Discover more from A User's Guide to History
Franklin on politics
Aretha, not Ben
Why do people vote the way they do?
For a variety of reasons, of course. Some people vote on the issues. If you liked the Bank of the United States in 1832, you voted for Henry Clay over Andrew Jackson. If you were opposed to slavery in 1860, you voted for Abraham Lincoln. If you were against the war in Vietnam in 1972, George McGovern was your man.
Some people vote on candidates’ records of accomplishment. This applies particularly to military heroes. George Washington and Andrew Jackson defeated the British; Ulysses Grant defeated secession; Dwight Eisenhower defeated fascism. Pretty good recommendations all.
It works for politicians too. A vote for Franklin Roosevelt in 1936 was an endorsement of the New Deal. A vote for Ronald Reagan in 1984 was probably a vote to prevent further expansion of the New Deal.
Some people vote their values. Gilded Age voters who valued integrity often had slim pickings, but in 1884 “ugly honest” Grover Cleveland provided a refreshing alternative to shady James Blaine. Warren Harding was on to something in 1920 when he offered voters a return to normality— pronounced "normalcy"—after World War I.
The personal style of the individual candidate can make a big difference. The aloofness of George Washington played well in the age of deference. Plain-speaking Harry Truman appealed to the everyman sensibility. George W. Bush's inability to say big words correctly endeared him to those many who had the same problem.
But if there is one characteristic more important than all the others, it is the candidate's ability to make voters feel good about themselves. Successful candidates flatter voters' intelligence and common sense, often beyond what strict candor would indicate. Most of all, successful candidates convey respect for voters.
Put the other way around, the worst thing a candidate can do is to show even the slightest hint of disrespect toward voters. This wasn’t a deal-breaker in the first days of the republic; haughtiness was expected of George Washington. But the emergence of democracy changed the rules of the game. Since the election of Andrew Jackson in 1828, candidates have had to treat voters as their equals.
As indeed, they are, in the context of democratic politics. No one person's vote counts any more than any other person's vote. This tends to extrapolate—illogically but nonetheless powerfully—to the principle that no one person's opinion counts any more than any other person's opinion.
Which is where not showing disrespect can be a real trial. The free-silver proposals of William Jennings Bryan would have wrecked the economy, but William McKinley was circumspect in his comments on them. (His proxies were not so guarded.)
Not every candidate has avoided the temptation. Hillary Clinton's 2016 candidacy never recovered from her characterization of the "basket of deplorables" that constituted a large portion of the Republican party. In her defense, Clinton did not say that all Republicans were deplorable. But it didn't matter. Republicans acted as though she had, and voted accordingly.
Democrats have been guilty of similar lack of specificity. Donald Trump did not say that all immigrants from Mexico were rapists, only that some were. He almost certainly was right. But Democrats pounded him incessantly for equating Mexican immigrants with rapists.
During much of American history, one party or the other has been seen as the party of snobs, of those looked down their noses at ordinary people. In Andrew Jackson's day, it was the Whigs. During the late 19th century and most of the 20th century, it was the Republicans. But during the 21st century, it has been the Democrats. The party of Hillary Clinton has allowed itself to be cast as a bunch of coastal elites who think they are smarter and more virtuous than everyone else.
The snobbish party doesn't always lose. Those other reasons for voting matter too. But perceived disrespect goes a long way toward explaining why the Democrats have had so much trouble defeating Donald Trump and his party. The positive reasons for voting for Trump are few. He lies, he disregards the law, he knows little about most policies presidents are responsible for, and he is boorish and mean-spirited. But he has been brilliant at portraying himself as the champion of ordinary Americans against those snooty, more-virtuous-than-thou Democrats.
The Democrats are wasting their time demonizing Trump. It makes them feel righteous, but it plays into his narrative of persecution by elites. They’d be much better off showing a little respect for the 74 million people who found his brand preferable to theirs in 2020. Not all of them deserve it, but a great many do. And their votes all count.