Book Review: Hats In The Ring

Hats In The Ring:  An Illustrated History of American Presidential Campaigns, by Evan Cornog and Richard Whelan

This is an odd book, but not odd in a bad way.  The authors appear to be at least somewhat downcast about the fate of elections in the United States, and that is even though they only went up to 1996, as it would likely get far more depressing from there.  As someone who enjoys reading about elections [1], I found this book right up my wheelhouse, but it was interesting to see that the writers of the book appeared to find a great deal of fault with the way that elections worked, the way that in times of crisis many political candidates were very close to their rivals to the point of being nearly indistinguishable, how there was a great deal of dirtiness and hostility to be found in many cases, and the authors seem to expect more out of the American people than happens to be the case.  Again, if the authors had been more aware of contemporary history as well as the longstanding patterns of history, there would be a lot less room for disappointment on the part of the authors, which is ironic as they appear to have studied those patterns and even write about some of them but appear not to have taken them to heart.

This book is organized very straightforwardly, in that it talks about every single presidential campaign in its context, its operation in the primary and general campaigns, its outcomes, and a lot of the implications about how the election tied or did not tie to the larger social context.  The authors appear to prefer those candidates who are forthright about their ambition and also appear to have a strong degree of internationalist thought and a disdain for the lower arts of politics like appeals to prejudice.  Yet, over and over again, one sees in these campaigns that the high culture that the authors celebrate tends not to be present in the larger behaviors that motivate people to vote for or against others.  Politicians in general appear to be a very conservative lot, largely because conservatism usually pays–for a long time vigorous campaigning was a sign that one was behind, and successful tactics from past elections were used over and over again in the future.  Politics is a matter of opportunity costs–one has to build a winning coalition and the choice to move to the right, left, or center means that one has to weigh and balance what one will gain and what one will lose by so doing.  Our election history gives a lot of information as to what kind of appeals consistently work over and over again.

And it is this larger context that makes this book so valuable.  In this book we can see that appeals to populism often work as long as they do not scare off many other people, and that many campaigns have been won by tapping on primal cultural fears about racial and ethnic outsiders.  Americans have traditionally shown a disinterest in voting for intellectual snobs and have a consistent pattern of voting for successful military leaders, unless they are too gaffe prone.  At times personal scandals have ruined campaigns, and at other times they haven’t.  Sometimes honest politicians, relatively speaking, have done well, and sometimes they have not.  Timing has mattered a great deal in elections, as well as apparent momentum, and polling has sometimes been particularly bad.  During times of crisis there have often been extremely close elections decided by very small margins, making the frequent aspects of political corruption within the United States very troubling.  Our elections are the result of the decisions of our public, a large amount of which does not care enough to vote despite the gravity of the situations that our nation has, largely due to the way that so much of politics is unseemly.  Still, our politics is our own and we should face up to the way that we have run our country as honestly and squarely as possible.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Book Reviews, History and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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