Change in America after the Primaries

The American media class are currently congratulating themselves that, in 2008, an African-American man, a Mormon and a woman have a serious chance of becoming presidential or vice-presidential nominees.

The fact that this could happen is frequently touted as guaranteeing some form of epochal change in itself. It would be as a potent transforming potion, were one to read the more breathless of the press. On the left, CNN's pro-Hillary spinning over recent days has become fascinating in its frenzy. So has the approach of some at the national level in the Republican Party to Mitt Romney, whom some are touting as proof in some mad way that the Republicans are not subject to a Christian theocratic veto.

The trouble is, all this is predictably shallow.

The first Presidential ticket of a woman and a black man was in 1872. That year, the Equal Rights Party nominated Victoria Woodhull for President and Frederick Douglass for Vice-President. Woodhull was thrown in prison and Douglass backed away.

Belva Lockwood, a charismatic teacher and feminist, was also nominated in 1884 and 1888, but though she probably received a good many votes, they were not counted. It wasn't until 1920 that the two major parties found the names of women placed in nomination at their conventions, though this was probably a hat-tip to new women voters. Their names were Laura Play and Cora Wilson Stuart.

The first time a woman appeared on the US ballot and received votes was in 1968, when the Communist Party of the USA nominated Charlene Mitchell, who was also an African-American. Margaret Chase Smith has already been seen as a desperate stop-gap for those Rockefeller forces opposed to Barry Goldwater in 1964 at their convention, but she didn't of course make it to the general election.

Shirley Chisolm, of course, was again both African-American and female when she ran for the Democrat nomination in 1972. That was the year Tonie Nathan, running as a Libertarian, got the first electoral votes for a woman cast in the general election. An electoral vote, for those who don't know, is one of the five hundred or so votes cast by the Electoral College that actually elects the President and Vice President of the USA, provided that a majority exists.

Geraldine Ferraro was of course the Democrat Vice-presidential nominee in 1984, and
both Jeanne Kirkpatrick and Pat Schroeder contemplated serious runs in 1988. Liddy Dole has been the most recent serious female candidate (before Hillary), and the Republican Allan Keyes was and is a perennial Republican candidate.

I might also remind people again that the most serious Mormon candidate to date for the presidency was not Mitt Romney. That person, much mentioned by this blog, was Mo Udall, in 1976, who was, as they say, popular until the voting started. He was running, by the way, against a well-organised party leader connected to a past administration (Ted Kennedy) a charismatic religious preacher and Souther Governor (Jimmy Carter) and a neoconservative icon (Scoop Jackson). Plus ca change there then, as Yogi Berra didn't say.

So the fact that Hillary is a woman and Barack Obama is in part an African-American, via Asia and Hawaii's melting pot, and Kansas, is not in itself surprising or indicative of great change. It is the fact that people may actually vote for them that seems to be thrilling the reporters. They disguise this as the thrill of novelty, but what they mean is the thrill of being released from the expectation of bigotry. That is a truth they will not, of course, contemplate.

Equally, I wish people would acknowledge that it is not personalities in large part, but the interests of big economic movements, social changes and collective values filtered through the media that define political moments. What is sometimes important is that on a few occasions the people can actually defy the commentariat because of these forces and make a difference by upending expectations and assumptions. That's partly why I'm so keen on Obama, Paul and Huckabee.

1872 was an interesting year in another way. There was a massive split in the Republican Party, which arose from the emergence of the Liberal Republicans. The Republicans were a fissiparous lot who had broken up in 1864 and briefly dumped Abraham Lincoln (who ran with a Democrat as a Unionist in that year) before trying to impeach President Andrew Johnson in 1867. They split seriously, though, because some of them followed the anti-corruption, pro-liberal lead of a charismatic immigrant leader from the German lands who became a political leader in the West, Carl Schurz. A little like Arnie.

There was one other quirk of 1872 that perhaps belongs in a different blog, but I'll mention it here. That year, two parties nominated Horace Greeley for President, but with two different running mates. As it happens, he had such a bad campaign that he died of a broken heart before the electoral votes were counted, and thus is the only major candidate in American history to have been through the US general elections and registered 0 in the electoral college.

If Greeley had been elected, there would have been a serious constitutional question over who his Vice-President would have been. The Electoral College split would have thrown the Vice-Presidency to the Senate 9the House in such circumstances elects the President under strange rules) and god knows what that lot are capable of at any given time. I don't.

But of all the candidates in 1872, Victoria Woodhull was the most important. She was a campaigner for free love, and the spiritualist movement. That movement was huge between 1840 and 1940 across the whole Atlantic. It drew in people like Arthur Conan Doyle, for instance, and fedoff of the pining of those who lost their loves and kin in wars and travel disasters.

If you haven't read Barbara Goldsmith's great book, Other Powers, about Woodhull, have a look. It's an exciting tale of sex, publishing (Woodhull became a media magnate briefly), clairvoyance and Woodhull's brilliant speaking skills, which attracted the attention of Abraham Lincoln when she was in her twenties and he was President.

Lincoln, contrary to his stony image, and the campy stories that encourage some gays to claim him at any given time, had quite an eye by all social accounts for a pretty face. Being decent, he had an eye for beauty and an intelligent woman too. Victoria was both. I've often wondered whether Lincoln's famous remark to Harriet Beecher Stowe-- 'so you're the little lady that started this big war--was said within earshot of Woodhull, since they loathed each other.

The only picture I could find of her is the one above. She is striking, even for a nineteenth century portrait that can't convey her energy and brilliance. I love clever attractive women, and Victoria (it's my blog, I can use her first name) reminds me, as does Catherine the Great, of my best friend in her positive qualities of intelligence, mischief-making and acclaimed beauty.

Woodhull's tale, like that of Marcus Garvey (who died in the middle of the London blitz)ended in England. It is another lazy cliche that British radicals end up in America, like Tom Paine or whatever Christopher Hitchens thinks he is these days. But American radicals more often than not end up here.

So, next time, as they will when caucus and primary results begin to roll in during the next month, when journalists get breathless and start inventing history, think on and remember that all of this in various permutations has happened before. Drop the print press and pick up a copy of Marcus Aurelius' Meditations. It'll do you more good, honestly.


joreko said…
The major shortcoming of the current system of electing the President arises from the winner-take-all rule (currently used by 48 of 50 states) under which all of a state’s electoral votes to the candidate who gets the most votes in the state. If the partisan divide in a state is not initially closer than about 46%-54%, no amount of campaigning during a brief presidential campaign is realistically going to reverse the outcome in the state. As a result, presidential candidates have no reason to poll, visit, advertise, organize, campaign, or worry about the concerns in voters of states where they are safely ahead or hopelessly behind. Instead, candidates concentrate their attention on a handful of closely divided “battleground” states. As a result, 88% of the money and visits (and attention) is focused on just 9 states. Fully 99% of the money goes to just 16 states. More than two-thirds of the country is left out.

Another shortcoming of the current system is that a candidate can win the Presidency without winning the most popular votes nationwide.

The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC). The bill would take effect only when enacted, in identical form, by states possessing a majority of the electoral votes—that is, enough electoral votes to elect a President (270 of 538). When the bill is enacted in a group of states possessing 270 or more electoral votes, all of the electoral votes from those states would be awarded, as a bloc, to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

The National Popular Vote bill has 366 legislative sponsors in 47 states. It has been signed into law in Maryland. Since its introduction in February 2006, the bill has passed by 12 legislative houses (one house in Colorado, Arkansas, New Jersey, and North Carolina, and two houses in Maryland, Illinois, Hawaii, and California).

Martin Meenagh said…
Joreko; I once had a chat with some members of the electoral college in Wisconsin who insisted that they could not be punished for being 'faithless electors' legally. Since the Bill you suggest would effectively represent states telling the electors what to do in their states, what would happen if a group within the electoral college (as always happens) just defied their state? Would all states have to introduce unit-blocs of electors?
It is an interesting proposal that you make, though I'm all for small states having a say in the electoral process of the federation. I just wonder if the states don't require a constitutional amendment rather than an end-run to get to where you wish to go.
Many thanks for your comment, it made me think and I hope you like the blog.

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