Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington




I gave a lecture on the evolution of modern politics to the monthly meeting of the Day Alliance of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Arlington last Tuesday.

With that group, it was a bit like taking coals to Newcastle. Nevertheless, I thought I would share some of my words of wisdom with you on the eve of what will be one of the most important presidential elections in our lifetime.

Many of us older people like to look at election campaigns with both alarm and, occasionally, satisfaction saying things weren’t like this in the old days. We shake our heads with disapproval at the great negativity of modern campaigns, we shudder at the partisan media, and we wag our fingers at the great costs of campaigns and the fundraising that of necessity follows. And we look with favor on the large number of young people activity involved in the campaign

My main thesis was, nevertheless, Plus Ça Change, Plus Ce La Même Chose? (I am confident that you know what that means.)

Yes, there is certainly an uncomfortable amount of negativity in the campaign for president, but there always has been. Just a couple of examples: In 1796, Jefferson was attacked for his “atheistic tendencies,” and his followers were “cutthroats who in rags and sleep among filth and vermin.”

In 1800, Jefferson hired James Callendar to attack John Adams in print. Callendar obliged by writing that Adams was a “repulsive pedant,” a “gross hypocrite,” and a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man nor the gentleness or sensibility of a woman.” OMG! I wouldn’t have voted for Adams, either!

Adams had Callendar jailed for nine months under the short-lived Alien and Sedition Act, which forbade printed attacks on the President.

And it got worse from there.

Money, also, has been a major factor in political campaigns since the beginning of time, as have the people who raised it. It is much more so now, because of the massive cost of the various forms of the media, particularly television. One of the problems, however, is that many proposals to ameliorate or eliminate the impact of money could make things worse, rather than better.

And the levels of community organization are impressive all over the country, particularly among the Democrats. But many of these efforts are based on old principals of local political organization developed almost two centuries ago. In Arlington, for example, the Democrats and members of the ABC joined together in created card files of most of voters in the county, along with personal notations. All those on the cards were contacted in person at least once during a campaign. This is still going on in Arlington, though the technology is notably different. Some of the older campaign workers, though, probably still have those cards.

These were just a few of the subjects we covered in my lecture, but you get the point. And as messy as it can get, we still have one of the greatest, if not the greatest, democratic (notice the small “d”) electoral systems in the world. It works, even with its occasional flaws (read Florida in 200).

I know who is going to win in November. I will tell you on the day after the election.