Subscribe to Robert's newsletter at Musings & Amusings of a B-List Writer.
By Robert S. McElvaine
“The most important election in American history.” “The nation is at a crossroads.” “Unprecedented.” “Inflection point.” …
Oh hum. We hear that every election year. We’re tired of it. I’m going back to TikTok.
It is accurate that these terms have been used to describe previous election years, and sometimes they were justified. Considering what happened after them, there can be no serious question that the past two presidential elections, in 2016 and 2020, were of enormous importance.
In addition to the last two, here are what I would classify as critical elections in American history:
1800 – Jefferson’s victory over John Adams changed the direction of the new nation and marked the first transfer of power from one party to another. That peaceful transfer of power happened with every election of a new president from 1800 until 2020.
1828 – Jackson’s victory marked a new level of democracy and brought the first non-aristocratic president.
*1860 – Lincoln’s election led the enslavers of the south into rebellion against the United States and the most terrible war in our history.
*1864 – The survival of the United States and the American Experiment in inclusive democracy hinged on whether Lincoln would be reelected.
1896 – The contest between Democrat and left populist William Jennings Bryan and William McKinley was one of the clearest choices between socioeconomic approaches.
*1932 – Franklin Roosevelt or Herbert Hoover? Enough said. FDR’s victory at the depths of the Great Depression turned the United States in anew direction based on an active government preserving a capitalist system by placing checks and balances on market forces and providing support for those in need.
*1980 – Ronald Reagan’s victory began a four decade turn away from the system that had begun in 1933 and back to trickle-down economics, resulting in a growing concentration of wealth and income at the very top.
2000 – The Supreme Court’s ending of the Florida recount making George W. Bush, who lost the national vote, president-elect had enormous consequences when Bush launched a war of choice against Iraq.
There have been other elections with major consequences, including 1912 and 1968, but we would have to go back sixteen decades to find another year when the American Experiment was as endangered as it is at the dawn of 2024.
As the war against the Enslavers’ Rebellion (aka Civil War) raged on in 1864, Abraham Lincoln knew, in the words of Heather Cox Richardson; “he must land a crushing blow on the South or lose the upcoming presidential election. If he lost, the best Americans could hope for was a negotiated peace that tore the nation in two.”
Though the Democratic Party (the parties of the time were basically reversed from what they are today) nominated Union Gen. George B. McClellan, who favored continuing the war, the party platform called for a negotiated settlement with the Confederacy, which would have meant the end of the United States and the continuation of enslavement in a new, separate nation.
With the No-Longer-Republican Party having been wholly seized by authoritarians opposed to the ideals upon which the United States was founded, who side with such foreign tyrants as Vladimir Putin and Viktor Orbán, and are now openly promoting political violence and stating their intention to establish a dictatorship, ban books and media outlets that go against them, imprison and perhaps execute political opponents, pardon insurrectionists, and more, we must understand that we are in a situation like that Lincoln described at Gettysburg in 1863:
“[Twelve]score and [eight] years ago our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure.
The Anti-Republic Party of 2024 not only aligns with foreign autocrats who bitterly oppose the ideals of America; it also aligns with the anti-1776 ideology of the Confederacy. The blatant racism and sexism of Donald Trump, Nikki Haley’s difficulty in acknowledging the incontestable fact that slavery was the cause of the Civil War, Ron DeSantis’s support of an anti-historical curriculum in Florida schools that says, “slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit,” and their rejection of the principles on which the United States was founded and toward which we have been haltingly moving towards fulfilling, mean that, like the Election of 1864, the Election of 2024 is about whether the Confederacy will prevail:
Will we let the Confederacy win in 2024 what it lost in 1865?
Given that the threat in 1864 was one to the nation and above partisanship, the Republicans provided a way for Unionists who were not members of their party to support Lincoln’s reelection. They formed a “National Union Party” so that those who favored preservation of the American Experiment could vote for Lincoln without bringing themselves to vote for “the other party.”
Something along similar lines could be useful in 2024.
Lincoln’s memorable reply to a delegation from the National Union League on June 9, 1864, is one that speaks powerfully to Americans in the precarious election year that begins this week:
“I have not permitted myself, gentlemen, to conclude that I am the best man in the country; but I am reminded, in this connection, of a story of an old Dutch farmer, who remarked to a companion once that ‘it was not best to swap horses when crossing streams.’”
The Question before us in this precarious year is the one that has been with the United States since 1776: Can a diverse democracy work?
There is only one New Year’s Resolution for people who believe in the American Experiment to make. It is the one Lincoln at Gettysburg called upon Americans to make:
“We here highly resolve that [all those who have lived and died to preserve the American Experiment] shall not have [lived and] died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”