Friday, November 25, 2016

Another "standing miracle"

A very interesting passage from American Creation by John Ellis (page 114). There is a tendency, fanned by the media interested in selling papers and attracting viewers, to cast each election as something momentous and consequential beyond expectations. And indeed, they have the potential of being so in the future. But the election itself is simply a pulse check of the nation, not in itself inherently interesting, and indeed, something of a nuisance to everyone but politicians and the media.

For all the anguish in some quarters, this election was held in a period of (angsty) peace and at least marginal economic stability (if not yet prosperity). It is nothing to the first election when we were still unclear as to whether the President was first among equal citizens or a dictator with term limits, the election of 1860 when the unresolved issue of freedom for all led almost to the dissolution of the union, the election of 1876 when vested interests abandoned Reconstruction in return for political and commercial advantage, the election of 1916 which seemed to promise the possibility of avoiding a world war consuming all other leading nations, the election of 1960 when the prospect of a Cold War becoming a Hot War was real, or the election of 1976 as we recovered from an imperial presidency gone rogue. It might be emotionally consoling to believe this was a momentous election, but in many ways we have seen many where much more was more clearly at stake. From Ellis, discussing that period after the first Articles of Confederation (which had clearly failed) and before the new Constitution was ratified. Now that was a consequential vote.
During the ten months after the Constitutional Convention the most far-ranging and consequential political debate in American history raged throughout every state in the union. As it was nearing conclusion, Washington described the fullness and openness of the debate as another "standing miracle," equivalent to the victory over the British army. "We exhibit at present the novel & astounding spectacle of a whole people deliberating calmly on what form of government will be most conducive to their happiness, and deciding with an unexpected degree of unanimity in favour of a system which they conceive calculated to answer the purpose." In truth, there was nothing like unanimity in the final verdict, which remained in doubt until the very end, and the votes in the three most crucial states - Massachusetts, Virginia, and New York - were extremely close.


All attempts to explain the debates in primarily or exclusively economic terms have been discredited by modern scholars. The messy truth is that there was a maddening variety of voting patterns from state to state, and within states from county to county, that defied any single explanation, economic or otherwise. The labels affixed to the two sides also defied logic, for both sides were federalists, meaning that they advocated a confederated republic, but disagreed over the relative power of the states and the central government in the confederation.
While the stakes were not near as high Tuesday evening November 8th, there was a whispered echo of that earlier, existential vote. There was the angst and the hope, there was the concern evolving into disbelief. Taking the place of Massachusetts, Virginia, and New York, there was Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. By the end of the evening there was an outcome asterisked by some with a hesitant hope that late vote counting might mean a different result.

But in the history of a great republic, it was just another election.

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