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Nasty politics? Puhleez! Get a historic grip.

US politics is exasperating - always has been. But through the calumny and distortion, we've selected decent, if not always excellent, presidents.

By William Schambra / October 21, 2004


"Let's step on them!" exhorts the early 1950s Republican election poster hanging in my basement. It features the party's pachyderm with his foot planted squarely on two squirming figures, one a mustachioed Stalin look-alike labeled "Communism," the other a spectacled, briefcase-toting bureaucrat labeled "New Dealism."

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Whenever I hear the complaint that today's politics has reached unprecedented levels of nastiness, I recall that poster from what was supposed to be a "golden age" of politics, brimming with civil discourse, bipartisanship, and national unity. In fact, politics for our parents' "greatest generation" was just as boisterous, nasty, and over the top as it is today - indeed, as it always has been, for Americans.

Why? Because our democracy is grounded in realistic expectations about how politics would be conducted, once the rule of the "enlightened" few gave way to the sovereignty of the everyday person. The Founders believed, as James Madison noted in Federalist No. 10, that "So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts."

The idea is that democracy would liberate individual self-interest and narrow political ambition to an unprecedented degree, thereby skewing our politics toward a fairly low common denominator. But the Founders believed that our dispersed, decentralized political institutions could harness and counterbalance this crude political energy, moderating it and directing it toward some semblance of the common good.

Our nation's politics has seldom failed to live down to these humble expectations. As David and Johnny Johnson note in "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the White House," our presidential contests have always been marked by scurrilous charges, innuendo, and outright lies.

Andrew Jackson was described by his opponents as a drunkard, bigamist, adulterer, gambler, and murderer. Abraham Lincoln likewise was viewed as an "awful woeful ass," a "dictator," a "coarse vulgar joker," and a "grotesque baboon." To Republicans in 1884, Grover Cleveland was a "lecherous beast," an "obese nincompoop," and a "drunken sot." But through all the calumnies and distortions, we have selected decent, if not always excellent, presidents, whose virtues were maximized and vices minimized by mutually vigilant, separated powers of government.

Almost as enduringly american as nasty politics, though, is complaint about the nastiness of our politics, and efforts to reform it. The desire to tame partisanship characterized the civil service reform movement after the Civil War, as well as the "Mugwump" rebellion against corruption during the Grant administration.

But concern about the baseness of American political discourse grew to a fever pitch at the turn of the 20th century. That era's "Progressive Movement" aimed to shift political power out of the hands of corrupt local political machines, into the hands of newly emerging national professional elites - university and think-tank scholars, philanthropists, enlightened federal administrators, and journalistic intellectuals. Their training and status, they argued, enabled them to take a detached, objective, superior view of the public good. A new "enlightened few" had emerged with a claim to rule, albeit in the best interests of the unwashed masses.