Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Election Fever, Then and Now

Peter O'Connor

The results of the 2015 UK general election are now officially in the books. With the surprise victory of the Conservatives political pundits and scholars can now begin to study the reasons for the result and its likely consequences. For some in Britain however attention will now shift across the Atlantic to the 2016 US presidential election. Although the British political process is becoming increasingly ‘Americanized’ fundamental differences still remain which make observing US politics a fascinating and somewhat alien experience.

In a short interview in May 2015 the Channel Four journalist Jon Snow and the US satirist Jon Stewart discussed the relationship between the two political systems in the run-up to the UK election. A key difference which Stewart noted relates to the concept of continuous campaigning. This is a phenomenon which, according to the historian Lewis L. Gould, has characterized US politics since Richard Nixon’s arrival in the White House. Interestingly however British observers had actually recognized something akin to continuous campaigning (albeit in a simplified form) as early as the 1820s. A brief examination of the writing of one particular Briton from the period helps to shed light on the history of British attitudes to presidential campaigning and our long standing interest in American politics.

Although subsequently overshadowed by her son Frances Trollope (1779-1863) was one of the most perceptive and entertaining British commentators on the United States during the early nineteenth century. A novelist of some repute Trollope seems to have found America a fascinating subject—at least during the earlier years of her career. She spent a considerable amount of time in the US during the late 1820s and her experiences in the nation formed the basis for her books The Refugee in America (1832), The Life and Adventures of Jonathan Jefferson Whitlaw (1836) and The Barnabys in America, or the Adventures of the Widow Wedded (1843) all of which lampooned different aspects of American life.

Trollope’s original motivations for transatlantic travel in 1827 were the dire financial straits her family found themselves in. She wished to establish a new life and hit upon the idea of setting up a bazaar to sell imported English goods to the residents of Cincinnati (Ohio). As it was her business proved to be a money-pit which came to be dubbed ‘Trollope’s folly’ by the residents of the town. Nevertheless her gamble eventually paid off (even if it was not in the way she had planned). After being forced to return to Britain with the failure of her business Trollope decided to publish her observations on the US in form of a travel book titled Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832). The work was a resounding success and had reached a fifth edition by 1839. In the US however the criticisms of national politics, culture and society within her text led to a backlash among the public and the press.

At the time of its publication the commentary Trollope offered on US politics was of particular interest to a British public convulsed by the upheaval of the Great Reform Act. Her criticisms however retained their relevance, as well as their bite, long after they were originally published. After writing his own two-volume travel book in 1862 her son Anthony suggested that, as a women, his mother’s views on politics should simply be ignored. Notwithstanding her son’s criticisms Frances Trollope was an acute political critic who conveyed a sense of disillusion with American politics to her readers. Perhaps most tellingly a number of her comments have resonance today for British observers peering across at the 2016 US election.

Despite writing about the 1828 contest the sense of shock Trollope felt at the vitriolic nature of political partisanship is a feeling plenty of Brits get when they dip into to US politics. Her contention that ‘when a candidate for any office starts, his party endow him with every virtue, and with all talents [and] are ready to peck out the eyes of those who oppose him’ speaks to us across the centuries. Certainly we saw this in the 2012 election contest between Obama and Romney and in the event that Donald Trump secures the 2016 Republican nomination we may find partisan rhetoric being cranked up to eleven.

Trollope also hints at the existence of continuous campaigning within the US system in her observation that after the election of a presidential candidate ‘his virtues and talents vanish [and] every man Jonathan of them sets off again to elect his successor.’ She built on this idea later in her account and bemoaned the fact that ‘even in the retirement in which we passed this summer, we were not beyond reach of the election fever, which is constantly raging through the land. Had American every attraction under heaven that nature and social enjoyment can offer, this electioneering madness would make me fly it in disgust.’

Plenty has changed in both the US and Britain since 1828 (not least the democratization and Americanization of UK politics) yet there is a continued interest in American politics and the sort of raging electoral fever she noted. There also remains a difference in the way we view the election cycle which means that whoever succeeds Ed Miliband as Labour Party leader will not be seen as simply a Prime Ministerial campaigner but also as a leader of the opposition (a role with its own responsibilities). In comparison, as early as November 2012 the Guardian newspaper was reporting on potential presidential runs in 2016 for Andrew Cuomo, Marco Rubio, Hilary Clinton, Jeb Bush and Chris Christie.

It would be wrong to overemphasise the contrast between the two nations and it certainly seems that Britain is moving ever closer to a US model of electoral campaigning yet considering the history of British interest in US politics is still worthwhile. Frances Trollope’s work attests to a long-standing fascination with American elections in Britain. Furthermore her comments on the political furore surrounding people like Henry Clay, John Quincy Adams or Andrew Jackson may help us to understand our own attitudes towards the campaigns which will soon be launched for 2016.

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