What Nasty Politics Mean to America

Our politicians didn't become raging pit bulls overnight

Protesters critical of President Donald Trump attend an afternoon rally to show solidarity with a general strike in Washington Square Park on February 17, 2017 in New York City. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Last week, the bitterness between the political parties over Obamacare was on display. Even within the Republican Party, the two wings (Trump vs. Freedom Caucus) were at each other’s throat. Is this just politics as usual, or a special period of hate? And is the political venom getting worse, or are we just going through one of those nasty cycles in American history?

To begin, I research election cycles in American political history, looking for evidence of “critical elections.” These occur roughly every 30 years, have higher turnout that expected, experience a group realigning itself from one party to another, and sometimes have strong third party showings. These critical elections set the trend for the next 30 years.

I presented the findings to a special conference on the 2016 election at St. Anselm College in New Hampshire, along with Breckin McCoy, an undergraduate student. Shortly after our presentation, another professor presented research on political hate in American elections. I began to see a connection between our two research projects; these critical elections can get quite bitter, perhaps because the next three decades may be at stake.

Critical Elections, Future Party Dominance and 2016

McCoy and I listed the classic critical elections, first identified by luminaries like Southern Politics expert V. O. Key, Jr. and Walter Dean Burnham, and later added by others, as the 1800 election, the 1828 election, the 1860 election, the 1896 election, and the 1932 election. In the latter, as an example, African Americans shifted from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party. They went from the “Party of Lincoln” to the New Deal Coalition, enabling the Democrats to replace the GOP as the dominant party in America.

In my own research, I identified 1968 as a critical election (when Yellow Dog Democrats in the South become Republicans), and 1992 (when liberal Republicans shift over to the Democrats. We analyzed whether Trump’s 2016 win represented a critical election. The jury is still out, but there are signs that it could be.

Nasty Elections Perhaps Do Mean A Thing

A presentation on incivility in 2016 got me to realize that, just as our critical elections and party dominance are linked, maybe it is the same with critical elections and nastiness. The theory makes sense. If that critical election is the one best chance to win in decades, and you have the chance for your party to dominate, you’re going to have a short-fuse, and anger in your attacks.

But when a critical election isn’t on the line, normalcy prevails. Below-the-belt attacks aren’t found in the Beltway. Perhaps disgust with those bad old elections leads to a revulsion of negative campaigns, or parties out of power play nice until they can make a comeback.

Think about the 1800 election, one of the nastiness in our nation’s history, when President John Adams was labeled “his rotundness” by Jeffersonians. One candidate (Aaron Burr) even shot another (Alexander Hamilton) in a post-election duel. We’re talking about “The Era of Good Feelings,” in American politics several years later, where partisanship dissipates.

In the bitter 1828 clash, Rachel Jackson passed away before Inauguration Day, leading Andrew Jackson to conclude that his wife’s death was attributable to that election. The 1848 Zachary Taylor-Lewis Cass contest and the 1852 Franklin Pierce-Winfield Scott election are tame by comparison. But the 1860 election produces a Civil War!

The bitter battles of the late 1880s and early 1890s usher in the 1896 critical election, which sets the table for GOP dominance. Elections from 1908-1924 hardly match that contentious era—but during the Great Depression, the knives came out for Herbert Hoover, and the Republican counterattacks on FDR in 1932 were especially contemptuous.

The calm years of the Eisenhower Administration—and the press taking a pass on criticizing Kennedy’s womanizing—are followed by the politics of George Wallace and Nixon’s Southern Strategy in the bitter 1968 election, as well as the most unstable Democratic National Convention ever. Elections involving Carter, Reagan and Mondale are far less brutal. But 1988 offered a preview for 1992, where sex scandals and vicious attack ads became the norm. Amazingly, the election between Obama and McCain and Romney were a more polite affair.

The 2016 Election And Lessons From History

But 2016 was a different story. Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton had far higher negative ratings than positive favorability scores, ending the election with the two highest disapproval ratings.

We’ve learned a few things. First, progress in American politics is not linear. It’s not as though our politicians were all gentlemen in 1800 and became raging pit bulls in 2016. It comes and goes in cycles. Second, just as we have the capacity to be nasty, we also have the capability to be nice.

Third, we can learn from our mistakes. The 2008 election could have torn our country to shreds, but didn’t, thanks to the professionalism of both candidates, as well as the lessons of 1968 and 1992. Fourth, we can forget our mistakes. Perhaps it takes 30 years for a new generation to forget the lessons of the past, and adopt a scorched-Earth election that nearly undermines our basic freedoms and form of government.

Will we learn from the bitter battle of 2016? We’ve shown that we can. The important thing is not just to change, but to pass on those lessons to the younger generation, lest we revert to the days of candidate duels, the chaos of 1968, First Lady fatalities, and the Civil War!

John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga.  He can be reached at jtures@lagrange.edu.

What Nasty Politics Mean to America