Sunday, December 27, 2015

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: The Presidential Election As National Ritual

As 2015 concludes, and the 2016 presidential election cycle
commences with its first primary and caucus voting, it might
be useful to remember how much a vital ritual the democratic
manner of choosing a new president has become.

To  begin with, it is necessary to recall the first U.S. president,
“the indispensable American politician,” George Washington.
A Virginia colonial aristocrat, initially a British army major
who at 21 was sent to spy on the French forts in western
Pennsylvania, Washington, through a subsequent life of
soldiering and running his family estate at Mount Vernon,
established a new principle in the political vocabulary of
national states in western civilization of the late 18th century.

He was, of course, not alone is establishing the unprecedented
American republic. There was a remarkable team of colleagues
that came together from the thirteen original colonies in the
“new world” of the North American continent. Some of them,
including Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander
Hamilton, were perhaps intellectually “smarter” and better
educated than Washington, but none of them were superior in

There was also “something in the air” in the 1770s, not only in
the British colonies of North America, but in Europe as well, and
by the end of that century, an unquenchable turmoil and upheaval
of the feudal order of the previous millenium was underway.
It continues to this day.

The original notion of most of the founders was for General
Washington, the military leader of the American revolution, to
become king of the United States, Three times he refused this
opportunity. Finally, after an unworkable “Confederation” was
no longer tenable, and a constitutional convention created an
elected presidency that was to be renewed every four years,
Washington acquiesced to return to Philadelphia and lead the
new nation. After eight years, Washington made the unexpected
and “indispensable” decision to retire to Mount Vernon. During
his presidency there were no political parties, but in the resulting
contests for his successor in 1796, 1800 and 1804, the candidates
ran not only with contrasting personalities, but with emerging
contrasts in political philosophies as well.

It was not until the middle of the 19th century that our “modern”
political parties appeared, and not until the mid-20th century that
the current ritualized forms of the presidential election were
established. The coming of universal suffrage enabling all adult
citizens to vote, modern communications and advanced
transportation technology have each altered presidential
campaign strategies, but the ritual format remains a constant.

The president of the United States serves two general functions.
First, he or she is the CEO of the executive branch and the
commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Second, he or she is
the one figure who stands at the “bully pulpit, speaking daily to
and for the nation. These are essentially the same functions and
duties that George Washington assumed on March 4, 1789.

Since that time, a few remarkable men, many exceptional men,
and a few disappointing men have taken the presidential oath. The
times have obviously changed, and the nation incredibly so, but
it is a singular testament to the authors of the Constitution, and
to the irreplaceable George Washington, that the character and
role of the office remains, as does the extraordinary ritual of
renewing it.

Copyright (c) 2015 by Barry Casselman. All right reserved.

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