Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Essay: U.S. Presidential Politics Reflects Our Wider Society - for Better and Worse

Mark Makela
Getty Images
More than a thousand protesters demonstrate against President-elect Donald Trump at Thomas Paine Plaza November 19, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Almost three weeks have passed since the Presidential election. News analysts and regular people alike are still trying to assess what transpired on November 8th.

Lake Effect essayist Art Cyr says contrary to much public opinion, there was some precedent for the way the electorate swung:

“We have met the enemy and he is us.” The ironic statement is from the durable comic strip “Pogo” by cartoonist Walt Kelly, widely syndicated in newspapers from the late 1940s into the 1970’s.

Pogo paraphrased the famous declaration by Admiral William Hazard Perry – “We have met the enemy and they are ours” – after the United States Navy won a great strategic victory over the British in the Battle of Lake Erie in 1813.

Sharp political and social commentary characterized “Pogo,” in a manner emulated in “Doonesbury” by Garry Trudeau. Kelly first used a version of the “enemy” statement to refer to the anti-communist fears and hysteria of the 1950s, personified by Senator Joseph R. McCarthy (R-WI), and later to highlight growing public awareness and concern about environmental pollution.

The statement can also sum up our nasty presidential politics this year.  The bellicose and insult-filled 2016 United States election campaign has led many, especially in the media, to condemn the depressing contest as unique.

That is fiction. American party politics has from the start been characterized by insults, turmoil and intense competition. One important fact is that our party politics have always been fractious, and approximately every fifty years developments have become especially tumultuous.

The most challenging and costly such turmoil was in the presidential election campaign of 1860, followed shortly by the Civil War. Four parties competed. The new Republican Party fully replaced the Whigs, and Democrats split into northern and southern parties. The Constitutional Union Party was led by Whigs who hoped to preserve the Union.

Earlier, the Whigs had replaced the Federalists in the aftermath of the War of 1812, which ended in 1815. The Federalists had opposed the war, and eventually paid the ultimate political price.

The third strategic shift began with the 1912 presidential election. Former President Theodore Roosevelt, dissatisfied with successor William Howard Taft, launched the breakaway Bull Moose Party. TR did not retake the White House but did split the Republican vote, handing the election to Democrat Woodrow Wilson. The 1916 reelection of Wilson confirmed trends of change.

Roosevelt had led the Republican Party in a profoundly progressive direction, confirming the anti-trust laws, initiating protection of workers - especially children and women, protecting the wilderness, and saving the buffalo. In the 1930s, a progressive Democratic majority was established, led by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The 1912 election did not guarantee this, but did signal significant new currents of economic and social as well as political change.

The mid-1960s represent another period of great change for the political parties. Domestic unrest increased, significantly spurred by civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements. This culminated in the extraordinary election of 1968. President Lyndon B. Johnson unexpectedly withdrew from contention. The assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and then Senator Robert F. Kennedy added tragic bloody dimensions to unfolding developments.

Democratic nominee Vice President Hubert Humphrey for a time badly trailed Republican Richard Nixon, and support flowed to third-party segregationist candidate George Wallace. Humphrey recovered and nearly caught up with Nixon, but Wallace also came very close to throwing the election in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Satire is an important stabilizing force, especially in times of great turmoil and uncertainty. Garry Trudeau, with brilliant foresight, has been covering Donald Trump in his comic strip since 1987. The artist has just published a collection of his Trump comic strips, aptly titled “Yuge!”


Lake Effect contributor Art Cyr is a professor of political economy and world business and director of the Clausen Center for World Business at Carthage College in Kenosha.

Stay Connected
Arthur I. Cyr is Director of the Clausen Center for World Business and Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Kenosha. Previously he was President of the Chicago World Trade Center, the Vice President of the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, a faculty member and executive at UCLA, and an executive at the Ford Foundation. His publications include the book After the Cold War - American Foreign Policy, Europe and Asia (Macmillan and NYU Press).