Friday, November 25, 2016

The Uncomfortable View from 1824

Mark Graber

Americans elites in 1824 successfully prevented a demagogue from assuming the presidency.  The demagogue, Andrew Jackson, won a clear plurality of the popular votes and a small plurality of electoral votes.  Nevertheless, because he did not win the majority of the Electoral College votes, the election was decided by the House of Representatives.  In the subsequent politicking, Henry Clay threw his support to John Quincy Adams, which enabled framing elites and their biological descendants to retain control of the executive branch of the national government.

This elite success was short-lived.  Badly divided and lacking strong public support, the second Adams Administration accomplished little.  Jackson’s supporters, outraged by what they perceived as a “corrupt bargain” between elites, took their revenge in the 1826 midterms and 1828 national election.  Jackson, who received only 41 percent of the popular vote in 1824, received 56% of the vote in 1828.  Every elite fear was realized over the next eight years.  Jackson and his allies in Congress sponsored a genocidal removal of native Americans from the south, substantially increased national support for human bondage, created a recession by destroying the national banking system, put an end to internal improvements, and scuttled plans for a national university.  Jackson’s bellicosity set in motion the events that led to the Mexican War and probably, the events that led to the Civil War.  Elites may have won the battle in 1824, but their means of success helped cost them the war.

American elites were right to perceive a constitutional crisis in 1824, but they misperceived that crisis.  Jefferson, Madison, the Adams clan, and other persons associated with the framing generations loathed Andrew Jackson, a person they correctly regarded as constitutionally unsuited for the presidency because of his bigotry, proclivity to violence and lack of knowledge about public affairs.  The actual constitutional crisis in 1824 was that a substantial percentage of American voters enthusiastically cast their ballots for a person constitutionally unsuited for the presidency because of his bigotry, proclivity to violence and lack of knowledge about public affairs.  This obsession with the violent sociopath rather than with the political movement that spawned and empowered the violent sociopath furthered the collapse of the elite constitutional republic envisioned by the framers.  Taking the election away from Jackson produced four years of political gridlock which further augmented the number of persons who cast their ballot for the person constitutionally unfit by 1787 standards to hold the presidency. 

Whether American elites (of which I am a card-carrying member) will fare any better in 2016 should the Electoral College by some miracle take the election away from Donald Trump than American elites fared in 1824 when they took the election away from Andrew Jackson is doubtful.  Such a success will temporarily disempower Donald Trump while almost certainly increasing the rage of his supporters.  Whether justified or not, Trump voters and some others will perceive that a corrupt bargain has taken place and redouble their efforts to gain control of the national government.  The gridlock produced by a Hillary Clinton presidency is likely to further augment the number of enraged Trump voters who will either elect Trump or someone as bad in 2020 (an electoral college compromise that produces John Kasich or Paul Ryan is hardly better).

The lesson 1824 should teach 2016 is that the approximately 47% of voters who cast ballots for Donald Trump on election day is the most fundamental crisis of our time rather the accidental outcome that a person grossly unfit for the presidency was elected this time.  A nation in which 47% of the voters are willing to vote for a person patently unqualified to be president of the United States (or Treasurer of the Linden Community Civil Association for that matter) is a nation in deep constitutional trouble regardless of whether by accidents of timing and whether that candidate wins or loses.  And, under the rules, the candidate won.  Claims that Clinton “really” won the election because she won the majority of the popular vote are the political equivalent of northern claims before the Civil War that Southerners only gained control of the national government because their representation in Congress and the Electoral College was augmented by the three-fifths clause.  True, but beside the point. 

Andrew Jackson (eventually) and Donald Trump gained office because they garnered enough support to win national elections under the rules that then governed national elections.  Demonstrations that the rules were not democratic, even grossly undemocratic, neither change this political fact nor change the political fact that approximately half the American people approve of Donald Trump nor change the political fact that to regain control of the national government, the left will have to win by playing according to existing rules and practices (which are likely to become even worse during the Trump presidency).  Once the left gains control of the national government, then and only then should left worry about what constitutional rules can be changed informally and what ought to be changed formally.  In the meantime, we need to follow Abraham Lincoln, who spent almost no time during the 1850s persuading the already persuaded that the three-fifths rule was unfair and a good deal of time persuading crucial voters (by the rules of the time) that both their principles and their self-interest were better served by Republicans than Jacksonian Democrats.  One hopes this lesson is learned in less than thirty years.

UPDATE: I really should read the most recent Balkinization posts before posting.  Needless to say, while I share Sandy's fears about a Trump presidency, I think the lesson history teaches is that constitutional parlor tricks (which is what I perceive the "Hamiltonian" solution to be) are failures, even when they work.  Perhaps, however, one reason is that I genuinely think that a Rubio presidency with the present Congress is likely to be about as bad as a Trump presidency.

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