What is most disturbing about presidential campaign rallies this year isn’t the occasional heckling by critics but the enthusiasm shown by supporters.
All those sycophantic voters, cheering their hero’s every wrong-headed promise. If ever there was a year for None of the Above on the ballot, this is it.
Consider the leading candidates: An avowed socialist. A pretend-progressive overpaid by Wall Street. An abrasive, arrogant know-it-all. A reality-TV charlatan who doesn’t even understand the rules of the game.
The only way you should behave at a 2016 political rally is like an Amish farmer at an auto dealership: Arms folded across the top of your overalls, silent, scowling at the salesman’s spiel.
Trouble is, too many voters think electing a president is like buying a shiny new car with up-to-date features like self-parking, a rearview camera and a back-seat entertainment system. It isn’t. It’s more like buying an auto insurance policy, a necessary but joyless purchase in which you are betting against yourself and winning only when you lose.
All you can hope for is that the winner is the least of many evils, who can’t do too much harm because of the checks and balances built into the system.
Our presidential candidates can go from rally to rally with the cheers of supporters still echoing in their heads. That’s wrong. Instead they should thank their stars they escape each rally alive and anticipate the next one with trepidation.
Friedrich Hayek, in his 1944 book The Road to Serfdom, explained the candidate problem in the chapter “Why the Worst Get on Top.”
“It seems to be almost a law of human nature that it is easier for people to agree on a negative program — on the hatred of an enemy, on the envy of those better off — than on any positive task,” he wrote.
Nobody promotes envy better than Democrat Bernie Sanders, promising to go after “Wall Street” and the “1 percent” and the oil companies so that you can go to college for free. Envy is the dullest and least rewarding of the Seven Deadly Sins, many of which provide at least temporary satisfaction, but cultivating it seems to work for Sanders. He started singing his song 50 years ago, when he looked more like a member of the Weather Underground than a harmless rumpled grandpa.
Interestingly, Donald Trump is the flip side of the Sanders coin, except he directs his supporters’ hostility not toward wealthy Americans but poor Mexican immigrants and Asian laborers who benefit from international trade agreements, which he doesn’t like. Apparently he doesn’t believe Americans can compete in the world without tariffs and walls.
Ted Cruz appeals to the fundamentalist right, which seems to like it when he threatens to “carpet bomb” ISIS and “see if sand can glow in the dark.” Hillary Clinton is trying to be the First Woman as well as Taking Her Turn.
Why would we want to be led by people so ambitious they are willing, even eager, to travel the country for months in the unreal bubble of a political campaign, giving more or less the same speech at place after place, making absurd promises like forcing Mexico to pay for a border wall or taxing Wall Street so that everybody’s kids can get free college tuition?
There is no demonstrable connection between effective campaigning and good governance, which seemed to be understood by Americans right through the end of the 19th Century.
No reason to get sentimental about that century — too much heavy lifting on farms and in mines and mills — but at least the presidential candidates got one thing right: Like George Washington, they considered it unseemly to campaign.
Abraham Lincoln gave no speeches on his own behalf during either of his successful campaigns. James A. Garfield, Benjamin Harrison and William McKinley campaigned from their front porches. They didn’t go from city to city, tying up traffic. If you wanted to hear what they had to say, you went to them.
My personal favorite candidate was Garfield. He didn’t seek the nomination, and his role at the GOP’s 1880 convention in Chicago was to nominate fellow Ohioan John Sherman, secretary of the treasury and brother of William T., the Civil War general. Sherman was up against James G. Blaine of Maine and Ulysses S. Grant, trying to regain the presidency after a four-year break.
But none of them could win a majority and none would give in. Finally, in desperation, the delegates turned to Garfield, a congressman whom everybody respected and who had a silver tongue. Although he protested, apparently sincerely, he won the nomination on the 36th ballot.
Garfield was urged to campaign but declined. Rutherford B. Hayes, the outgoing president, suggested he “sit crosslegged, and look wise.”
But he had work to do on his 160-acre farm in northeast Ohio. According to biographer Candice Millard, Garfield spent most of the fall “planting, hoeing, and harvesting crops. and swung a scythe with the confidence and steady hand he had developed as a boy.”
But he didn’t mind addressing, from his front porch, the thousands of people who came to visit. On a single October day he spoke to 5,000 people. When a group of Germans arrived, he was able to speak to them in their language, the first speech by a presidential candidate not in English.
Others spoke for him, including Frederick Douglass. The former slave addressed a packed, integrated crowd at Cooper Institute in New York. Garfield “must be our president,” Douglass said. “He is right on our questions, take my word for it.”
He did go to town to vote on election day, then wrote letters, made plans for a new garden and settled his dairy account. He spent the evening visiting with neighbors.
Diffidence worked. Garfield won. Unfortunately he was shot a few months later by a frustrated office-seeker and died a lingering death.
If a front porch campaign worked before even the telephone, there’s even less reason in the age of television and Twitter to jet around the country, pandering to interest groups. Why not elect a president not consumed by ambition, one who actually has a useful trade and plies it?
Longtime Rocky Mountain News political columnist Peter Blake now writes once a week for CompleteColorado.com. Contact him at email@example.com You may re-publish his work at no charge and without further permission; please give full credit to Peter Blake and www.CompleteColorado.com.