This just in: Politics as usual grips Washington

Though President Obama criticized the "perpetual campaign" mentality in Washington, political gamesmanship is as old as civilization.

Politics arose from necessity. Anthropologists trace politics back to prehistoric tribal needs such as tamping down conflicts over resources, upholding moral standards, and defending home turf. Today those would be called economic policy, social policy, and foreign policy.

There are modern wrinkles with politics, of course: robocalls, attack ads, online fundraising, and get-out-the-vote mobilization, to name a few. But the process of organizing large groups of people behind a candidate who stands for certain issues – or at least seemed to during the campaign – is the same as it has been since Ogg declared his candidacy against Bam in the first Pleistocene primary.

The stakes can be high. An election can propel a nation toward war or reshape the economy. But politics also intrigues people because there is an element of sport to it. One side maneuvers against the other using time-tested strategies and creative tactics. The race intensifies, tension mounts, the buzzer sounds, votes are tallied. There is a winner and a loser.

All good citizens decry this horse-race view of politics. In his State of the Union address, President Obama criticized a Washington where "every day is Election Day," where polarized parties "wage a perpetual campaign where the only goal is to see who can get the most embarrassing headlines about the other side -– a belief that if you lose, I win." He followed that up with an olive branch to the Republicans.

We all imagine a time when stately debates were held and voters listened earnestly, paying no attention to hairstyle or hand gestures or gotcha lines. Didn’t everyone once pore over position papers and embrace bipartisanship? Was there a golden era?

Not really. The earliest days of America, with the whiff of Athenian newness still upon the republic, featured smear campaigns, an intensely opinionated media, and the added wrinkle of pistol duels.

Andrew Jackson (lifetime duels: 13) was the first to wage a “perpetual campaign” for the White House, beginning his successful 1828 quest three years earlier. It wasn’t a clean race. Opponents called him a jackass and accused his wife of bigamy. Still, Jackson’s rough-hewn character brought politics out of the aristocracy and into the hands of the rural poor. That was good. And bad. There was broken china and mud on the White House chairs after the inaugural ball.

Politics is a shock absorber on public passion. Done right, it channels anger and idealism into practical action. It brings people into the system.

Millions of words will be written about the recent Massachusetts Senate race in which once-obscure Republican state Sen. Scott Brown tapped into voter anger and won Edward M. Kennedy’s old seat. Millions of words have similarly been written about the 2008 presidential race and the high turnout of African-Americans and other minorities. Then there was the strange overtime election of 2000. And that’s just the past decade.

Popular sentiment, demographics, and even, as in ’00, the need to look deep into the rule book to learn what to do in the event of a tie can transfix a nation.

When you feel the body politic shift, as it appeared to do in Massachusetts on Jan. 19, the moment can be impressive. People in other cultures can be excused for scratching their heads.

In the fall of 1980, for instance, I was in a well-worn, Ottoman-Era building in Cairo interviewing officials from the Egyptian foreign ministry. Egypt had embarked on a bold peace-making initiative with Israel, brokered by President Jimmy Carter. But opinion polls were showing Mr. Carter increasingly likely to lose to challenger Ronald Reagan. One of the Egyptian officials was beside himself. After all Egypt had invested in the relationship with Carter, how could American voters throw him overboard?

“I am waiting to see if the Americans change their system,” he said quite seriously.

He's still waiting. At least there’s no dueling.
John Yemma is the editor of 
The Christian Science Monitor.

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