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An argument for history, by way of a point about butt sex

February 1, 2012

Of all the necessary qualities it takes to make a good journalist, cynicism and misanthropia are the most essential. A strong abhorrence of common human behavior creates a thirst for justice, truth, and the healing schadenfreude of exposing politicians as the craven, pandering degenerates that they are. Of course, at no other time does this thirst burn in the journalist’s mouth more than during a presidential election cycle. And now, thanks to the nigh-limitless variety of outlets, the Thirst is being serviced with the force of a digital fire hydrant.

This great boon to Democracy does have its drawbacks, however. Prime among them is the relentless demand for news organizations to provide content at a pace that sometimes draws ahead of actual storylines. Naturally, this was also an existent problem in the days of Old Media — just ask the weekend producer at your local TV news station. The historical workaround to this problem is the so-called “evergreen” story — a piece without much timeliness, but of at least moderate relevance. Items about ongoing droughts, the efforts to make Puerto Rico the 51st state, and zomg Twitter, you guys! are all examples of what some might call lazy journalism but others correctly identify as a desperate surrender to the unforgiving demands of the deadline.

Presidential election coverage is regularly checkered with this stuff. Speculation about VP choices, which candidate the voters would rather have a beer with, and how Saturday Night Live is becoming a new power in political satire all appear with a quadrennial consistency as comforting as the 29th of February. I’m not opposed to most of it on the grounds that the journalist has a professional obligation to churn the news cycle and keep things moving. However, one meme that I call on my fellow writers to immediately cease is the trope that this year’s elections are by far the most negatively partisan in the entire history of the nation. Of course, this personal plea has already been rendered moot thanks to New York Magazine‘s Joe Hagan:

It’s going to get ugly—it always does, and this year, it already has. But by almost every measure, the 2012 election is going to be the most negative in the history of American politics. In this, the post-hope election, the promise of Obama’s last campaign has been turned inside out. For all the Republicans’ attempts to emphasize the virtues of austerity, the animating force of their party is hatred of Obama, his “Kenyan” ancestry, his “socialism” and Chicago associates, and the charge that he took a wrong turn at Albuquerque and landed us in an anxious, alien landscape that doesn’t feel anything like what people used to call “America.”

Hagan’s thesis centers on the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in the Citizens United vs. Federal Elections Commission case. That decision opened up unlimited corporate contributions to Super PACs that independently aid individual campaigns (very loose emphasis on “independently”). I agree with Hagan that, on its very face, the ruling is a hugely dangerous, probably fatal strike to the beating heart of open and equal democracy and should immediately be reversed with some legislative or even executive action. However, I dispute the weak nostalgia Hagan has towards a benign past when Americans were capable of calm political discourse.

First and foremost, the most obvious counterpoint is found in 1860, an election cycle wherein half the country openly pledged to scuttle the Constitution and engage in open warfare against the government should one particular candidate win. But lest anyone write that off as exceptional only because of slavery n’ stuff, let’s go back a few more decades to a time when the national discussion wasn’t much unlike our own today.

In the 1830’s, vast changes in the national economy thanks to westward expansion, industrialization, and advances in capitalistic theory and practice created a troubling growth in the gap between rich and poor. The age even had an Occupy movement of its own known as Workey-ism, a sort of proto-Marxism whose name was derived from the various Working Men’s parties that sprung up in the Northeastern manufacturing centers. It was a nascent labor movement that campaigned for economic equality, a minimum wage, and the 10-hour working day. But unlike today’s Occupiers, the Working Men found a sympathetic ear in the administration of Andrew Jackson who made the destruction of the Second National Bank, a proto-Federal Reserve and like that organization the prime enabler of inequality, the centerpiece of his presidency (pull out a 20-dollar bill and drink the irony).

Naturally the financiers and industrialists who were most affected by the loss of their oligarchic source of guaranteed wealth weren’t much pleased with Jackson’s agenda and invested a significant chunk of change to whip up popular and political fire to bring down the president and his allies. Much as the entrenched power players do today with the likes of Fox News, Newsmax, and National Review, these ancient corporatists funded journalistic organs to broadcast their messages in easily digestible nuggets for the mouthbreathing masses to lap up and soon the rhetoric from both sides denigrated to a wildly indecent level.

One example can be found in a pamphlet nominally written by no less a person than Davy Crockett himself, former Tennessee congressman and future icon of Texas bravery as well as Disney marketing. The work set its sights on Martin Van Buren, then the presumed heir to the Jackson program:

When he enters the senate chamber in the morning, he struts and swaggers like a crow in a gutter. He is laced up in corsets, such as women in a town wear, and, if possible, tighter than the best of them. It would be difficult to say, from his personal appearance, whether he was man or woman, but for his large red and gray whiskers.

I mean, Sean Hannity’s a prick, but when has he ever called Barack Obama a cross-dressing faggot? And how about this popular song targeting Richard M. Johnson, senator from Kentucky, ally of the administration, popular hero who shot dead the infamous Indian chief Tecumseh, and a known slave-fucker:

The wave that heaves by Congo’s shore,

Heaves not so high nor darkly wide

As Sukey in her midnight snore,

Close by Tecumseh Johnson’s side.

The history of American presidential elections is littered with this kind of stuff. Ridiculous slanders and brutal personal attacks are as inherent to the system as phone banking and baby-kissing (though it’s worth noting that Jackson himself, while out on the trail, delegated the latter duty to his subordinates). After all, these are human actors that Joe Hagan is writing about and humans are, without exception, crude, venal, corrupt animals irresistibly driven by debauched hormonal urges to fuck everyone right in the ass.

At least, that’s the line that a proper journalist would take.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Elissa permalink
    February 2, 2012 1:02 pm

    this was fantastic

  2. Johnathan permalink
    February 2, 2012 2:31 pm

    There was some Presidential historian lady talking about this on last Sunday’s Meet the Press. I can’t remember her name because my brain was too busy storing the image of Chuck Todd’s fucked-up hair.

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