December 02, 2008

Changing Times

It is often said that the United States is a young country. Its often forgotten that it has a very old constitution- indeed I struggle to think of a comparatively old and unchanged constitution in the same format as the United States has in the rest of the world. Recent events demonstrate this. The election of Barack Obama as United States President, to succeed George Bush in January, was a smooth process. Since November though, numerous commentators on the Democratic side of the aisle have expressed frustration with the fact that their man cannot move straight into the White House to start dealing with the issues that the world and America faces. I am sure Republicans felt a similar frustration in 2000- when George Bush succeeded Bill Clinton. What's interesting about this is that this is a classic instance of a constitution functioning in a way that made perfect sense in the eighteenth century- even if it frustrates people now (and there are good reasons for thinking given the number of appointments to be made, it still makes some sense today).

Think back to 1787. When the United States was founded as this article discusses, the President was actually inaugurated in March- a four month gap between the election in November and his arrival in office. That situation persisted right down to the 1930s- with Presidents awkwardly attempting to be out of the way as their predecessor finished their term (Herbert Hoover in 1928 even went on a cruise around South America to avoid tarnishing Calvin Coolidge's swansong). There are reasons though for that long break- and such long breaks existed in other countries too. In the UK in the 19th Century, elections took place over several days- with party leaders standing in multiple constituencies (to give a famous example Gladstone stood frequently in two or three seats- in 1865 he was defeated in Oxford University and migrated to stand in South Lancashire a month later). The reason was simple- travel meant that Parliaments and Presidents could not physically campaign one week and arrive in office the next. In a country as vast as the United States the distances could be intimidating: travelling between Boston and New York in the far north east of the country could take as much as a day and a half even in the 1830s (after significant transport revolutions including a massive road building program in the early part of the 19th Century). That effected not merely the President but senators and congressmen as well- who needed to travel back to visit and campaign amongst their constituents.

We think of politics as something that happens on television screens. I learnt that Hillary Clinton was to be President Obama's Secretary of State hours after the announcement in Washington. But of course that was not the main means of communication in the days of the American constitution. Then the main means of communication was print- journalism, frequently biassed (just look at the election campaigns of the early 1800s if you think any modern election has been vicious), was produced by all sides. The letter in which a person in London or Washington informed those in his locality about what was going on was frequent too: Dr Cust has shown that such letters developed what there was of a national political consciousness in pre-civil war England. All of these things though were indirect forms of communication between the politician and his constituency: and given the lies and falsehoods told about Adams, Jefferson, Gladstone, Disreali, and the rest, to dispel them you had to go and see your electorate- whether in some systems in mass meetings (like Gladstone's speaking tours) or in other contexts in more intimate consultations with the local gentry. Whereas people in Richmond, Yorkshire cannot escape hearing William Hague on the television at least once a month unless they are determined not to listen, in the 19th Century a Yorkshire MP like Henry Brougham would have to travel back to speak to his constituents.

This physical change on politics has lots of effects- some of which I don't think I have probed in this brief article but I think its vital to understand if we want to understand what elections were like in the past. They looked and smelled differently to our conception of elections today. The delay to Barack Obama's inauguration may frustrate Democrats- just as Bush's might have Republicans- but it is interesting not merely from the perspective of present day politics but from the perspective of the politics of the past. The reasons that there is that delay lie in the fact that our institutions reflect those of our parents and in this case great-great grandparents to the nth degree- whether they are still appropriate is a matter for others- but what they are is an archaeological resource, a hole in the landscape which allows us to see back into the mentalites of the past.


goodbanker said...

I agree that the lengthy transition between election and inauguration gives us an insight into the past. But there is a danger in being sentimental about such anachronisms: as the OUP blog article sets out, the hiatus may be OK in peace-time; but in crisis the leadership vacuum can amplify problems. If the US could reform their constitution to bring forward the inauguration date from March to January, following the protracted Hoover/Roosevelt handover in 1932/3 - when things were so dire with the economy that, as soon as he took office, Roosevelt was forced to declare an extended bank holiday to begin get things back under control - then surely it isn't beyond the US to shorten the interval further now. (That way, they might be able to handle in a 21st Century way a crisis that spreads at light speed - through the fibre-optic cables that support the global financial markets.)

Crushed said...

Uk elections changed markedly in 1918, when elections were declared to all be held the same day.

Prior to that, setting the date for a poll was up to the returning officer- The Mayor in a borough, the Lord Leiutenant in county seats. This meant about three weeks worth of polling usually. Though all the divisions of a same unit voted at once. Thus, all Manchester seats voted on the same day. All Leicestershire seats voted on the same day.

There is still nothing stopping someone standing for multiple seats. It's just not considered done these days- unless you don't expect to win- cf Lord Sutch.

Parnell was elected by FOUR constituencies in 1885, so the three he chose NOT to sit for, had to have by-elections.

De Valera contested 3 seats in 1918 (when elections were held on the same day) and won two- he lost heavily in Belfast West to Joe Devlin.

Probably the biggest change in the US consitution was 1913(?) when Senators became directly elected. People underestimate that.
But it clearly changed the dynamics of Congress.

James Higham said...

They shouldn't try to be "out of the way". They need to discuss much in the handover.

Gracchi said...

Goodbanker- yes there may be lots of problems with it today- I suppose my point was a modest one about the archaeology. I'm not a great fan of sentiment for sentiment's sake.

Crushed- thanks for the historical note! I'd forgotten or not known loads of that- so cheers mate.

James yes though Hoover had been in Coolidge's cabinet so presumably knew what was happening- I think it depends on the dynamic between the President and President elect

Georg said...

Hallo Gracchy,

I quite appreciate your remark that the US constitution is one of the oldest in the world.

The USA may have many shortcomings but they offer the possibility to see democracy working while changing all the time. That's something worthwhile to remember.


Gracchi said...

True Georg

Dave Cole said...

If one discounts individual states of the USA and things like Magna Carta (as they are not the sole part of the constitution of the UK), the only older constitution that remains in force is that of San Marino.

There are good reasons for delays between elections being declared and the newly-elected taking up powers. For one, it allows time for recounts and so on. Remember that in the US, we are still waiting on Minnesota and that, with only 100 senators, it's more likely that one race will matter than in (say) the UK.

However, some features that were necessary when people were largely illiterate and the fastest a message could travel was the speed of a horse but are now anachronistic, could be removed, not least the electoral college.


goodbanker said...

A challenge to Dave Cole's assertion that "there are good reasons for delays between elections being declared and the newly-elected taking up powers. For one, it allows time for recounts and so on." The argument here strikes me as the wrong way round / tail wagging dog: I argued above that there are good reasons for avoiding such delays (above all, the need for the President to be able to act decisively in crisis times); but if the result is too close to call, then the election isn't (finally) declared, in which case delay in determining who has the top job must be tolerated - for the good of democracy. In other words, by all means allow time for any recounts that may be necessary; but I would suggest not having hardwired into the constitution a delay in the handover that leaves a dead duck in the Presidency for longer than is absolutely necessary.