Election season. A time in America when mass media is overwhelmed with political candidates and commentary from pundits to be dissected by every person on the face of the earth. I'm sure this is exactly what the Founding Fathers had in mind for democracy: the incumbent singing Al Green and an opponent quoting a pop diva known for not wearing underwear to claim victory in her home state. The new political strategy: don't worry about the price of oil, just get him on YouTube so he looks human!
The idea of humanity, if not humility, in politics is one that began with our Founding Fathers. At the birth of our democracy candidates for public office did not campaign, let alone come out aggressively against their opponents. They humbly accepted positions and spoke glowingly of potential rivals. This changed rather quickly with the election of 1800.
Jefferson ran against the incumbent President Adams that year. Their relationship was already frail given the vice president's move towards Republican methodology and his strong support of the French Revolution -- directly opposite of what President Adams believed. Civil at first, eventually both candidates showed a commitment to negative campaigning and gave America its first glimpse into partisan politics. Well-respected men who prided themselves on proper etiquette became, for lack of a better word, trashy.
It was Jefferson who fired the first shot, quietly yet aggressively using his ownership in the press against Adams in his quest for the only partially constructed White House. Dispensing with humility, Jefferson accused Adams of being a "...hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman." I don't even think Santorum would call Romney a hermaphrodite. Then again...
After a bitter campaign and a Jefferson victory coming just before Adams got the news of a peace agreement with Napoleonic-France (news which almost certainly would have won him the election), the two men did not exactly stroll down the promenade in a show of party unity. In fact they didn't talk for 12 years. Once they did, however, it produced the greatest collection of presidential literature we have.
The election of 1800 changed the way future candidates would run for office. It gave candidates the "ok" to put personal faults of opponents ahead of issues. It also moved the press, for the first time, into a prominent role in the election process, allowing the masses to read information about candidates and form opinions that they could discuss amongst themselves. That information, however, came to them very slowly.
Fast forward to the onset of social media. Imagine giving our Founding Fathers, some of the most learned and intelligent men in history, a tool like Twitter. Would humility win the day or would the draw of casting immediate stones outweigh etiquette? For a bit of comic relief, here is a sampling of tweets we might have seen had we followed the Founding Fathers:
Benjamin Franklin @benjifranklin
Hair standing up from lightning strike. Key melted, locked out of house. Out early 2 catch worm w/ @MadameHeletius. #foreignrelations
John Adams @hisrotundness
VP job waste of time. @gwcherrytree only listens to @truealexthegreat. Plenty of time 2 develop #thoughtsongovernment @Pinterest board.
Thomas Jefferson @tjmonticello
@hisrotundness kept my puppets in cabinet. Thought @abigailadams would smell that out. Off 2 meet @sallyhemmings, discuss locksmith trade.
Alexander Hamilton @realalexthegreat
As a gentlemen I won't hit @aaronburr with first shot. Sure he will follow suit. Should be home by noon.
George Washington @gwcherrytree
Will be fun to watch @hisrotundness & @tjmonticello go at it. I am out, they are in. Wonder how I'll look on currency? #thefoundingfather
James Madison @constitutiondad
Congrats to my mentor! RT @tjmonticello Just bought swamp land in Louisiana. Should double size of country. Feels good 2 rip off France.
Social media does so many good things we rarely take time to interpret the impact of negatives, save privacy concerns. Is the combination of immediacy and transparency a good element in the election process? Just how "human" do we want our politicians, and especially our president, to be? Should we not see the president as special, requiring a level of respect that most other men don't deserve? Remember when pundits criticized Clinton going as "Bill" rather than "William" because it seemed less presidential but more "every-man"? How about the saxophone on Arsenio? Did you consider that presidential?
Obama was the first candidate to harness the full power of social media. In many ways, it got him elected. His team understood it -- the power of social rests with the ability to influence not one individual but a sphere of individuals. But any social strategists worth their salt will tell you the key to success is transparency. That is very hard for politicians to adhere to. Do you foresee a candidate for a major public office using Twitter as I used it in our Founding Father examples? No way.
The reality of living in an on-demand world, a world with real-time chatter, is that the emperor has no clothes. Every speech and movement is shown to the world as it happens. And the world can comment on it. There is no mystery or imagination when it comes to candidates. Only conversation. As a result, it is up to the people to sort through the noise and find a real voice. That was easier to do in the town squares of Lexington and Concord. Not so easy to do in the social graph.
CORRECTION: This post previously stated that Adams and Jefferson ran against each other for the right to replace Washington in the election of 1800. It has been updated to reflect the fact that Adams was an incumbent in the election.