The Good News? A Dollar Can’t Vote

LBJ signing the 1965 Voting Rights Act as Martin Luther King Jr and others look on (Courtesy of the Library of Congress via the Commons on Flickr)

As Election Day dawns, final tallies of money spent on the 2012 campaign are appearing.  In a country where a dollar is sometimes taken as a measure of all things, it’s worth remembering that these billions have been expended in the hope of bending the great will that collectively lies with the American people.

That’s right, fellow citizens: at the end of the campaign, it all comes down to you.  The special interests, the media, the national parties, the consultants: in the end they’re all equally powerless.  It’s up to you to get out and vote today.  Ignore the cynics: your action—no matter where you live—is an expression of power that remains awesome and singular.  No matter who has the money or how it’s spent, the voter’s mind and heart are where power lives.

So get out and exercise your power today: vote for the best men and women, and may the best of them win!

Image: Lyndon Johnson signing the 1965 Voting Rights Act as Martin Luther King Jr. and others look on, from this source.

Excitement Is General

Crowds gathered for the presidential inauguration, 1921 (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Excitement is general as we head into the final weeks of the long campaign.  With the presidential race in a dead heat, it’s anyone’s guess who the victor will be.  The candidates receive ever closer scrutiny, waves of analysis rolling in over airwaves and Internet incessantly.  Stalwarts gear up for the final push.

The uncertainty of the race is drawing huge audiences to the presidential debates.  Last night’s debate between President Obama and challenger Mitt Romney is estimated to have drawn some 65 million viewers.  According to Bloomberg, the viewership for the debates has been roughly double what it was for the nominating conventions this summer.

The spontaneity of the response to the debates is unprecedented, too.  Last night during the debate, Twitter recorded over 7 million new tweets, with more than 109,000 recorded during a single minute when the candidates were discussing immigration.  Romney’s peculiar remark about ‘binders full of women’ prompted an immediate outpouring and a new hashtag.  Within minutes, satirical takes on his remarks were available for view on this Tumblr page.

Every age has its own political customs.  The ones we’re using today are making history, too.

Image: Crowds gathered for the presidential inauguration in 1921, from this source.
Click image to enlarge.

Political Affections

Robert Cruikshank watercolor of crowds attending Andrew Jackson's inaugural reception in 1829 (Courtesy of the Library of Congress).

Amid the strife wracking US politics, a soul can grow weary.  Why do we care?  Why do we bother—why not lay down the burden of republican citizenship and turn away?

In our hearts, most of us have a vision of a more just, peaceful, and prosperous nation.  With concerted effort and good will, we can attain a condition better than what we’ve experienced lately.  I suppose I became a historian and took the unlikely step of writing about politics because I want to make citizenship a large, evident part of my identity.  Whatever else I do, being a citizen is something that I want to achieve.

Patriotism is out of fashion with the sophisticated.  We think about “going into politics” as a sort of careerism; and, if we don’t do that, it’s pretty much understood that we are on the sidelines.  It would be difficult for us to make sense of the 19th-century statesman who, on his death, was eulogized as a “pure patriot. . . whose brain and heart and means and energies were all at the service of his country.” We can understand the part about the brain and the heart—but to commit all one’s means and energies to the country?  That’s alien.

Yet the many-sided commitment of self to public life was once a commonly held American ideal, which individuals pursued in the hope of gaining a special kind of honor and esteem.  Conversely, the wholehearted identification of one’s personal destiny with that of the nation was a crucial element on which the future of the republic was thought to depend.

Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee last week stirred up many warm feelings, underscoring the important role of human affection in maintaining a government and a country.  Having a queen may seem useless from a functional standpoint, but symbolically Elizabeth represents the nation in her person.  To love Elizabeth is to love Britain, which isn’t too hard, especially when she is looking so darned benign and motherly.

Photograph of Queen Elizabeth II wearing a hat adorned with flowers

Yet the sentiment the Queen evokes isn’t particularly cozy.  Often she evokes awe, especially when projecting loftiness, magnificence, or a tireless duty.  All the qualities associated with the Queen serve to bridge a gulf that might otherwise exist between her subjects and that abstraction that is their nation.  It’s precisely because Elizabeth is a person—rather than a building, say, or a flag—that she can embody so many varying qualities that, taken all together, help maintain something distinctive in Brits’ feeling for their country.

In the words of the 19th-century Englishman Walter Bagehot, the queen “excites and preserves the reverence of the population,” thereby helping to bind their sentiments to the state.

Besides her gobs of jewels, her surreally one-of-a-kind existence, and her heavily photographed family, what I like most about the queen is the way she styled herself as a sort of sacrificial über-citizen, beginning on the very first day of her reign.  On the evening of her Coronation in 1952, the young queen made this declaration to the people of her country.

I have in sincerity pledged myself to your service, as so many of you are pledged to mine. Throughout all my life and with all my heart I shall strive to be worthy of your trust.

Thus began sixty fairly unsensational years of color-coordinated dressing and the performance of millions upon millions of prescribed and customary royal duties.  At the end of the day, it’s hard not to admire Elizabeth’s dogged commitment to all the formalities and tedious conventionalities that are part and parcel of her country’s monarchical tradition.

When it came time to draw up our own Constitution in the 1780s, the Revolutionary generation was conscious that, in rejecting monarchical government, they had given up something that, in good times, helped secure citizens’ attachment and loyalty.  What, in a republic, could substitute for monarchy’s appealing glitter, pomp, and ceremony?  What could the framers devise to cultivate the people’s respect and embody the fledgling nation’s character and authority?

Ironically, the answer they came up with is the presidency.  The framers hoped that the occupant of this new-fangled office would function as “the people’s sovereign.”  Federalists like John Adams hoped that the style presidents adopted would be sufficiently “splendid and majestic” to instill a sense of the dignity and authority of the nation in the public mind.  In addition, members of the federal government took care to develop a set of forms and customs for capital life that might earn the republic respect, both at home and abroad.

Still, it would be hard to claim that the Founders solved the problem satisfactorily.  In the years before the Civil War, observers recognized that the federal government exercised only a weak, secondary claim on many Americans’ loyalties—secondary to their homes and to the states where they were raised.

As we contemplate the narcissism and partisanship permeating the competition for the presidency, we may be justified in doubting whether the work of securing the affection and loyalty of the people remains a priority today.

Image: Robert Cruikshank’s watercolor,
“President’s Levee, or all Creation going to the White House”
(published 1841), from this source.

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