And why voting matters…
Guess what? It’s political debate season ahead of the 2020 Presidential Election on November 3rd, 2020! Tuesday, September 29th is the first debate between the two presidential candidates, Joe Biden (D) and Donald Trump (R). Today, moderator Chris Wallace released the topics that the debate will address. With the passing of the Honorable Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg last Friday, this election went from contentious to a battle over the direction of the highest court in the land. Grab some popcorn and your mask! Tuesday will be a night to remember!
Political contests and debates have a fascinating place in United States history. When Federalists handed the reins to the Democratic-Republicans after the Revolution of 1800- a mere decade after the ratification of the Constitution- no blood was shed. At his inauguration, Thomas Jefferson famously declared, “We are all Republicans, We are all Federalists” setting a precedent for the peaceful transfer of power between political parties that has defined American politics for 220 years.
Despite the personal attacks and vitriol that define election propaganda in the nation’s history- James Callender’s cartoon of Thomas Jefferson in the hen house a case in point- the peaceful transfer of power is how the political system is supposed to work, and with the exception of a few bumps in the road- namely the Civil War- it has.
Contests are fundamentally about winning, and today debates are central elements of the political process that place candidates directly before the people. Among the most famous series of debates in United States history are the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858.
Abraham Lincoln was an obscure politician, but in seven debates against Judge Stephen A. Douglas for a seat in the United States Senate representing Illinois, he gained national recognition for his positions on sectionalism and the expansion of slavery. Although Lincoln did not win, the publication of the debates two years later thrust the fledgling Republican party and Lincoln into the national spotlight, prefiguring the party’s selection of him as the Republican presidential candidate in the election of 1860. With four candidates diluting the field, Lincoln won with just 40% of the vote, a win that led South Carolina to secede from the Union in December of that year.
From April, 1861 to April of 1865, Lincoln preserved the Union during the Civil War, lamenting, “War at the best, is terrible, and this war of ours, in its magnitude and in its duration, is one of the most terrible.”
Flash forward one hundred years to the first ever presidential debates: the four Kennedy-Nixon debates of 1960. Although a presidential debate was televised in 1956, surrogates engaged in the debate in place of Adlai Stevenson and President Dwight D. Eisenhower. These debates intersected with the emergence of a new media platform- the television. Communism, national security, nuclear expansion and family values shaped the platforms of both Kennedy and Nixon, but where Kennedy was tan, young and handsome on TV, Nixon appeared sweaty and pale as if he were “embalmed…before he even died.” So bad was the showing that after the debate, Nixon’s mother called to ask if he was ill! The public’s response to the candidates revealed for the first time in history the power of image in political contests as viewers who watched the televised debate gave Kennedy the advantage while the radio listeners considered it a draw. Kennedy won the election, and Nixon later claimed, “I should have remembered that a picture is worth a thousand words.”
Sixty years ago a precedent was set with the Kennedy-Nixon debates that continues to the present: presidential debates. These are powerful political tools, but debates do not necessarily translate to turn-out at the ballot box. Although the American electorate is energized by debates and empowered with the vote, in the 2016 election between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, approximately 60% (high in contrast to other elections) of eligible voters cast a ballot. And, despite the evolution of American democracy from an exclusive to a fully inclusive electorate via federal laws like the 15th Amendment, the 17th Amendment (direct election of senators), the 19th Amendment (women’s suffrage), the 22nd Amendment (two term limit for the presidency), the 24th Amendment, the 26th Amendment and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 AND the Equal Rights Amendment just a deadline revision away from ratification (#38: VA ratified January, 2020), many citizens- on average a bit more than half- choose not to exercise this powerful right.
Historically, this is very significant. From the birth of the Republic to the Civil War, voting was exclusive, and how the vote operated depended on state law. Property requirements, literacy laws, poll taxes and violence kept many from the polls after the 15th Amendment (1870) codified universal male suffrage. Likewise, even after the 19th Amendment (1920), women in many states did not vote or engage politically, limited by poll taxes and regional custom. In South Carolina women did not sit on a jury until 1967. The decade christened by the Kennedy-Nixon debates saw incredible violence- the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and the escalation of the Vietnam conflict- yet the passage of transformative laws like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And, despite gains made in the subsequent sixty years from civil rights movements for racial, gender, sexual, economic and labor rights, people still do not vote.
Historicizing voting rights in the context of the upcoming presidential debate reveals the endless possibilities and outcomes ahead in this election cycle. Grab some popcorn! Get ready! And, vote! It is a hard-earned right forged by those who came before us, their efforts and achievements deeply ingrained in national memory.