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Cyr column: U.S. presidential politics reflects our wider society - in 2020 and earlier

Arthur I. Cyr
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Miami News Record

Columns share an author’s personal perspective.

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“We have met the enemy and he is us.” The ironic statement is from the durable comic strip “Pogo” by cartoonist Walt Kelly, widely syndicated in newspapers from the late 1940s into the 1970s.

The statement sums up the essence of our democracy, by definition. Our politics have always been fractious. However, every 50 years developments have become especially tumultuous.

Pogo paraphrased the famous declaration by Admiral William Hazard Perry - “We have met the enemy and they are ours” - after the United States Navy won a great strategic victory over the British in the Battle of Lake Erie in 1813.

Sharp political and social commentary characterized “Pogo,” in a manner somewhat emulated in the far less subtle “Doonesbury” by Garry Trudeau. Kelly first used a version of the “enemy” statement to refer to the anti-communist fears and hysteria of the 1950s, personified by Senator Joseph R. McCarthy (R-WI), and later to highlight growing public awareness and concern about environmental pollution.

The statement can also sum up our nasty presidential politics currently. The bellicose and insult-filled 2016 and 2020 United States presidential campaigns have led many, especially in the media, to condemn our era as unique.

The most challenging and costly such turmoil was in the presidential election campaign of 1860, which led to the Civil War. Four parties competed. The new Republican Party fully replaced the Whigs, and Democrats split into northern and southern parties. The Constitutional Union Party was led by Whigs who hoped to preserve the Union.

Earlier, the Whigs had replaced the Federalists in the aftermath of the War of 1812, which ended in 1815. The Federalists had opposed the war and eventually paid the ultimate political price.

The third strategic shift began with the 1912 presidential election. Former President Theodore Roosevelt, dissatisfied with successor William Howard Taft, launched the breakaway Bull Moose Party. TR did not retake the White House but did split the Republican vote, handing the election to Democrat Woodrow Wilson. The 1916 reelection of Wilson confirmed trends of change.

Roosevelt had led the Republican Party in a profoundly progressive direction, confirming the antitrust laws, initiating protection of workers - especially children and women, protecting the wilderness, and saving the buffalo. Teddy Roosevelt redefined our party politics.

In the 1930s, a reformist Democratic Party majority emerged, led by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The 1912 election did not guarantee this, but did signal significant new currents of economic and social as well as political change.

The mid-1960s represent another period of great change for the political parties. Domestic unrest increased, significantly spurred by civil rights and anti-Vietnam War protests.

This culminated in the extraordinary election of 1968. Beleaguered President Lyndon B. Johnson unexpectedly withdrew from contention. The assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Senator Robert F. Kennedy added tragic bloody dimensions to unfolding developments.

Democratic presidential nominee Vice President Hubert Humphrey at first badly trailed Republican Richard Nixon, and support flowed to third-party segregationist candidate George Wallace. Humphrey recovered and nearly caught up with Nixon, but Wallace also came very close to throwing the election in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Satire is an important stabilizing force, especially in times of great turmoil and uncertainty. Garry Trudeau, with brilliant foresight, has included Donald Trump in his comic strip since 1987.

The cartoonist has published a collection of his Trump comic strips, aptly titled “Yuge!”

Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War” (NYU Press and Macmillan). Contact acyr@carthage.edu.