To believe the handwringing social media posts I scroll past every day, this is the worst presidential election in history. We’re told that our Founding Fathers must be rolling in their graves. Whatever other cultural decay we have experienced, a bipartisan propensity for political hyperbole and historical revisionism seems healthy enough.
I cringe every time a well-intentioned friend makes reference to the “decline” in the tone of our elections, the devolution of campaigns. It’s one thing to remember the past fondly; it is something else to romanticize it irrationally.
Let’s consider the invocation of the views of the Founding Fathers.
In 1798 it was the “father of the country,” the man who eschewed partisan politics (in our modern mythology), George Washington himself, who said it would be easier to rub a black rock into white “as to change the principles of a professed Democrat; and that he will leave nothing unattempted to overturn the Government of this Country.”
Two years later, the Founding Fathers were still running the show. The presidential election of 1800 featured the incumbent John Adams being challenged by Thomas Jefferson. The campaign was marked by vicious slander and bitter attacks. Adams’ people derided Jefferson as a dangerous atheist, while the Jefferson camp said Adams was a “hermaphrodite.” (If you don’t know what that is… trust me: it is not nice.)
Things didn’t get better. Democrats in 1876 falsely campaigned on the claim Republican Rutherford Hayes had shot his mother while drunk. (And, yes, I skipped past the sordid attacks on Andrew Jackson’s beloved wife.)
In 1884, Grover Cleveland was called a “lecherous beast” and “moral leper” by Republicans, owing to the fact he had fathered a child out of wedlock.
And let’s not forget the high-water mark of political decorum: the 1920 presidential race in which Democrats urged Americans to vote against Republican Warren Harding because he had black ancestors.
None of that is to excuse the current election cycle, only to suggest we might all do well to consider the problem isn’t the devolution of campaigning but the corruption of the human heart. We get so wrapped up in our support of our candidates that we dehumanize our political opposites. When we think of an election as the be-all and end-all of our civilization and life, it warps our view of everything around us.
We’d do well to consider the words of the author of Hebrews: “…let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”
Yes, the tone of elections could be improved, but they are – like late-night social media binges – merely a reflection of our collective heart. Rather than hoping for a return to a past that never existed, our current elections – and the future of our Republic – would benefit from more of us fixing our eyes on the steady goal of God’s standard.