Synopsis: A bitter presidential election between an angry populist and his rival, representing the establishment, strained the fabric of American civility. But it probably isn’t the election your friends are talking about on Facebook.
The afternoon sun was setting and a short line of bundled forms shuffled and stamped in the cold as the November evening came on. Though the lines were not terribly long at the polling place, the process was slow and voters had to wait over an hour to cast their ballots. Inevitably, conversations began, couched as complaints about the wait or the weather. But the longer the delay, the better the chance that politics would begin to creep into the conversation. It was as if a match had been struck and lain in tinder, waiting for a mere breath of air to spark a flame.
“You aren’t voting for that man are you?” Sniffed a well-dressed man as he arched an eyebrow, abandoning any good-natured chit chat.
“He is a man of the people and he has my vote, yes Sir.” Said his recent acquaintance. His preferred candidate was a raucous populist who many saw as ill-tempered, maybe even dangerous. Such a candidate was completely novel to the American political process.
“He is an abomination! An assault on the Constitution. Completely unfit in temperament for a job as serious as President of the United States.” Countered the first man. His preferred candidate had a clear history of Federal service including a stint as Secretary of State and a familial connection to the White House.
“Oh, you establishment types are all the same!” Partisan divides ran deeply during this election, often drawn along regional and economic lines. Luckily for all concerned, the men came to the front of the line and finally cast their votes, symbolically ending their argument. At least for now.
When the votes were counted in the election of 1824, yes it was 1824 and not 2016 despite the often eerie parallels, there was no winner in the Electoral College. Andrew Jackson, the populist Tennessee firebrand whose stormy temper and lack of pedigree made him unpalatable to eastern politicians, got the most popular votes. But the electoral college was split four ways, throwing the contested election into the House of Representatives for resolution. There, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams prevailed when House Speaker Henry Clay swung his support in exchange for becoming the next Secretary of State. This however, took until February 9th of the following year. Jackson and his supporters decried the “corrupt bargain” and railed against the “corrupt aristocrats of the East.” In other words, the system was rigged.
For the record, I do not wish to add to the social media deluge of post election prattle. And I’m professionally agnostic when it comes to political parties and elections. Though it is important historically to know that four years later Jackson defeated Adams in a landslide, I merely wish to point out something I think the media and pundits missed in the run up to, and events of, this election eve and beyond. Markets did not move downward as the race tightened because they were afraid of either candidate. Yet you heard much of that opinion, especially when overnight futures fell off a cliff as states like Pennsylvania and Michigan remained too close to call. Instead, I believe, they began pricing in the potential of 1824 style electoral mayhem. Indeed, for a time one of the networks showed a graphic describing the math, completely within the realm of possibility, to arrive at a tie in the Electoral College. Recounts, lawsuits and eventually a showdown in the House might have followed. And markets hate that kind of uncertainty. Waiting until February for a resolution to a tight and bitter presidential contest would not have gone over well. But it didn’t happen. Instead, a winner was declared, concession speeches were made and life went on. One suspects that the losing party did just what Jackson did, began planning immediately to retake the White House four years hence. Or did you think the seemingly perpetual political campaign season was merely a modern phenomenon as well?