Yesterday, Republican presidential contender, alternative-history writer and professional adulterer Newt Gingrich told an audience that the 2012 election will be, according to an Associated Press report, “the most consequential since 1860.” This is wrong. Here, chronologically, are five elections since 1860 which featured far higher stakes than the 2012 race as it stands today.
1. 1864. What Gingrich is forgetting, despite having co-authored several rather silly novels on the American Civil War, is that Abraham Lincoln could very well have lost the 1864 election. An anti-war candidate, the former general George B. McClellan, ran on a platform promising to bring fighting to a halt and negotiate with the Confederacy. In truth, McClellan (whose record in the war is notable for its spectacular incompetence) supported fighting to win, but his party promised a truce and his vice presidential candidate was anti-war. Conceivably, the 1864 election could have produced an independent Confederate States of America. But for the first time, states arranged for soldiers in the field to vote via mail, and, since 78% of the troops supported Lincoln, Abe pulled through with 55% of the popular vote.
Fun side note: Abraham Lincoln did not run as a Republican. He was head of the specially-created “National Union Party.”
2. 1912. The craziest election in American history, perhaps, at least until 2000. For the first and so far only time in our history, three viable candidates proposed three very different visions of America’s future. The Republican, William Howard Taft, was accused by his predecessor, Theodore Roosevelt, of being too slow to endorse needed reform, so TR led the Progressive Party in a surge back from retirement. The split in center-right votes led to the election of Woodrow Wilson, who, during his first term, would choose to avoid war in Europe. Roosevelt, always raring to go, would likely have had us fighting by the end of 1914. TR also made voting rights for women a higher priority than Wilson did, though the Democrat eventually got that job done.
3. 1932. Franklin Delano Roosevelt is elected in place of the unlucky, unimaginative, unhelpful Herbert Hoover. FDR went on to transform America like no president since, well, his cousin Theodore. His economic policies’ effectiveness is still debated among scholars today, though his leadership over a dozen of our most important years is not. Well, we could have kept Hoover.
Fun side note: Vermont voted for Herbert Hoover. Clearly there weren’t any hippies in 1932.
4. 1968. Martin Luther King was assassinated. Robert Kennedy was assassinated. Race riots broke out. Protests got violent at the Chicago convention. The Vietnam War was collapsing into disaster. A third-party candidate running on an explicitly racist platform to reinstate segregation won five states. The South turned away, en masse, from the Democratic Party it had supported for generations. Richard Nixon’s margin of victory in the popular vote was 0.7%. I’m sorry, Newt, but if you think the Tea Party is as angry and powerful a force for change as the anti-war or civil rights movements of the 1960s, you are an arrogant fool.
5. 2008. Heck, this election isn’t even as important as the last one. That one featured our first major female candidate, our first major female vice-presidential candidate [EDIT: forgot Geraldine Ferraro, thanks to a commenter for reminding me], our first major black candidate, two ongoing and apparently unwinnable wars, an economy collapsing around us as the sitting president watched helpless, rising unemployment rates, and, in the center of the storm, two of the more reasonable nominees of recent times. Or so it seemed until one of them chose, as a running mate, the most singularly incompetent member of a vote-getting party ticket since George Wallace in 1968.
I find it hard to believe that Newt has forgotten the decisiveness of the 2008 election. No matter who won, John McCain or Barack Obama, America would be trying to shake off the hangover from one of its worst-ever presidencies, trying to end two wars as well as possible and halt an impending economic collapse too. No matter who won, McCain or Obama, America would be ushering in a new era and voting for a new set of values.
I guess what I’m saying is this: in 2008, many pundits said they thought they were watching the most important election in forty years. They probably were. Now, in 2011, Newt Gingrich thinks the next election will be the most important in one hundred forty years. It won’t be. Heck, it won’t even be the most important election we’ve had in the last four.