Archived Story

Mudslinging is an American tradition

Published 5:44pm Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The other day I was listening to a conversation about the current state of political discourse in America.

Even though the participants in this discussion came from both sides of the political aisle, most agreed the upcoming presidential campaign would be one of the meanest in history. Everyone seemed to expect an all-out verbal war with both sides taking part in a take-no-prisoners mentality.

Furthermore, most agreed that recent political races, especially on the national level, have become much nastier in the last 20 years or so. One individual lamented this current state of affairs and wished we could return to the good old days of American politics, a time when people treated each other with respect and stuck to the issues that mattered most to Americans, rather than focusing on rumor and innuendo.

As I listened to this conversation, I was reminded of several students I’ve taught over the years in my US history classes that had similar views. Specifically, I remember many of them complaining about political mudslinging during the 2004 presidential campaign, stating they had never seen it so bad.

Considering all of this anecdotal evidence I’ve witnessed through the years, it would seem many people feel our politics have hit an all time low.

Without a doubt, I can understand this type of thinking. After all, with the incessant political coverage that comes with 24-hour news channels and the internet, it’s no wonder we all feel inundated during these election cycles.

However, I’m not so sure American politics is really any nastier than it was 20, 50 or even 200 years ago. In fact, I believe what we are experiencing today is normal because the political discourse in America is naturally downright mean and dirty.

Here are a few examples from our history to substantiate my point:

In the election of 1800, the Federalist Party accused Thomas Jefferson of robbing a widow of her trust fund and fathering several illegitimate children with his slave women. These accusations became major focal points of controversy that were widely reported in the press throughout the campaign.

In the election of 1828, Andrew Jackson’s political enemies claimed his wife was still married to her first husband, making the charge Jackson was living in an adulterous relationship. Shortly after the election, his wife died of a heart attack. Afterwards, Jackson blamed her untimely death on his political foes, claiming the stress had overcome her frail condition.

In 1884, Grover Cleveland was on the receiving end of harsh tactics when it was rumored in the press that he had fathered an illegitimate child when he was governor of New York.

Does any of this sound familiar?

It should. America has a long history of rough and tumble politics that goes back to the very beginnings of the Republic. Accordingly, it’s no surprise to me that the current campaign is going to get nasty. After all, it is an American election.

In my opinion, the difference between 1800 and today has to do more with how we receive our information, rather than a turn toward incivility in our political discourse. The fact that any rumor, no matter how obscure or inconsequential, gets widespread dissemination on an almost instantaneous basis is the primary reason for our current disgust.

To be sure, I’m not defending nasty politics. I hate it as much as anyone else who dreams of an election where the real issues are discussed fairly and with mutual respect for opposing points of view.

However, I’m realistic enough to realize this hope is a pipe dream that will never happen.

Why? It just simply isn’t in our country’s political nature to act civilized and respectful. So, get ready for the mudslinging – it’s coming like a runaway freight train with no brakes.

Steele is general manager and advertising director of The Record.