Perspective on the Current Contentiousness

This is not even close to the worst it's ever been.

politics outrage shouting

In the conclusion to my Defense One piece on the role of the US military in a Constitutional crisis, I observe, “America has seen several contentious elections over its history.” Delving into them would have been tangential to the argument but it’s a point worth exploring because, as outrageous as some of President Trump’s statements have been, they pale in comparison to the tactics of the late nineteenth century.

That the politics of our early Republic were mean-spirited, even slanderous, is well-documented. As is the three decades of turmoil that led to a civil war in which some 600,000 Americans died. But, with the exception of a fictionalized and romantic view of the cowboy era, our collective sense of our history tends to skip ahead to World War Two.

In the linked essay from four years ago, historian Robert Speel reminds us of “Four Times the Results of a Presidential Election Were Contested.” Fans of the musical Hamilton are aware (but woefully misinformed) of the accidental standoff between running mates Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr in 1800. And I suspect anyone reading this is old enough to have personal memories of the Bush-Gore standoff in 2000.

These, two, however, are seldom discussed:

1876: A compromise that came at a price

By 1876 – 11 years after the end of the Civil War – all the Confederate states had been readmitted to the Union, and Reconstruction was in full swing. The Republicans were strongest in the pro-Union areas of the North and African-American regions of the South, while Democratic support coalesced around southern whites and northern areas that had been less supportive of the Civil War. That year, Republicans nominated Ohio Governor Rutherford B. Hayes, and Democrats chose New York Governor Samuel Tilden.

But on Election Day, there was widespread voter intimidation against African-American Republican voters throughout the South. Three of those Southern states – Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina – had Republican-dominated election boards. In those three states, some initial results seemed to indicate Tilden victories. But due to widespread allegations of intimidation and fraud, the election boards invalidated enough votes to give the states – and their electoral votes – to Hayes. With the electoral votes from all three states, Hayes would win a 185-184 majority in the Electoral College.

Competing sets of election returns and electoral votes were sent to Congress to be counted in January 1877, so Congress voted to create a bipartisan commission of 15 members of Congress and Supreme Court justices to determine how to allocate the electors from the three disputed states. Seven commissioners were to be Republican, seven were to be Democrats, and there would be one independent, Justice David Davis of Illinois.

But in a political scheme that backfired, Davis was chosen by Democrats in the Illinois state legislature to serve in the U.S. Senate (senators weren’t chosen by voters until 1913). They’d hoped to win his support on the electoral commission. Instead, Davis resigned from the commission and was replaced by Republican Justice Joseph Bradley, who proceeded to join an 8-7 Republican majority that awarded all the disputed electoral votes to Hayes.

Democrats decided not to argue with that final result due to the “Compromise of 1877,” in which Republicans, in return for getting Hayes in the White House, agreed to an end to Reconstruction and military occupation of the South.

Hayes had an ineffective, one-term presidency, while the compromise ended up destroying any semblance of African-American political clout in the South. For the next century, southern legislatures, free from northern supervision, would implement laws discriminating against blacks and restricting their ability to vote.

1888: Bribing blocks of five

In 1888, Democratic President Grover Cleveland of New York ran for reelection against former Indiana U.S. Senator Benjamin Harrison.

Back then, election ballots in most states were printed, distributed by political parties and cast publicly. Certain voters, known as “floaters,” were known to sell their votes to willing buyers.

Harrison had appointed an Indiana lawyer, William Wade Dudley, as treasurer of the Republican National Committee. Shortly before the election, Dudley sent a letter to Republican local leaders in Indiana with promised funds and instructions for how to divide receptive voters into “blocks of five” to receive bribes in exchange for voting the Republican ticket. The instructions outlined how each Republican activist would be responsible for five of these “floaters.”

Democrats got a copy of the letter and publicized it widely in the days leading up to the election. Harrison ended up winning Indiana by only about 2,000 votes but still would have won in the Electoral College without the state.

Cleveland actually won the national popular vote by almost 100,000 votes. But he lost his home state, New York, by about 1 percent of the vote, putting Harrison over the top in the Electoral College. Cleveland’s loss in New York may have also been related to vote-buying schemes.

Cleveland did not contest the Electoral College outcome and won a rematch against Harrison four years later, becoming the only president to serve nonconsecutive terms of office. Meanwhile, the blocks-of-five scandal led to the nationwide adoption of secret ballots for voting.

I’d like to think that the vastly-increased transparency of our modern political system makes anything like that level of chicanery impossible today.

FILED UNDER: Politics 101, Society, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Kylopod says:

    If you’re trying to use these examples to instill optimism about the current situation we find ourselves in, it’s not working. The 1876 election wasn’t just a “contested election,” it was followed by almost 90 years of the country being an effective apartheid state.

    Trump isn’t just “undermining the fairness of the electoral system,” he is engaged in a serious and sustained attempt to dismantle the American democracy–something which has never happened before in American history but which has definitely happened in other countries.

    42
  2. mattbernius says:

    James, I totally agree that things have historically been worse. And that shouldn’t be used to dismiss how bad things are getting now.

    I’d like to think that the vastly-increased transparency of our modern political system makes anything like that level of chicanery impossible today.

    I’m not sure the last few months of evidence real support the hypothesis that transparency equals control/oversight.

    The reality is that the current administration, for whatever reasons you care to ascribe, has been one of the most literally transparent in terms of their general malfeasance. See, for example, everything around the impeachment.

    The weakening of political parties continues to demonstrate that the guardrails necessary to enforce norms are not holding. All that transparency appears to also not allow for some of the “backroom” dealing (i.e. compromise) necessary to enforce said norms.

    We may have more public insight into the undermining of our systems, but unless the public also has the power to do something about it, I’m less than confident in the results. Admittedly, the ballot box has historically been where that power has resided.

    Which is also why one party is so transparently attempting to surpress voting.

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  3. JohnMcC says:

    What the first two commenters said is what I was going to say. This post is a warning not a comfort.

    (Edit): And ‘contentiousness’ is a remarkable word choice, by the way.

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  4. KM says:

    @mattbernius:

    and that shouldn’t be used to dismiss how bad things are getting now.

    Agreed. It’s like dismissing someone’s agony of a compound fracture of the leg by comparing it to childbirth. “Oh, the bone sticking out of your leg hurts! You don’t know pain young man till you pushed a small bowling ball out a tiny hose for hours on end!!” Both pain is valid and terrible in their own way but they are really not the same when you get down to it.

    Trump’s current scheme is dangerous because of how he’s doing it. Buying votes and threatening voters to do what you want is sadly how things have happened in the past but they at least tried to function within the existing system. Cheaters cheated within the framework or by manipulating it for their own gain – Trump’s trying to straight up break it because he’s not smart enough to pull off a classic voter suppression or fraud. Before we had conmen and sneaks who twisted the way things were supposed to work because they understood the system is what gave them their power; now we have a demented toddler with a sledgehammer just wailing away because America’s threatening to send him to his room.

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  5. Scott F. says:

    I’d like to think that the vastly-increased transparency of our modern political system makes anything like that level of chicanery impossible today.

    I might have thought that as well. Then Trump was impeached on strong evidence and all but one Republican Senator voted to acquit him. Plus, Bill Barr.

    High-level chicanery is not only possible, it is inevitable. Sure, we’ll be able to see it clearly, but one of our major parties WILL NOT CARE.

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  6. Mikey says:

    Is “the current contentiousness” meant as an homage to “the late unpleasantness,” or was it just a hopefully-not-prophetic coincidence?

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  7. I am struck, too, that (sort of to @mattbernius‘s point about this all being out in the open) that the potential damage to US democracy could be greater than any previous crisis because it will not only be out in the open, it will be out in the open as interpreted by partisan, and often extremely dishonest, media outlets.

    Indeed, the more I think about it, if there is a true crisis surrounding the counting of ballots that can draw serious question about the results–say Trump blows up the USPS so much that he wins the EC but loses the popular vote again and it is obvious that we would have lost had the ballots been properly counted. That will lead to a massive crisis that could lead to collapse of the constitutional order (and I don’t think that is hyperbole). I think that would lead to street protests that makes the BLM movement look small and a commensurate federal counter-response that would make the Portland unmarked van bit look like a skit.

    (Hopefully I am just in a dark mood at the moment and am overreacting).

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  8. JohnMcC says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Your dark mood and ‘overreacting’ is an epidemic at this point.

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  9. Kingdaddy says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: No, you’re not overreacting. Every time in the last three years, someone has said, “Nawwww, it can’t get that bad,” it got that bad.

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  10. Michael Reynolds says:

    Here’s why it’s worse now: every marriage has its rocky times. Early in a marriage there’s a lot of sorting out, a lot of laying down customs and mores that will guide the developing marriage. So, married 20 year-olds? Expect that harsh words will be exchanged.

    But after 150 years of marriage, when one party starts to violate every agreed-upon principle of the marriage, it’s not just growing pains or youthful passion – it’s a deteriorating relationship, it’s relationship end-game.

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  11. Jim Brown 32 says:

    @Michael Reynolds: Relationship end-game is a salient point to underscore– I’ve said before that Democrats and Republican have fighting 2 different wars for about 30 years no. Democrats have been fighting Republican ideas–Republicans have been fighting Democrats.

    Understanding information warfare is a part of how I feed my family–so I know the craft pretty well. Republicans have really invested in information warfare techniques and strategic and they’ve paid off for them–allowing them to peddle shit sandwiches as democrat-free fudge bread. I’ve been referencing Rick Wilsons interview with Michael Steele alot because I found it to be very insight and a public validation of what I already know.

    In my view- the only real play the Democrats have to save the Republic (gawd– Democrats at the line with 2 freethrows and down 1 point with no time left on the clock–what could go wrong but everything) is to actually compete with the Republican party ITSELF.

    Not as easy as it sounds because there still has to be a focus on governance but doable–a start would be an aggressive trust busting push by Biden. The Republican party can get most of the funding it needs from a relative small number of sources–Billionaire and multi-glomarates. You don’t think Republicans hate unions because of their mission do you? They went after unions that historically donate to Democrats. They have no problem with police and firefighting unions–unless of course these unions could be recruited away from the Republican ledger (hint hint….everyone has a price)

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  12. Gustopher says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Trump’s attempts to undermine confidence in the election and the election itself means that even if he wins in a landslide a good chunk of people aren’t going to see it as legitimate.

    Your dark vision doesn’t require a narrow victory.

    And if he loses? The protesters will be on the right, and a lot of them armed. And a lot of the police will be on their side. And we will have two and a half-months of lame duck Trump presidency to watch this play out before Biden can attempt to restore order. And, honestly, I fear what he would have to do as much as I fear what Trump is willfully doing — good intentions don’t mean shit.

    Our Democracy is in for a bad time.

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  13. Raoul says:

    We have had an election that led to a civil war and as noted we have had several contentious elections including the 2000 Supreme Court robbery. I think the larger point is not the past but that we are still so backwards in so many ways. Voting should not be a chore. Having a different policy prescription does not mean advocating for the end of the republic. The GOP rule of governance is none (see Covid). They believe in wrecking the federal government and that’s is no way to run a country.

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  14. Liberal Capitalist says:

    Like President and Melania Trump, My wife and I have requested our Florida Mail-in Ballots.

    I am pleased to say, we will cancel their vote out. 🙂

    I strongly ask that Florida Democrats step up and handle the rest of the state.

    (And James… Please: Stop trying try to normalize what we are all going through. It’s not gonna happen.)

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  15. Jim Brown 32 says:

    @Gustopher: Just one point of debate–ALOT of centrist and people on the left are armed as well. The gun industry isn’t as big as it is because the RW is buying guns. Non-RWer simply aren’t into the sport of shooting and talking about guns as RWers are.

    Im building my first AR as we speak–I have other weapons but I not going to get caught with my pants down should things go south and the AR is my gunfight weapon of choice. If Im at risk–they are at risk.

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  16. Moosebreath says:

    Speaking of the “current contentiousness”, CNN has an interesting analysis of QAnon. The article quotes a researcher as saying:

    “the power of the QAnon phenomenon is that it is widespread but invisible unless you are a believer or seek it out — it could be sitting right next you and you have no idea unless you are an adherent. Regular conservatives dismiss it as nothing, and regular people in general have no idea what it is at all. And yet, a significant percentage of Americans — at a rate that seems to be accelerating under coronavirus — believe at least some part of Q is real. These beliefs are driving the organization of armed movements and attacks, hampering coronavirus response, interacting with us already in so many ways we don’t want to believe. It is a dangerous, fully immersive alternative reality that is inspiring its followers to plan domestic terrorist attacks. It is, in other words, a system of radicalization. QAnon has been supported, amplified, and winked at enough by far-right Republicans — the president and his sons, Michael Flynn, the freedom caucus — that dozens of candidates for office are using it to reach potential voters.”

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  17. Teve says:

    @Gustopher: I would not be surprised if after losing the election Trump just leaves.

  18. dmichael says:

    @Teve: How would you be able to tell?

  19. Gustopher says:

    @Teve: He’s an erratic, moody individual, so I would not be surprised if he just packed up and left when he realizes he lost.

    But, he also is really good at lying to himself and believing his own bullshit. And there’s a world of difference between losing and having the election stolen by millions of illegals voting and corrupt Democrats destroying democracy by voting. Sad.

    I think the best thing for democracy right now would be a covid outbreak at 1600, taking Trump and Pence and their enablers.

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  20. Gustopher says:

    @Jim Brown 32: Way more people on the right are happy to protest with guns.

  21. Gustopher says:

    @Liberal Capitalist: Are you sure you know who Melania is going to vote for? She doesn’t seem all that fond of him.

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  22. mattbernius says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Indeed, the more I think about it, if there is a true crisis surrounding the counting of ballots that can draw serious question about the results–say Trump blows up the USPS so much that he wins the EC but loses the popular vote again and it is obvious that we would have lost had the ballots been properly counted.

    This. And despite the clear and transparent wrecking of the USPS, no Republican will do anything about it other than support the President when they start the mass arrests and beatings of protesters.

    On topic this, 46 out of 50 states have been warned that the USPS cannot guarantee all ballots can make it back by election day.
    https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/md-politics/usps-states-delayed-mail-in-ballots/2020/08/14/64bf3c3c-dcc7-11ea-8051-d5f887d73381_story.html

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  23. Teve says:

    Fans of the musical Hamilton are aware (but woefully misinformed) of the accidental standoff between running mates Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr in 1800.

    A couple of days ago I listened to a podcast about the Jefferson Hamilton Burr stuff. Jesus Christ. Everybody involved should’ve hanged for multiple reasons.

    1
  24. Gustopher says:

    @mattbernius:

    This. And despite the clear and transparent wrecking of the USPS, no Republican will do anything about it other than support the President when they start the mass arrests and beatings of protesters.

    Susan Collins will be concerned.

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  25. Kylopod says:

    @Gustopher:

    Susan Collins will be concerned.

    Once again, life imitates snark.

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  26. Liberal Capitalist says:

    @Gustopher:

    Susan Collins will be concerned.

    Her “concern” caries less weight then the contents of a truckload of “hopes and prayers”.

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  27. ImProPer says:

    “I’d like to think that the vastly-increased transparency of our modern political system makes anything like that level of chicanery impossible today”.

    Dam the law of unintended consequences.
    Increased transparency is certainly not leading us to the promised land. The latest threats to our system are very transparent, and this is leading to strong desires for alternative realities. Mediocrity, has always been despised more than unfairness by the masses. Unfortunately the more we enjoy equal protection, universal education, and free trade, the closer we move towards it. Distinguishing our selves from the herd is a powerful instinct. Donald Trump understood this, and exploited it quite well. He was the most transparent candidate in recent memory, even with his perpetual lying. He used outrage rather than propaganda to shore up his base. None of the sophistry of the left, just pure and simple rage.
    This has endeared him to millions, and laughingly, gave him credit as a master of multidimensional chess. He was his base’s savior, and lying to restore them their greatness, that had been lessened by a shift towards fairness, and equality was actually desirable to them. Now that time has went by, Trump’s many weaknesses are painfully apparent, and unfortunately, becoming educated about every conceivable political trick is only a click away from even the most obtuse researcher. The fantasy of Trump delivering wins to all the winners that haven’t won yet, is over. Barring making the greatest gaff in history, Trumpism is heading right where it belongs. I’m looking forward to January where we can have actual dialog and debate about actual policy and future trajectory, rather than just throwing out the rotten garbage

    3
  28. ImProPer says:

    @mattbernius:

    “The weakening of political parties continues to demonstrate that the guardrails necessary to enforce norms are not holding. All that transparency appears to also not allow for some of the “backroom” dealing (i.e. compromise) necessary to enforce said norms.”

    Agree absolutely, and don’t see it as a bad thing. At least from my jaded perspective. Considering what Idealistic individuals have accomplished in the last century, hundreds of millions dead ect. , I’ll settle with a little backroom dealing. Inspite of the call to action that countless valedictorians have given in their graduation speechs, compromise is our greatest good. It has led us to this place in history, where we can be unbelievably stupid, and still do ok. In the past it would of taken decades or centuries to fix what the president has broken. Now just a few months of backroom deals, and Trumpism will be a just a footnote in history. I also think the left will not soon forget the importance of the separation of powers, and the value of all inclusive politics. Thanks for that Trump, even if this wasn’t a goal.

  29. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Liberal Capitalist: But of course. The concern of Susan Collins is the nothing of one solitary person. A truckload of hopes and prayers is the nothing of hundreds–perhaps even thousands or millions. All of that nothing combined is bound to be more than the nothing of a singleton.

    Now just a few months of backroom deals, and Trumpism will be a just a footnote in history.

    I have no word to express how much I wish that were going to be true.

    2
  30. Gustopher says:

    If the internet was around during the 1930s and 40s, do you think there would be a chunk of the German population just sitting around, bemoaning how awful it was, and making snarky comments about Hitler’s mustache, and how they can’t get a good bagel anymore?

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  31. HarvardLaw92 says:

    Indeed, although I’d note that focusing on the 18th century slightly misses the mark. Contentious elections have been a feature or a bug, depending on your point of view, essentially from the outset.

    The deterioration in the relationship between Adams and Jefferson essentially began in the 1788 election, where both men vied for the position of Vice President under Washington, we saw the genesis of political parties, and a great deal of fairly ugly rhetoric was flung by both sides at the other. It grew much worse in the election of 1796, and completely fractured during Jefferson’s two terms between 1801 and 1809. Indeed, only the intercession of Benjamin Rush, three years after Jefferson had left office, began the long, slow process of mending between the two men.

    It’s suggestive of the premise that the compromises which were pursued in order to get the Constitution ratified were, even when they were being pursued, reflective of the ideological schism which we’re all too familiar with in modern society. Specifically – that a reasonable argument can be made that both sides only pursued compromise at the time out of immediate expediency, with the view from both sides being that – once ratification had been achieved and the country established – they’d certainly prevail and their belief system would become unilaterally shared.

    It might be more productive to look at which elections might not have been contentious.

    2
  32. de stijl says:

    @Jim Brown 32:

    I am left of center politically. I ain’t never gonna vote for a dude like Trump.

    I do enjoy target shooting. A lot. I have a stupid expensive Ruger .22 target pistol with all the fixin’s. I thought I was something until people who are actually really good taught me I was average. Still, it’s really fun and engaging.

    I have a 12 gauge bird shotgun. Fowl and upland. Haven’t touched it for nearly 30 years except to move it from closet to new closet when I’ve moved after I figured out killing living things for fun and sport was not cool.

    I have a little set up in my basement for pellet gun marksmanship.

    It’s like darts. See it. Will it. Do it. Mind and body zen exercise. Hit the ten ring or nail a 180.

    What I do not want to happen is brown shirts vs. Reds on the streets of 2020/2021 America.

    That is the worst outcome imaginable. It means all of this failed. We will be Belarus with nukes and the world’s tied for first largest economy.

    We must do whatever possible to ensure that dark outcome does not come to pass.

    We have a constitution. Elections happen thusly, as proscribed. We will abide by the results. We will be good citizens.

    Don’t go too dark. I think we are resilient enough to handle a foolish boy like Trump out the door.

    Chin up. We got this.

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  33. de stijl says:

    @Jim Brown 32:

    Btw, you are a really interesting commenter.

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  34. mattbernius says:

    @HarvardLaw92:

    It might be more productive to look at which elections might not have been contentious.

    That’s an interesting idea.

    Despite its conclusion, 2000 felt far less contentious. Ditto 1996 or 1992. However I was far younger and less politically engaged.

    Since 2000, or rather 2001, have we ever not had a “flight 93” election?

  35. de stijl says:

    @mattbernius:

    In 2000 it was fairly clear Gore won, but the SC did not allow that. Bonkers decision.

    We had to eat shit for four years because the apparatus of the state declared Bush the winner.

    People kvetched but there was no blue state street revolt. People behaved responsibly. They did say mean things.

    In retrospect quite deserved. Bush was a flipping disaster as a President.

    I was so glad that we had got that out of our system and repudiated that nonsense.

    Then eight years later we got Trump.

    There is nothing wrong with being optimistic about the future. Sometimes our neighbors think reactionary bs is appropriate and vote for that in just enough states to thwart the majority.

    Not my jam, but hopefully history bends and we can correct this.

  36. SC_Birdflyte says:

    @HarvardLaw92: I believe that in his biography of John Adams, David McCullough mentioned that both Adams and Jefferson, while still political enemies, were both distrustful of Hamilton (who was, of course, barred by the Constitution from becoming President). In the words of one eminent historian, when Adams uttered his famous last words, “Thomas Jefferson still survives,” he may have said it in a tone of “Is that sandy-haired SOB still alive?”