Entertaining candidates seem to enjoy an almost insurmountable advantage these days. When professional showmen enter the political arena, rivals soon realize their only hope for gaining attention is to say something outrageous.
It’s a sad development neither new nor tied to any particular ideology or political party. As North Carolina’s March 15 primary approaches, voters here will get to witness this up close.
The millions who tune in to the presidential primary debates every four years behold a spectacle in which the contenders vie to one up rivals with the perfect zinger, or even outright insults, each of which is fed into a 24-hour news cycle hungry for sound bites. If they appear at all, prospective officeholders with well-reasoned policy proposals and a solid grounding in the principles of effective statesmanship are eclipsed by larger-than-life personalities.
In the age of Twitter and Facebook, is our system doomed to hand the highest office in the land to the loudest candidate?
History can guide us toward an answer.
In 1860, when Abraham Lincoln faced off against Stephen Douglas, his Democratic opponent, it was the “Little Giant” Douglas who broke with tradition by crisscrossing the nation to deliver stem-winding speeches. Lincoln, meanwhile, stayed silent and close to his Springfield, Ill., home. The quiet man won the race.
A few decades later, a young populist candidate named William Jennings Bryan traveled 18,000 miles by train to deliver 500 speeches. The former congressman wowed crowds with wild rhetoric and lobbed barbs at William McKinley, his opponent, who countered with his famous “front-porch campaign.” McKinley didn’t travel anywhere to entertain the public with a speech. You had to go to McKinley. Once again, the quiet candidate prevailed.
Of course, no presidential candidate has the reputation for silence like “Silent Cal” Coolidge who was up against “Fighting Bob” La Follette in 1924. In a famous incident, each of the candidates recorded his voice to make a campaign pitch to be played in theaters. Coolidge’s voice was so weak it was barely audible on the recordings. By contrast, La Follette’s roaring broke the recording equipment – yet bombast failed to carry the day.
The Lincoln, McKinley and Coolidge campaigns were far from boring, or uninteresting, events in American political history. They settled on a more measured and reasonable approach to winning the people’s trust than their more entertaining opponents, who favored personality over persuasion.
And it worked.
Why did the more entertaining candidates fail back then but succeed right now?
A troubling development
The advent of television and the Internet certainly accounts for some of the difference, but a deeper and more troubling cause is the decline in civics education.
A few years ago, a U.S. Department of Education study revealed that only 9 percent of U.S. high school students could explain why it is important for citizens to participate in a democracy. Only 6 percent could explain why having a Constitution benefits a country. Unless such a weak grasp of the principles of self-government is replaced with something better, today’s voters – and tomorrow’s – are bound to be swayed by the loudest candidate rather than the strongest argument.
Not surprisingly, the Founding Fathers realized this might happen and proposed a solution. Thomas Jefferson said when the public gets out of hand and can’t be trusted with power, “the remedy is, not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education.”
We can’t expect better debates and campaigns unless we expect better of ourselves and reinvigorate civics education in America. The founders laid out a clear vision of what it means to live in a free society and how best to maintain liberty. High school students deserve to experience this vision first-hand. That’s the most lasting antidote to today’s trivialization of the momentous issues facing our nation.
Jason W. Stevens is a visiting assistant professor of History and Political Science at the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University in Ohio.