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Whatever happens, 2016 won’t be like 1968 – or 1800

As I write this, it is becoming increasingly likely that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton will become the respective Republican and Democratic Presidential nominees in 2016. At the same time, there are predictions that people opposed to these candidates will wreak havoc at the national conventions, and that the Republican Party and possibly the Democratic Party will end up in disarray as a result.

Not so fast.

If you want to see disarray, go back to 1968 in Chicago, when the Democrats gathered. Nominating processes were very different than they are today. While some Democrats worry about the number of “superdelegates” that will be at their convention, there were certainly superdelegates in 1968. There weren’t that many, but you knew who they were. And Richard Daley was the chief superdelegate at that convention.

Outside of the Chicago convention, things were chaotic. And while things weren’t that chaotic inside the convention itself, there was certainly tension.

Inside the Amphitheater, many delegates learn of the violence outside when Senator Abraham Ribicoff, in a speech nominating George McGovern, denounces the “Gestapo tactics on the streets of Chicago.” During the roll call, Wisconsin delegate Donald Peterson announces that people are being beaten on the streets of Chicago….

Peterson asked that the convention be adjourned and moved to another city, but he was ruled out of order. (More on Donald Peterson here.)

To see some of the happenings during that week, view this film. Peterson appears at about 6:35.

And although it didn’t have network television coverage, the 1800 election makes Trump and Cruz look like bosom buddies.

Electoral College – offering four-year programs since 1789

Here in the United States of America, voters are starting to think about the choice that they will be making in November of this year, when voters will elect a new President and Vice President.

Except that voters will do nothing of the kind.

As any student of U.S. government knows, the President and Vice President are not directly elected by the people. Because 18th century politicians were fearful of entrusting the election of a President directly to the people, the U.S. Constitution specified that the President would be selected by a group of electors, in a body known as the Electoral College.

So in reality, U.S. voters are voting for electors, who will then gather together a month later to truly select the President and Vice President. However, in certain years, including 1800 and 1876, other parties selected the President and Vice President. (Technically, the 2000 election was determined by the Electoral College, since the state electoral votes were determined BEFORE submission to the Electoral College.)

Just to illustrate how unimportant the popular vote was in early years, the Electoral College website doesn’t even record popular votes cast before 1824. In that year, Andrew Jackson received 151,271 popular votes and 99 electoral votes, and John Quincy Adams received 113,122 popular votes and 83 electoral votes. Since Jackson did not receive a majority of the electoral vote, this was one of those cases in which the election wasn’t decided by the Electoral College. Jackson ended up losing, but by 1828, over a million popular votes were tabulated, partly because of the revulsion of the people at having the President selected by a limited few – in the 1824 case, the members of the House of Representatives.

Yet even in 2000, George W. Bush received fewer popular votes than Al Gore. However, due to the nature of electoral voting, which often proceeds in a “winner take all” method, Bush got the electoral votes where it counted.

But this does not necessarily mean that candidates will campaign in the states with the largest electoral votes. Take my home state of California – the last Republican to receive California’s electoral votes was George H.W. Bush, and that was only in 1998 – by 1992 the state went for Bill Clinton, and it has been solidly Democratic ever since. So I don’t expect President Obama or the eventual Republican nominee to spend a lot of time in California – other than for fund-raising.

It’s interesting to note that California’s presidential voting has been cyclical. As mentioned above, the state has gone for Democrats since 1992. But from 1952 to 1988, the state only voted for a Democrat once, and that was in the 1964 election in which Lyndon Johnson trounced Barry Goldwater. Between 1932 and 1948, California consistently voted Democratic, paralleling the country as a whole. Before that, California’s votes were relatively inconsequential – in 1928, California only cast 13 electoral votes, as opposed to the 55 votes it cast in 2008.

I cannot predict whether or when the Electoral College will be abolished. However, the fact that the people who usually object to the Electoral College are the people who lost the last election – in other words, the people who do NOT have executive power at the time – it’s difficult to envision a case in which the politicians in power will actively work to design an alternative Presidential election method.

Would Reagan or Franken have achieved political success in the late 19th century?

Many people have switched to a political career after doing something else. Biography.com lists nine actors who became politicians. I’m going to concentrate on two of those people, former President Ronald Reagan and Minnesota Senator Al Franken, primarily because of the remarkable similarities between them.

  • Both grew up in the Midwest (Reagan in Illinois, Franken in Minnesota).
  • Both majored in the social sciences in college (Reagan in sociology and economics at Eureka College, Franken in political science at Harvard University).
  • Both were union members (Reagan with the Screen Actors Guild, Franken with the Screen Actors Guild and three other entertainment unions).
  • Both enjoyed television success (Reagan primarily with General Electric Theater, Franken primarily with Saturday Night Live).
  • Both participated in movies and radio at various times in their career (Reagan before his television success, Franken after his television success).
  • Both benefited from the Watergate scandal (Reagan from the removal of Nixon, Agnew and Connally from the political scene and the weakening of Gerald Ford; Franken from his “Final Days” sketch on Saturday Night Live).
  • Neither was ever elected to a local political office (Reagan went straight to the Governor’s Mansion, Franken straight to Capitol Hill).
  • Reagan had a secretary named Franken, and Franken had a secretary named Lincoln. (Not true.)

The most important similarity, however, is that both Reagan and Lincoln were able to use their pre-political careers to prepare themselves for politics. Reagan’s time as SAG president, as well as his speeches for General Electric, allowed him to participate in and comment on major issues of the day. Similarly Franken, both through his SNL writing and his Air America hosting duties, was able to comment on various issues.

Of course, both Reagan and Franken – as well as other actors-turned-politicians such as Sonny Bono, Clint Eastwood, and Arnold Schwarzenegger – enjoyed another advantage. Because of their onstage experience, these actors were/are able to speak in front of a crowd, and (especially important today) speak in front of a camera.

But what if Reagan had been born in 1811 instead of 1911, and Franken had been born in 1851 instead of 1951? Could they have acquired the skills necessary to compete in 19th and early 20th century politics?

The opportunities for 19th century entertainers were vastly different than the opportunities for 20th century entertainers. Reagan, rather than engaging people through movie roles, probably would have become a stage actor. And in the 19th century, stage actors did not have much of an influence on politics – with the notorious exception of John Wilkes Booth.

But what of Franken? While vaudeville began to emerge in the late 19th century, it was not necessarily suited for Franken’s talents. It’s more likely that Franken would have pursued a career similar to that of Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), as a storyteller who used his writings to comment on the social condition.

Neither Reagan nor Franken would have built up an entertainment career that was sufficiently powerful to propel them into statewide or national political office. For the most part, people who enjoyed political success in the latter part of the 19th century were lawyers (such as Grover Cleveland), rich people (such as Theodore Roosevelt), and Union Civil War veterans (just about everybody else).

So this is one case in which the technological changes of the 20th century provided new opportunities for people to excel in fields – even when those technological changes (in this case, in entertainment) were not directly related to the fields in which the aspirants eventually participated.

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