It seems that every election cycle prompts the same complaint: “Politics has gotten so divisive. There is more negative campaigning and more mudslinging than ever before. We have reached a new low.”
But the truth is that politics has always been a dirty business. Political power brings out both the good and the bad in our fallen humanity. Political ambition can shape a Winston Churchill or an Adolf Hitler from the same generation. The political campaigns that propel such leaders into their positions are a mix of the best and the worst of human nature. Our own political landscape is no more or less checkered than that of the past.
Let’s not forget that in the age of kings and aristocracy the powerful sometimes attained their status through murder and intrigue. They often silenced their challengers through deception and false accusations designed to dishonor or discredit those who posed a serious threat to their power. Banishment, imprisonment under false pretenses, or other such fate would be in store for those who challenged the powers that be. Wars were fought and innocent people died when power switched hands. This political system was far more “negative” and “divisive” than our own democratic mudslinging of the Twenty-first Century. In other words, politics has had far worse epochs than our own. But we need not reach so far back into history for comparison. In our own nation’s past there are many examples of nasty political maneuverings, deceitfulness, and underhanded dealings.
The Presidential election of 1828 is just one example. John Quincy Adams was seeking reelection against a challenger, Andrew Jackson. Adam’s supporters brought up Jackson’s participation in duals (which itself was not an uncommon practice in political circles of the time – and we think our politics is brutal) and they questioned Jackson’s temperament. Added to this perception of Jackson’s violent personality, his opponents also pointed to his actions during the War of 1812 when several soldiers under his charge were executed for treason. Political pamphlets were printed accusing Jackson of murder and using images of coffins to drive home the point. (Historians refer to these as the “coffin hand-bills”). This caused quite a stir, as Jackson was considered a war hero. Jackson’s wife was also targeted during the election. Specifically, the legitimacy of their marriage was called into question because of her divorce from a previous marriage and the timing of their own nuptials.
Jackson’s political allies were no less ruthless. In an effort to paint Adams as an elitist, he was accused of being a “Yankee,” which at the time referred to wealthy shopkeepers and business owners who took advantage of patrons – Adams was portrayed as a swindler and a crook. Worse still, he was accused of providing American women as prostitutes for Russian officials while he served as Ambassador. He was called a “pimp” during the campaign, though the charge was baseless.
In the election of 1828, these attacks on both sides had nothing to do with the real issues of the day. They were personal jabs, meant to discredit the opponent. Politics was indeed brutal, divisive and very personal. Sound familiar? Are we really at a new low compared to these Nineteenth Century tactics? I think not.
In the end, Andrew Jackson won the election, but at a high emotional price. His wife died of a heart attack before the inauguration. Jackson accused his political opponents of causing her death, claiming that she had been traumatized by the allegations that plagued them during the campaign. As a way of protest, Jackson refused to pay the customary visit to the outgoing President, and Adams in turn refused to attend the inaugural ceremony.
The harsh politics of 1828 was not an isolated case in our country’s history. The election of Thomas Jefferson in 1800 was filled the same sort of intense rivalry. It culminated in the famous dual four years later between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, in which Hamilton was fatally shot and Burr fled the country. In 1884 it was revealed that Grover Cleveland was having an affair with a widow in Buffalo, New York. It was rumored that they had an illegitimate child together. This personal matter played directly into the campaign. His political opponents would chant at their rallies: “Ma, ma, where’s my pa?” But upon finally winning the election, Cleveland’s supporters turned the slogan around: “Ma, ma, where’s my pa? Gone to the White House, ha ha ha!”
Such were the politics of our past: private affairs and personal exploits shaped campaigns and stole the spotlight from real issues. The “politics of personal destruction” is not a modern invention. And as for divisiveness: the election of Abraham Lincoln sparked the Civil War – the bloodiest conflict this nation has ever seen. Can we really say that today’s politics is in a worse state?
As Christians we should certainly demand better behavior from our leaders. But as humans we must unfortunately expect more of the same. As Lord Acton famously stated: Power tends to corrupt; and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Out of necessity, we give our elected officials power to govern, to make laws, and to lead our nation, but the sinful nature of mankind leads even those with the best of intentions to sometimes go astray from this noble purpose. They abuse the public forum they have been given. Politics has always been this way, and there is no reason to pretend that we have somehow reached a new low (or for that mater, that we are on the cusp of a new high). History clearly tells us otherwise.
It is popular these days to pin unrealistic “Hope” on politicians, expecting them to usher in an era of political harmony and utopian bliss. Rallies are held to “restore sanity” to a political process where sanity has always been in short supply. Only ignorance could produce such sentiments – ignorance of history and ignorance of human nature. The surest way to restore “sanity” to politics is to put our “Hope” in something greater than the political process and never expect a government or its officials to triumph over human weakness and sin.