Early bird tickets for Baltimore’s BEST party on sale now!

Election system is ever changing


THIS YEAR'S presidential election will be the 54th in the nation's history. From the time of the first election in 1789, when a reluctant George Washington was unanimously chosen by a small group of electors to be the chief executive of the new United States, the process of selecting a president has changed enormously.

The 2000 election reflects that change in ways large and small. Even the most basic realities of the present campaign -- such as the bruising and highly public nomination process, the overriding importance of television, the nonstop fund raising -- would likely have been either unimaginable or downright appalling to Washington and his contemporaries.

How did we get here? It's pretty simple: Our methods of choosing a president have changed because our society has changed. As our culture has become more open, more inclusive, more media-saturated and more cynical, we have placed new demands on those who would lead us.

"The most important change is simply that it has become a much more democratic process," said presidential historian Richard Shenkman. "You have this process where the masses are slowly being brought into the election. As they're let in, politicians decide that they more and more have to cater and pander and do what they have to do to attract votes."

This, in turn, has altered the nature of the presidency and even the traits of the men (alas, the male monopoly on the presidency is one thing that hasn't changed) who occupy the office.

The earliest presidential elections were exclusive affairs, with the pool of voters consisting of white males, mainly property holders. Despite having just waged a war in the name of liberty and political equality, our founders were not quick to extend suffrage to propertyless white men, let alone to nonwhites or women.

This exclusivity fit the political temper of the times. The founders wanted the president to be chosen not by the general public, but by what John Jay called "the most enlightened and respectable citizens," who could make their selection without regard to the state of origin or political party of the candidates.

In those years, the nation's elite generally viewed enlightenment and respectability as beyond the reach of females, people of non-European ancestry and the lower economic classes. Public campaigns for the presidency were seen as both unseemly and unnecessary.

The Constitution provided for an Electoral College that would select the president. The runner-up in the presidential election was to be named vice president, regardless of party affiliation.

In most states the members of the Electoral College were not chosen by a general vote. Such matters were generally entrusted to state legislatures. Maryland was one of only a handful of states that picked electors through a direct vote of the people.

This courtly state of affairs remained in place as long as the presidency was in the hands of George Washington, who was almost universally admired. However, his fellow founders were divided on several important issues facing the new country, such as financial policy, states' rights and foreign affairs. No other individual could inspire the near-unanimous esteem that Washington had enjoyed.

So, the battle lines formed. In 1796, Washington's vice president, John Adams, ran successfully as the Federalist Party's candidate against Washington's secretary of state, Thomas Jefferson of the Democratic-Republican Party (the precursor to today's Democratic Party). The election of the president became an openly partisan contest for the first time.

For all the founders' weeping and gnashing about the perils of partisanship, the development of political parties had positive consequences. Over time, it gave presidential candidates both the incentive and the means to seek mass support and bring more Americans into the political process.

In the early 19th century, those new voters were still exclusively male and overwhelmingly white. In national elections -- as in virtually all other phases of society -- women, African-Americans and Native Americans were effectively shut out of power.

No one em- bodied this volatile mix of democracy and oppression better than Andrew Jackson, the winner of the 1828 and 1832 elections. During his tenure in the White House, the former Indian fighter oversaw the brutal removal of eastern Native American tribes to territories west of the Mississippi River. He was also a staunch supporter of southern slavery.

Yet it was Jackson, the hot-tempered hero of the War of 1812, who brought about a populist new age in presidential politics, an age in which people of common means first gained a degree of power over who would lead the country. Along with Martin Van Buren, his vice president, Jackson made the party system far more inclusive than ever before.

"This is the turning-point presidency," Shenkman said of Jackson. "The party system they came up with is a lot more mass-based. The party system [before Jackson] used to be rich white men facing off against rich white men. Now it was different."

The time was more than ripe for change. America was undergoing rapid growth, both geographically and economically. Settlers pushed into the range lands of Texas and the river valleys of the Midwest.

Jackson understood the mood of the nation and appealed to it, railing against Eastern commercial interests, defending the rights of debtors and championing the conquest of the frontier.

Almost everywhere, there were signs that the presidential-selection process was beginning to open up. States now based their selection of Electoral College representatives on a direct popular vote rather than on legislative appointment. In most of the country, property was no longer a voting requirement. Parties chose their presidential nominees through political conventions rather than the more secretive caucuses of the past.

Beneath the expansiveness and energy of this period, an old fault line was beginning to tear the country apart. America's growth meant the admission of several new states, and the question of whether to allow slavery in those states led to bitter sectional rivalry, the Civil War and the attempted reconstruction of the South.

This cycle of strife left an indelible mark on the way Americans elect their presidents. One of the most obvious legacies is the emergence of the Republican Party, which was founded in 1854. Six years later, the young party rode into the White House with the election of Abraham Lincoln.

Ever since, American presidential elections have been clashes between Democrats and Republicans, with only occasional interference from third-party candidates. This exceptionally durable two-party system shapes every aspect of our presidential politics, from the selection of the candidates to the raising of campaign funds.

But the Civil War era made another, even more fundamental contribution to the election process. Three postwar constitutional amendments guaranteed -- at least on paper -- the political rights of African-Americans and other racial minorities, including the right to vote. However, it would take another century and another round of domestic turmoil before these rights were guaranteed in practice.

Women, the other large category of disenfranchised adult Americans, began winning the right to vote in some Western states and territories during the late 19th century, but did not gain nationwide suffrage until 1920.

The emergence of minorities and women as important voter groups has changed presidential politics. This is especially evident in this year's election, as both main candidates seize any and all opportunities to court minority and female voters.

Some of this attention is purely symbolic, but it has also shaped the substance of campaigns. It's unlikely that such issues as abortion, affirmative action, racial profiling, day care and inner-city school vouchers would have become so prominent if the voter rolls were still dominated by white men.

In addition to the broadening of the electorate, the other central development in 20th century presidential campaigns has been the rise of electronic mass media, especially television.

In 1952, Dwight D. Eisenhower became the first presidential candidate to run paid TV ads. In the close race to succeed Eisenhower in 1960, John F. Kennedy gained a crucial advantage by appearing glamorous and assured in televised debate against a pale and perspiring Richard M. Nixon.

Television was now the overlord of American politics, and campaigns would never be the same. Iron-fisted orchestration and preening superficiality have been part of our presidential politics since the birth of the republic, but the supremacy of television -- a medium of simple concepts, tidy emotions and dazzling visuals -- has boosted these tendencies like an amphetamine.

This has changed our definition of presidential viability. It is difficult to imagine that either of today's major parties would consider nominating someone like Lincoln, who was a first-rate politician but also untelegenic, depressed and hopelessly prone to intellectual nuance.

Leonard Steinhorn, a professor of communications at American University and a student of television's impact on politics, said TV has "changed the national language of politics from the word to the image. As it's done that, it's changed political strategies and public perceptions. ... It's also shaped the way politicians act, because it causes them to think of how their actions would be presented by their opponents in a 30-second attack ad."

Television has also changed presidential elections by ratcheting up the importance of fund raising. Money has played its part from the beginning; Washington was one of the richest men in America when he became president. However, the need to buy campaign ad spots in expensive television markets has turned the presidency into a permanent campaign, an unending search for financial support from well-heeled individual and corporate donors.

Yet television's influence on politics has not been all bad; TV thrust the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War into the public awareness. It allowed millions of Americans to watch the Watergate and Iran-Contra hearings.

Partly because of television, the character of the electorate has changed: American voters are more tolerant, more emotionally open and more needful of continual entertainment, novelty, diversion.

This, too, influences presidential politics. You can see it this year, in the GOP's tightly controlled effort to portray itself as mellow and accepting. You can see it in Al Gore's willingness to give an alternative filmmaker unfettered access to his home and family. You can even see it in ultraconservative Pat Buchanan's naming of an African-American female running mate.

All of these behaviors would have been hard to imagine as recently as 1988 or 1992. Society is changing quickly. For better and for worse, so are the people who lead us and the way we choose them.

Mark Ribbing graduated with a history degree from Yale College in 1992 and went on to study law at Co lumbia University. He joined The Sun in 1997 to cover telecommunica tions and high technology and now works as a general assignment reporter.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad