“They’ll Like Us When We Win!”

8 Sep

Some folks seem to think that if the orange one goes away, that our overheated rhetoric will die down, and people will have a civil society again. I disagree. But this level of political acrimony has happened before in the US… 220 years ago. How did their overheated society calm down?

Let’s return to 1796 – Washington announces he’s not running for a third term. He could have easily won, but he was getting older, he was tired of the political infighting, and decided to retire. That left his vice president, John Adams, to take up the role as the Federalist party standard bearer. However, Thomas Jefferson wanted the job as well, and became the Democratic-Republican party’s chosen one. Mind you, political parties were just recently established, and they were not the well-oiled machines that we have today. No one actively campaigned (Aaron Burr changed that) and they let their partisans snipe each other in the press.

Things got ugly… fast. An anonymous poster named Phocion said that Jefferson was having an affair with one of his female slaves. He also accused Jefferson of running away from British troops during the Revolution. It turned out both of those were true (he was governor of Virginia when the redcoats marched on Richmond, so what did you expect him to do?), but didn’t make it any more damming. Alexander Hamilton, the actual writer of those early “attack ads,” knew what he was doing.

Jefferson’s allies (in this case, James Madison) shot back with Adams wanting to be a king and starting a dynasty by having his son succeed him as President. He was also accused of being overweight and given the nickname “His Rotundity.” Again, he was overweight, and although his son did eventually become president, he wasn’t a monarchist. Plus it didn’t help that Hamilton was secretly trying to manipulate the electoral college to get Thomas Pinckney elected by pretending to make him vice president.

If the election of 1796 was bad, 1800 was far, far worse. The level of political debate involved accusing the other side of delving into witchcraft, of returning the republic back to British rule, and all the stuff that sounds eerily familiar.

So we return to the question, “How did it end?” The War of 1812 – the Federalists opposed the war, and when America “won” the war, they looked like idiots. Their party was trounced in the election and they ceased to exist. For eight years there was only one political party in America – the Democratic Republicans. (They drop the “republican” part a few years later.) During this “Era of Good Feelings,” there was no need for political infighting, so we lost the taste for it. When the Whigs emerged as the opposition, we had overt civility (although we still had that nasty incident where one member of congress beat another to unconsciousness).

So when do we calm our political nerves? If you’re wondering why I keep using Toby Ziegler from The West Wing, it’s because he tells us in an episode (talking about Islamic terrorists), “They’ll like us when we win!” Until one political party wins so overwhelmingly that the other side realizes they have to change their tactics, waving the red flag will keep working.

Depressing? Is it more likely that people will stop listening to the overheated rhetoric and THEN parties will have to change tactics? Have you got another theory? Tell me in the comments below!

One Response to ““They’ll Like Us When We Win!””

  1. Silk Cords September 8, 2020 at 5:25 pm #

    The trouble here is that, like me, you’re actually thinking people will learn from history. 🙂

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