Enlightenment and Elections

by Bob Schoone-Jongen.

About the time when Spring Break arrives I hit the line in the HIST 152 syllabus calling students to consider the 18th-century Enlightenment and its offspring. Of course this leads to political liberalism and the notion that we should trade kings and queens for politicians who won their place through innate ability rather than inheritance. The will of the people shall choose the rulers, not DNA. In the salons where these ideas were hatched it was assumed this would go smoothly, once the historical detritus had been swept away by waves of reform and optimism. And we’d all live happily ever after.

Painting of a politician speaking to a crowd
Stump Speaking, George Caleb Bingham (1853-54)

Every semester when I teach this topic I can’t help but take a mental inventory of how far the mirror of reality has dusted over the periwigged musings of the 18th-century philosophers and their muzzle loader toting revolutionary followers.  During the 1850s the American painter George Caleb Bingham immortalized a Missouri canvass’s exuberant messiness on three canvasses: “Stump Speaking,” “The County Election,” and “The Verdict of the People.” From a politician in a white cutaway appealing to the sleeping, bemused, befuddled, and distracted, Bingham moved to the voting of the drunken, comatose, and bribed, and on to the revels in the aftermath of the announced results. It’s Voltaire and Montesquieu meeting the Age of Jackson on the American frontier and leaving with punctured illusions.

Now we begin another presidential election cycle, with two Republicans already openly running, and the presumptive Democratic candidate already on the hustings. Already the rhetoric has turned to one candidate’s snarky attitude toward reporters, another’s opening his campaign before a dragooned student body, and the other gearing up for the struggle by amassing a pack of attack dogs set to pounce on all but the true believers. Voltaire’s wig is lying on the floor, as he hangs his bald head in shame, while wondering “is this really the best of all possible worlds?”

Left image shows a man eating a hotdog with a fork; right image shows a different man eating a sandwich and grimacing.
David Cameron eating a hotdog with a fork (left), and Ed Miliband eating a bacon sandwich with a grimace (right)

For those who might hope for better things from our mother country, a UK’s parliamentary campaign most recent social media flap arose over the vital question of “Does eating a hot dog with a fork prove that Prime Minister Cameron is a snobbish, elitist stiff?” So much for hope. It appears that Cameron might have been avoiding the pained expression his opponent, Ed Miliband, displayed during his confrontation with a bacon sandwich, a grimace likened to a character from Wallace and Gromit. From such visions came the conviction “all men are created equal?”

Remember John Kerry? Remember his blue-blooded attempt to be a blue-collar kind of guy by walking into an Ohio bait shop to inquire with a muted Harvard accent, “Can I get me a hunting license here?” After which he borrowed a set of camouflage togs for a goose hunting expedition into a cornfield. For his efforts he was likened to another Massachusetts-based candidate (no, not John Kennedy), Michael Dukakis, and his ill-fated ride in a tank, the one that left him looking like a macho Pee Wee Herman. Both Kerry and Dukakis lost to an opponent named Bush. Is this what the philosophes meant by ‘natural aristocracy?’

Would Jeb and George W. be known nationally if they were Bosch instead of Bush? If Hillary had remained Rodham without the Clinton, would she be the favorite? Would Jeb or George or Hillary be worthy and welcomed for an afternoon of witty conversation with Madame de Stael and her fellow salonnieres? How long would a candidate with a headful of focus-group tested one liners last in such a space? Or how about Ted or Rand matching bon mots with Benjamin Franklin?

Painting depicting a politician speaking to a crowd of men, many drunk or distracted, in a small town.
The County Election, George Caleb Bingham (1852)

Instead of the salon and its badinage, Ted and Rand and Hillary and Jeb and Chris and Marco and Scott and host of others will repair to an Iowa coffee shop or Pizza Ranch to engage in chitchat over sinkers and fried chicken (it beats the pizza, trust me). In scenes echoing Bingham’s election canvasses the would be high and mighty will confront the ordinary folk, the earnest ones Bingham generally consigned to the side but clearly within the frame. And maybe, just maybe, every once in a while, the white suited façade will fall long enough to reveal the human being behind the boiler plate. The candidates’ handlers will strive to keep Bingham’s drunks and comatose from intruding. Who would want Mayberry to stumble into Utopia with Otis Campbell boozily draping his happy arm around the shoulder of a would-be president? Bingham would approve. Madame de Stael might not, unless Otis had written a worthy pamphlet. Even a Rousseau could be tolerated in upper crust Paris, if not in Cedar Rapids.

And so we are in for another year and a half of the perennial confrontation between the dreams of the past and the realities of the present. We will see what will happen when the salon’s habitues retreat to the unkempt streets, when refinement confronts the world of Bingham, or James Hogarth. And from it all, inexplicably, something will result, a new leader.

Maybe there was something to monarchy after all. A potential for tidiness, if nothing else. Except even monarchs ain’t what they used to be in tabloids and twitter feeds. It’s enough to make one seriously consider the viability of Voltaire’s conclusion, that we should simply tend our garden and eat citrons and pistachios. Except the noise of Bingham’s world would scale the fence.

Robert Schoone-Jongen is in his eleventh year at Calvin College, working with student teachers who hope to become high school and middle school social studies teachers. His historical interests are immigration, American social history, and the presidency. 

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