied heavily on finance, railroads, and industry for his support and cemented the Republicans as the party of business.

The era of hands-off government came to a head in 1932, when FDR would offer a new deal for the American people, promising the helping hand of government when before the people waited for the invisible hand of the economy.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan declared that government was not the solution to our problems but the problem itself. The era of big government and of the welfare queen was over, as was the New Deal coalition.

Each of these elections heralded the first (“Revolution of 1800″), second (Jacksonian Democracy), third (Civil War), fourth (“System of 1896″), fifth (“New Deal” era), and sixth (Reagan Revolution) party systems in American history. They were characterized by relatively high voter participation or turnout and an enduring switch in partisan loyalties. The issues may have changed, but the central axis of debate has always been the same in each of these critical elections: what is the proper and constitutional role of the federal government? The is a question as old as our constitution, and one that triggers an electoral revolution every 3 decades or so. In the grand sweep of history, there are no winners and no losers, just the arc of a pendulum.

This year, John McCain has campaigned on a message of cleaning up the corruption and pork-barrel spending in Washington and Barack Obama has campaigned on the promise of what citizens can do for their country and what government can do in return for them. Obama has chastised McCain for saying that “the fundamentals of our economy are strong” while McCain has condemned Obama for trying to “spread the wealth.” More than any election since 1980, this is, once again, an election about whether government is the solution to our problems or the problem itself. “Yes, we can” implies “No, we haven’t yet.” If Barack Obama wins on Tuesday, the Democratic majority in all branches of government will likely chant, “now, we will.”

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One Response to “The Arc of a Pendulum”
  1. Meagan says:

    Interesting piece! With the 2008 presidential campaign finally wrapping up tomorrow, I thought you might be interested in some light-hearted political fun. Here at Public Agenda, we think that political movies have the potential to encourage public engagement, as many films explore intriguing social and political themes. That’s why Public Agenda is asking what your favorite political movies are!
    We’ve posted a list of our favorites at http://www.publicagenda.org/pages/our-favorite-political-movies and we’re asking you to post yours at http://www.publicagenda.org/forum/election-2008/your-favorite-political-movies.
    Also, be sure to check out our non-partisan Voter’s Survival Kit at http://publicagenda.org/citizen/electionguides.

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