Archive for the ‘Academic/Scholarly Articles’ Category


By Gil Troy, The Wilson Quarterly, Summer 2012

They’re long, exhausting, and sometimes appalling, but America’s raucous presidential campaigns are also testimony to the success of its continually evolving democracy.

“The people have nominated you without any pledges or engagements of any sort . . . and they want you to do nothing at present but allow yourself to be elected,” the poet and newspaper editor William Cullen Bryant told Abraham Lincoln in 1860. “Make no speeches, write no letters as a candidate, enter into no pledges, make no promises.” As Americans grumble, in what has become a quadrennial ritual, that the presidential campaign is too long, too nasty, and too frivolous, they should consider whether they would really prefer a return to the 19th-century rules of the game that are so often held up as an alternative.

A look back at the evolution of the presidential campaign since the early days of the Republic highlights the remarkable democratic achievements of the last two centuries. America’s presidential campaign process works. It sifts through candidates, facilitates a continent-wide conversation, and, most important, bestows legitimacy on the winner. Presidential campaigns are intense, long, and costly because they are popular, consequential, and continental in scope. Most aspects of the campaigns that Americans hate reflect the democracy we love….READ MORE

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By Gil Troy, NYT, 12-2-11

To select someone worthy of sitting in George Washington’s chair, sleeping in Abraham Lincoln’s bed and governing from Franklin Roosevelt’s desk, Americans crave a substantial presidential campaign, as long as they don’t have to endure too many boring speeches. Like every human decision-making process, presidential campaigns seesaw between the serious and the silly.

Recent breakthroughs in neuroscience, political science and the dismal science demonstrate what we know intuitively, that human decision-making involves our heads and our hearts. We are neither fully rational nor totally emotional. Similarly, campaigns fluctuate between profound policy exchanges and trivial personality clashes, between significant indicators of future presidential performance and serious idiocy.

A substantial campaign is most likely when history conspires to offer high stakes with stark choices or an incumbent seeks reelection (and it helps if the candidates avoid defining gaffes or temper tantrums). Re-election campaigns in particular are usually well-focused, because at least one nominee presents a defined track record.

The 2012 campaign seems primed to be portentous, with an embattled incumbent confronting an opponent from an ideologically-charged party amid economic turmoil. But every campaign, no matter how high-minded, flirts daily with farce. “Unfortunately, when you run for the presidency your wife’s hair or your hair or something else always becomes of major significance,” John F. Kennedy said, when Walter Cronkite asked about his forelock. “I don’t think it’s a great issue, though, in 1960.” Actually, the Kennedys’ good looks brought John Kennedy great political luck.

Hair has been the subject of political debate for Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, left, just as it was for John F. Kennedy, right.
Jim Watson/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images, left; Associated PressHair has been the subject of political debate for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, left, just as it was for John F. Kennedy, right.

The first substantial presidential campaign — which brought about America’s first transition from a ruling party to the opposition — also teetered between frivolity and philosophy. An ugly brawl between two founding fathers preceded the great deadlock of 1800, which you may remember hearing about during the election standoff in 2000. Federalists called Vice President Thomas Jefferson an atheist, a libertine, a traitor, “the infidel.” Democratic-Republicans called the short, fat pompous president, John Adams, “His Rotundity.” But the election also contrasted Adams’ centralized government championing industrial development against Jefferson’s vision of limited government with limited growth.

The 1800 election was the first to show how presidential re-election campaigns crystallize issues and polarize positions. A challenger need not be as doctrinaire as Barry Goldwater to offer “a choice not an echo,” when pitting boundless hopes against a first-term president’s adjustments to reality. Running for re-election in 1936, Franklin Roosevelt admitted there would be only one issue: “It’s myself, and people must either be for me or against me.” Running a referendum on Roosevelt, the Republican candidate, Alfred M. Landon, called himself “the direct antithesis of the present executive.”

Winners beware, though. The binary choice most American elections offer frequently overstates differences and oversimplifies results, especially when presidents win re-election. Most of the twentieth-century’s most lopsided wins kept incumbents like Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan in power, but frequently helped spawn the dreaded second-term curse.

Campaigns fluctuate between profound policy exchanges and trivial personality clashes, between significant indicators of future presidential performance and serious idiocy.

Even landslides do not offer the political equivalent of a blank check, however much it might feel that way. Roosevelt overstepped during his second term, especially when he tried packing the Supreme Court. He wrongly interpreted his 523-8 electoral-vote triumph as a more sweeping mandate for his New Deal than voters intended. Lyndon Johnson went from feeling, “for the first time in all my life,” truly “loved by the American people,” marveling at “millions upon millions of people, each one marking my name on their ballot, each one wanting me as their president,” to being hounded out of office.

Sometimes campaigns turn serious by coinciding with serious trouble, especially impending wars, ongoing hostilities or economic busts. Voters in 1860, in choosing Abraham Lincoln, knew that they were empowering abolitionists and risking war. Four years later, a worried President Lincoln needed battlefield victories to woo voters who were doubting him and his war. Ultimately, bullets swayed the ballots as General William T. Sherman’s conquest of Atlanta two months before Election Day helped vindicate Lincoln’s war strategy, leading to his re-election.

While wartime campaigns often become votes of confidence — or no confidence — regarding the incumbent, the downswing in an American business cycle often yields an upswing in surprisingly theoretical, intensely polemical, debates about American capitalism. During a recession, suddenly everyone is an economics major — or a philosopher.  The Panic of 1893 triggered 1896’s “Battle of the Standards.” Americans escalated arcane questions about valuing paper money, silver coins and gold into a searing philosophical divide that stirred fears of civil war. The major parties nominated candidates with contrasting stands. Converting from currency to morality, William McKinley, the Republican goldbug, said “The American people hold the financial honor of our country as sacred as our flag.” And catapulting from economics to metaphysics, William Jennings Bryan, the Democratic-Populist silverbug defending “the producing masses of this nation and the world” famously cried: “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” One Republican, John Hay, moaned: “The whole country has been set to talking about coinage — a matter utterly unfit for public discussion.”

Still, good intentions and clear visions do not guarantee Solomonic deliberations. In 1964, insisting that “I’m not one of those baby-kissing, hand-shaking, blintz-eating candidates,” Senator Barry Goldwater envisioned a “lofty, rational presentation of contending beliefs” against President Lyndon Johnson. Goldwater loved his campaign slogan:  “In your heart, you know he’s right.” But with Democrats sneering “In your guts, you know he’s nuts,” and his numbers tanking, Goldwater retaliated. By October he was snarling “Would you buy a used car from Lyndon?” and saying all Johnson did was “lie and lie and lie” — although the patriotic senator recoiled when crowds, riled by his rhetoric, booed the president. Time magazine deemed the 1964 campaign “one of the most disappointing ever.”

Just as ideologues can end up mudslinging, moderates do not necessarily sling mush. Mocking moderates is a great American tradition. Some, like Lewis Cass, the Democrats’ compromise nominee in 1848, earn the contempt. As Americans polarized over slavery, Cass ran as a “doughface,” a Northern man who molded his politics to satisfy Southerners, impressing few, alienating many. “And he who still for Cass can be,” one Whig wrote, “he is a Cass without the C.”

America also enjoys a rich tradition of muscular moderates. Barack Obama has already shown he can run an exciting, crisp campaign from the center. In 2008, both parties nominated centrist senators seeking the swing voters who could sway the election. These crucial voters, like the Reagan Democrats and the Clinton soccer moms before them, made a clear choice, this time for Obama. Interestingly, even though both Obama and John McCain played to the center, they clashed on foreign affairs, economic policy and governing philosophy, and in the process they offered voters two quite distinct alternatives.

President Barack Obama, left, was accused of being an atheist, as was Thomas Jefferson, right.
Pool photo by Kevin Dietsch, left; United Press International, right President Barack Obama, left, was accused of being an atheist, as was Thomas Jefferson, right.

The history of presidential campaigning reveals the ingredients that yield substantial campaigns, including a charged historical context, clashing world views and coherent candidacies.  Still, every candidate remains one slip of the tongue, one gotcha question, one feeding frenzy, away from the chaos that overwhelms so many campaigns. Americans genuinely yearn for an ideal democratic exercise, one-part university seminar, one-part town hall. Yet the blood rushes, the pulse quickens, interest peaks, when campaigning turns ugly, emotional, personal. The contradictions of popular politics, meaning mass democratic decision-making, don’t just mirror but magnify our all-too-human contradictions as personal decision-makers.

Gil Troy, professor of history at McGill University, is the editor, with Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Fred Israel, of “History of American Presidential Elections, 1789-2008,” fourth edition.

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30th Anniversary of the 1980 Election Roundtable–An Introduction

Society for Historians of Foreign Relations, November 29th, 2010

SHAFR.org is delighted to present its last roundtable of the year.  Thirty years ago this month the United States witnessed one of the most important elections in recent history when Ronald Reagan captured the presidency and ushered in a new era of national politics.  In our roundtable, three prominent historians of this era discuss different but overlapping ways for understanding the wide-ranging significance of this election.  Professors Andrew Busch of Claremont McKenna College, Chester Pach of Ohio University, and Gil Troy of McGill University challenge us to re-examine different facets of Ronald Reagan, the election that brought him to power, and the impact that his presidency had on American foreign policy.

Professor Gregory Domber of the University of North Florida rounds out the discussion by offering an essay on the challenges of teaching Ronald Reagan’s foreign policies to today’s students.

Our members are encouraged to participate in this conversation by commenting on these essays.  Passport has agreed to publish these essays and the best comments on them in its next issue.

Reagan and American Mood

By Gil Troy, Society for Historians of Foreign Relations, November 29th, 2010

Amid the claims and counterclaims regarding Ronald Reagan’s 1980 electoral victory, one clarifying contradiction emerges. Yes, Reagan exaggerated, alleging a mandate for his Reagan Revolution which never existed. Yet, when Reagan implemented a more muscular, more flamboyantly patriotic, up-with-America, down-with-the-Communists foreign policy, he was doing what the American people hired him to do.

Ronald Reagan began his presidency with a magic trick, conjuring a mandate he lacked. The election was tougher than he acknowledged; his victory margin thinner than it appeared. He won only 50.75 percent of the popular vote. The victory was also something of a fluke. After extended squabbling, Reagan and President Jimmy Carter finally debated on October 28. With Reagan’s silky-smooth, “There you go again,” performance, with America’s President reduced to quoting his 13-year-old daughter Amy on the importance of ending the nuclear threat, polls showed that Carter’s popularity dropped ten points within 48 hours after the debate. It was the most significant last-minute slide Gallup pollsters ever recorded.

On November 4, the Electoral College magnified the win as Reagan triumphed in 44 states, earning 489 electoral votes to Carter’s 49. Reagan pointed to the overwhelmingly red electoral map as proof of a landslide, affirming this broad mandate to rule. Yet it was essentially an ABC – Anybody But Carter – mandate. So many Americans soured on Carter’s tentative, apologetic debate performance after a year of disasters, especially the continuing Iranian hostage crisis.

Yet, despite this political sleight of hand overall, Reagan was on firmer ground in feeling that voters validated his particular foreign policy vision. When accepting the nomination at the Republican National Convention, Reagan blasted Carter’s defeatist foreign policy, condemning the “weakness, indecision, mediocrity, and incompetence” that suggested “that our nation has passed its zenith.” Reagan said he would regard his election ”as proof that we have renewed our resolve to preserve world peace and freedom — that this nation will once again be strong enough to do that.”

Anti-Communism provided the bedrock for Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy views. With his election, he would join an exclusive club of three world leaders who saw Soviet Communism as evil – and vulnerable. When Pope John Paul II, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and Reagan spoke candidly about their disgust for Communism, and their expectations that the Soviet Union would soon collapse, most people politely looked away, embarrassed by these deviations from common sense. Back in 1975, on one of his radio broadcasts, Reagan called Communism a form of “insanity,” an aberration, and wondered “how much more misery it will cause before it disappears.” In 1983, when he would call the Soviet Union the “Evil Empire,” one leading historian would call it the worst presidential speech ever.

Yet, Reagan’s anti-Communism resonated with Americans, within limits. To the extent that it was rooted in a push for more vigorous leadership, more national self-respect, less collective breast-beating, Americans cheered. Most Americans were tired of apologizing for Vietnam. Back in 1976, millions had yelled with Peter Finch, the fictional newsman in the Oscar-winning movie “Network,” “I’m mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.” Reagan himself would note signs of an ascendant patriotism independent of his calls, from the euphoria that greeted the “miracle on ice,” when the U.S. team beat the Soviet hockey team in the 1980 Winter Olympics to the swell of pride when the space shuttle launched successfully.

Carter’s reign, marked by stagflation, gas lines, and, the ultimate indignity, this endless Iranian hostage crisis, fed a yearning for national salvation, which Reagan offered. The drawn out struggle with the Iranian radicals – and the way Jimmy Carter turned into the “53rd hostage,” with so much of his last year shaped by the crisis, culminating with the humiliating failure of the rescue attempt, sobered the American people. Reagan’s call for more pride, more military funding, and more aggressive leadership resonated widely.

And yet, Americans had also welcomed Richard Nixon’s détente with the Soviet Union and China. Many delighted in Reagan’s swagger while fearing it. Little did most Americans – including his most zealous supporters – realize just how in touch with the American consensus Reagan was. It would take years to see, what only his closest advisers knew. Reagan’s take-no-prisoners rhetoric against Soviet Communism was tempered by a deep pacifism that recoiled at the “MAD doctrine” of Mutual Assured Destruction. Reagan wanted to eliminate nuclear weaponry as ardently as he wanted to build up America’s army. History would be kind to Reagan, allowing him, in his second term, to surprise the skeptics with his openness to the new Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev and to arms control, having already demonstrated his vigor.

The legacy of the 1980 campaign would help Reagan. His calls for national greatness and a defense build-up solidified his reputation as a tough American leader. It insulated him politically from a backlash against some fiascoes, especially Hezbollah’s lethal truck bombing in 1983 of the Marine Corps barracks in Lebanon. Reporters noted that had 241 American servicemen and civilians been killed under Jimmy Carter’s watch like that, Carter would have been run out of town.

At the same time, Reagan’s tough stance during the 1980 campaign against Iran, and his harsh critique of Carter’s leadership on the issue, made Reagan the “54th hostage,” if you will. The man who spoke so strongly against negotiating with terrorists could not negotiate with terrorists. When it turned out –during the Iran-Contra affair – that he had negotiated and failed – his drop in popularity and loss of credibility were all the more precipitous.

Campaigns are both sales pitches and rehearsals. Reagan made a foreign policy pitch in the 1980 campaign while rehearsing some major themes. But campaigns are not previews. Politics is the art of seeming to have expected the unexpected. In 1980, Reagan showed he was ready to inspire his fellow Americans, to spearhead a battle against Communism, but he would soon discover that, among other things, a subtle Middle East policy, and an effective counter-terrorism approach, could not necessarily take root in his anti-Communist bedrock.

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