Editor’s Note: Tomorrow, November 8th, the American people elect their Representatives, Senators, local leaders, and the President of the United States. On this election eve, a few of the staff here at the National Association of Scholars have written reflections on citizenship in America. In addition to these, read Peter Wood’s discussion of the candidates’ positions on higher education in the Claremont Review of Books.
Every national election presents itself to the minds of the candidates and their ardent supporters as a momentous historic occasion. A bold line is to be drawn between what was and what will come to be. The election in 1840 of William Henry Harrison over Martin Van Buren may not in retrospect seem so decisive, but the Whigs who were intent on driving out the incumbent they called “Martin Van Ruin” believed the stakes were sky high. Democrat Van Buren did do something unprecedented in the election that has never been duplicated: he ran without a vice presidential candidate. Harrison lasted a month in office before succumbing to pneumonia, leaving the office to his vice president, John Tyler. That was another unprecedented event: Tyler was the first vice president to succeed to the presidency.
Look closely enough and virtually any historic event can jump into some kind of prominence—a precedent for this, a disruption of that. We have a pantry full of cynical aphorisms for these occasions. George Santayana’s woeful warning, “Those who can’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” will be repeated by many this year who see the second coming of either Andrew Jackson or Richard Nixon. Karl Marx’s scoffing observation that “Hegel says somewhere that all great events and personalities in world history reappear in one fashion or another. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce,” will reappear as well, not for the second time, but the ten millionth, as an indictment of farcical views of both candidates. Santayana and Marx apparently agreed that history comes round and round again, without improving on the original. Perhaps those who can’t remember the past reappear in the commedia dell’arte version, or as the costumed characters hustling for tips among the tourists in Times Square.
Santayana and Marx don’t exhaust our stock of apt aphorisms. “History is a pack of lies,” quoth—Napoleon, Voltaire, Santayana, or history professor William Stubbs? Appropriately enough, history lies to us about the source. But surely this is an election in which the candidates have vied to use up every pack in the whole casino of American politics. If we could export lies at a reasonable cost, the U.S. would have a favorable trade balance in the trillions.
As the hours before the election dwindle, I have been thrown back on consulting some classic texts that counsel a proper attitude towards our electoral process. Principally, I have been meditating on that compendium of insights titled Cheap Laffs: The Art of the Novelty Item (Mark Newgarden. Harry N. Abrams, Inc. Publisher. 2004) Newgarden, as many readers will recall, gives scrupulous descriptions of such political benchmarks as the “Yakity-Yak Talking Teeth” (U.S. Patent 2,504,679), first manufactured by “the fabled Chicago outfit H. Fishlove & Co. and designed for Marvin Glass & Associates by Adolph (Eddy) Goldfarb, who credited his mother-in-law as the muse for his inspiration.” To my knowledge, Newgarden’s Cheap Laffs is the most complete compendium of political metaphors ever compiled. He includes such classics as the “Mystery Grab Bag” (c. 1940), the “Funny Dribble Glass,” (1909), “Plastic Swiss Cheese,” (c. 1950), “Crying Towel,” (c. 1950), “Itching Powder” (1904), the “Snake Nut Can” (1930s), and the “Tantalizing Teaspoon” (c. 1940), which, because of its “invisible” plastic cover, repels that which it would seem to welcome.
It is important at these historic junctures that we not drift into an attitude that elections make no real difference in the governing of the republic. Our choices in the polling booth for president and other leaders plainly do make a wide range of practical differences for our prosperity, freedom, and national welfare. Yet the solemnity of the occasion ought to be subject to a certain amount of burlesque. The ability to be a least a little bit amused at the prospects that lie ahead may well be our best protection against the rancor and acrimoniousness that might well follow.
This election season has been an occasion for me for serious reflection on the nature of my responsibilities as a citizen. Conversations among friends and family over the last year have often been tinged with frustration, but they usually come back to the practical matter of personal choice: what we can do. I feel blessed to live in a republic where each person does have some say in electing his representatives. This privilege does not come to us out of thin air. Many people have given their lives to win and preserve the rights of citizens. As we face Election Day tomorrow, I am grateful for these hard-won rights; I seek to exercise them with good judgment; and I commit to pray for our nation’s future leaders.
There is in the original Constitution only one guarantee made by the federal government. That is to “guarantee to every State a republican form of government and … protect each of them against invasion.” There are other functions the Constitution permits, such as passing legislation and establishing standard weights and measures. The Constitution forbids others powers, such as granting titles of nobility. But the only function that it expressly requires is that the federal government ensure every citizen enjoys the right to safely participate in a republican government. Tomorrow, as we head to the ballot box, we exercise one of the fundamental freedoms our Constitution protects. Like all freedoms, it comes with responsibilities to choose wisely, to transmit to future generations the civic liberty that we enjoy, and to uphold the rule of law. But the privilege of voting is fundamental to our form of government. We should all participate.
I’m a historian by training, and one of my heroes is the nineteenth-century Czech historian František Palacký. He wanted to be a good historian, he wanted to do good service to his nation—and when the Revolution of 1848 came along, he stepped into the political arena, to do his duty by his country in time of need. He didn’t succeed in his political goals at once—although he’s now remembered as one of the three Fathers of the Czech nation. But he wrote nationalist history that aimed toward scrupulous scholarship as well, and he espoused a generous, welcoming Czech nationalism—liberal, in the old sense of the word. There are worse ways to be an academic engaged in the political world.
What would Palacký do in America of 2016? Not despair when the short-term political outlook looked dire. Keep up his scholarly standards and not stop working. Speak and act in the political world as he could. Try to be a decent man.
We can’t all be Palackýs, but he’s a good model for the next few years—whoever wins on Election Day.