The four-year-old Colorado cutie got her 15 minutes of fame this week when her mother posted a video on YouTube showing a distraught Abigael, clad in Hello Kitty wear, weeping over the endless presidential election. (By the way, this prompted a great bit from NPR, which apologized for upsetting the young lass and used it to prompt online dialogue about the campaign’s rancor.)
Children are remarkably sensitive to emotional discord among adults. So maybe, just maybe, Abigael’s lament will prompt a bit of social introspection. We can hope, anyway. But somehow I doubt it.
Accusations, insinuations and plain old partisan rage are long-time staples of American elections:
- The election of 1800 is still considered the dirtiest, with John Adams’ supporters calling Thomas Jefferson an atheist and a cowardly draft dodger while Jefferson’s supporters accused Adams of importing London prostitutes. Each side predicted the demise of the United States if the other won, and the lengthy turmoil over the Electoral College was a dangerous moment for the young nation. Yet the vote eventually settled in Jefferson’s favor, marking a peaceful transfer of power largely unprecedented in human history.
- During the 1824 and 1828 presidential battles between Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams featured accusations of adultery, aristocratic ambitions and the promoting of cock fights and horse races. (The horror!)
- The pivotal election of 1860, which brought Abraham Lincoln to the White House, saw Republicans accusing Democrats of being the enemies of God and man, while Democrats warned that a Lincoln presidency would lead to mandatory interracial marriage.
- In 1898, white supremacists in Wilmington, N.C., tried to intimidate voters and dissuade black involvement. When the city elected a bi-racial council anyway, the protesters led an armed rebellion to overthrow the council—the only successful coup d’etat in American history.
Compared to these and other examples, the bemoanings of who built what, binders of women and even hanging chads seem remarkably tame.
Still, there’s a marked difference today: the Internet. With 1.7 billion people online worldwide, that’s a lot of people with a digital pulpit. Some of them use it as a bully one.
As a regular user of Facebook, I’m appalled by the lack of civil discourse on the Newsfeed. Candidates are regularly referred to as “LIARS” (all uppercase makes it more true, apparently), their supporters as “IDIOTS” and both earn terms not safe for work. (Of note is the prevalence of a slang term that joins the English for chapeau with a particular orifice.)
Equally troubling is the lack of respect for individuals who have achieved or aspire to elected office. I may strongly disagree with the decisions of a George W. Bush or a Barack Obama – I’m trying to be non-partisan here – but I respect the office of President and the fact that the person was elected to it. I owe that individual my support as the leader of the nation and respect as a human being just as I owe him the honesty of my perspective, including my choice in the voting booth, when our views don’t align.
Political communicators can be tempted to encourage flame wars. I think that’s a mistake. They should insist upon a higher standard. Negative campaigns tend to generate greater voter turnout, but the end doesn’t justify the means. Voters will continue to be discouraged, and meaningful issues will be lost in the morass of vulgarities and puerile memes.
Hand me a tissue, Abigael; 2016 is only four years away.