Why the 2016 Election Was Not the Worst Election in American History

I generally despise using generalizations without near-encyclopedic citations. However, it must be stated: the 2016 election received universal criticism. Nobody beamed with pride at either set of candidates. Many Americans loathed both tandems and gritted their teeth at the ballot box. If an American did vote for one of the two sides enthusiastically, they firmly denounced the integrity and the policies of the other party’s candidates. Many observers saw the election as the worst in American history due to both the quality of the candidates and negative campaigning of both sides.

The years in which presidential elections occur obfuscate comparisons between any of the presidential elections with the simple retort from responders that the times have changed.

I could not disagree more with the final assessment. Perhaps various media outlets and endless online and/or interpersonal debates convinced people. The lack of historical perspective was a direct result of presidential elections being defined by the years that the elections occurred. For example, referencing the 1988 presidential election in comparison to the 2016 election promotes images of hair metal and large hairdos. However, I could compare the 58th quadrennial presidential election with the 51st quadrennial presidential election (1988) and no image inherently appears in the readers’ heads. The years in which presidential elections occur obfuscate comparisons between any of the presidential elections with the simple retort from responders that the times have changed. The fact that time changes is tautological and redundant to my argument that the 2016 election was not the worst in American history. Therefore, I classify the presidential elections chronologically rather than by the year it occurred in this article.

I believe that the lack of historical perspective around the 2016 election was a direct result of presidential elections being defined by the years that the elections occurred.

The candidates of both the Republican and the Democratic Party were declared unfit to be present both for lack of experience and for past acts. While Trump may be unqualified, plenty of elections have had inexperienced candidates. The 34th quadrennial election (1920) featured the least qualified foursome of all time. The Republican presidential nominee was Warren Harding, a senator from Ohio (1915-1921), who previously served as the lieutenant governor of Ohio before that and as the editor and publisher of the Marion Star newspaper. Democratic presidential nominee James Cox was the governor of Ohio (1915-1921) and only obtained that position as the publisher and editor of the Dayton Daily News, while his vice presidential nominee Franklin Delano Roosevelt had only served as the Assistant Secretary of the Navy during the Woodrow Wilson administration. In short, none of the four major candidates for executive office were qualified for those offices. By contrast, only Trump had never held political office while Hillary Clinton, Tim Kaine, and Mike Pence all had considerable experience within various branches of the federal government while Kaine and Pence were governors on the state level.

Historian Eugene Rosebloom wrote in 1957 that the most unqualified presidential candidates of all time ran during the 22nd quadrennial election (1872). He was completely correct. The incumbent president Ulysses Grant of the Republican Party ran against the Liberal Republican (and Democrat-supported) Horace Greeley. Other than Grant’s victory in the 21st quadrennial election, neither ever held an elective office. However, both Grant’s running mate and Greeley’s running mate had experience in the United States Senate. Their qualifications elevated the four candidates in the 22nd quadrennial election above those in the 34th election, though certainly not above the 58th election’s candidates.

As for the negativity surrounding the elections, the 58th election was not the worst in that category either. The 51st quadrennial presidential election (1988) involved brutal attacks from both Republican George H.W. Bush and Democrat Michael Dukakis. Parents complaining that the 58th presidential election was not appropriate for children would have stood aghast at Bush supporters’ ad concerning convicted murderer Willie Horton’s crimes while on furlough in Dukakis’ state of Massachusetts. Additionally, Bush openly lambasted Dukakis for not supporting compulsory Pledge of Allegiance recitation in public schools and for not supporting a ban on flag-burning.

However, even the 51st presidential election was not the most divisive of the 20th century. That distinction belongs to the 46th quadrennial election (1968). There were protests outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago some protestors sought to hoist the flag of the Viet Cong, while George Wallace of Alabama won five states in the South. The Vietnam War and the presence of overt racist rhetoric provided a much tenser background than perhaps any other election.

One election cycle later, the 47th election presented the dirtiest election in the nation’s history, with Richard Nixon’s Committee for the Re-Election the President attempting to put George McGovern campaign literature in the home of George Wallace shooter Arthur Bremer’s house while also writing a fake letter from Democrat Edmund Muskie that used the word “canuck.” The letter controversy had Muskie in tears, and his campaign for the Democratic nomination was ruined. At least five elections were worse than the 58th quadrennial presidential election, and the 58th election was not worst in aggregate or in any one particular category, other than inappropriate tweets.

Luke Voyles ‘18 studies in the College of Arts & Sciences. He can be reached at lrvoyles@wustl.edu.

Luke Voyles

Luke Voyles '18 studies in the College of Arts & Sciences. He can be reached at lrvoyles@wustl.edu.

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