A Lesson in the Presidential Process

A Lesson in the Presidential Process

June 21, 2016

It was interesting that Donald Trump’s 70th birthday fell on the same day as Don Robinson’s talk in our Glenmeadow Learning series about the history of the American primary system.

Don, a political historian and retired Smith College government professor, made note of Trump’s special day as he opened his talk, “Presidential Challenge: An Historical View of the Primary System,” June 14 at Wilbraham Country Club. But he led no one in singing the birthday song; he led, instead, an overview of the challenges this year’s presidential election has placed on the American primary system.

Trump and Bernie Sanders both took the lead in their respective political parties, against the will of the party leaders. “Bernie and Trump both tapped into a very deep sentiment in America,” Don said. “What is astonishing, really astonishing, is that the political people who so have their ear to the ground and are so sensitive to public opinion, they completely missed the depth and strength of it—the feeling on many peoples’ part that the country is off on the wrong track, under the control of wealthy oligarchs and banks.”

Don is the Charles N. Clark Professor Emeritus of Government and American Studies at Smith College, where he taught for nearly 40 years. His academic research focuses on American constitutional development, and he has immense knowledge of political and constitutional history. He has authored and edited several books, and he writes a monthly column for the Daily Hampshire Gazette and lectures on topics of politics and the Constitution around the Valley.

In his two-hour presentation, Don offered his observations on the history of the American system to elect a president and had conversations with 40 audience members, many of them reflecting society’s anger with its leaders.

In opening, Don said, “It’s fashionable to deplore the American system for choosing a president. I don’t deplore it. I find virtues in it, and I find hope in the middle of it.”

He said others can find hope, and help in healing the country’s political woes, by getting involved. “Knitting together the fabric of the country has to be done in our communities,” Don said. “Get down on the ground in the grass roots. Find allies, and knit together into a program.”

While frustrations were expressed during the program about the state of the country’s leadership, the presentation was not a bashing session. It was educational and purposeful. Don began with an overview of the American system for electing presidents, highlighted with anecdotes and stories about particular elections and candidates.

Here are some of the key learnings Don passed on to our audience:

• Our country was founded with a revolutionary government—one in which the leaders of the revolution become the leaders of the nation and served for a span of time. The U.S. Constitution they developed outlines no provisions for choosing candidates for the presidency.
• John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were the first two presidential candidates in a contested election. Political parties became organized after this election, in the early 19th century, as a means for getting candidates into office.
• The 1824 election that pitted Andrew Jackson against John Quincy Adams was critically important as Jackson was the winner of the electoral college vote, but John Quincy Adams, who had served as secretary of state, was chosen as the country’s new president. “Andrew Jackson erupted,” Don said. “Trump will likewise not go quietly. The presidency that emerges from this present election is going to be a very troubled administration.”
• In the 19th century, party tickets were created; when you went to vote, what you took with you was your party’s ticket, which represented who you were voting for president, senate, etc. Politics were rigidly controlled by political parties, which were supported by newspapers that offered up only their party’s news.
• At end of the 19th century, a progressive movement formed to take away the stronghold that parties had. One result was the emergence of a political primary, through which delegates cast non-binding presidential votes.
• Elections between 1968-1972 changed fundamentally as primaries became associated with the election of delegates; voting at a primary became important. Our current primary system was put in place in 1972. “It is a system over which hold of the parties has weakened over time,” Don said. “Party elites have not been able to control the process this year. We have a new phenomenon in American politics.”

Don’s talk was the last in the spring Glenmeadow Learning series. Watch our blogs, enewsletters, Facebook posts and mailings to hear what we are planning for fall! To receive our enewsletters, contact Torrie at dearborn@glenmeadow.org.

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