Saturday, August 13, 2016

Presidential Landslides

Presidential Landslides
P. Schultz

            Because it seems likely that this November we might witness a landslide victory in the presidential election, it is worth asking what happens after such victories in these elections. At times, the answer might seem surprising.

            Consider, for example, the aftermath of LBJ’s landslide victory over Barry Goldwater in 1964. The term that followed upon this victory was little more than a disaster, with LBJ being driven from office in the sense that he decided not to seek re-election in 1968 in large part because he had become so unpopular that he was, almost, a prisoner in the White House. Usually and understandably, this is attributed to Johnson’s Vietnam War policy, viz., his decision to send more than half a million American soldiers to Nam, while bombing both South and North Vietnam relentlessly, all of which proved to be futile in terms of winning that war.

            Why didn’t Johnson’s landslide victory protect him, insulate him from rejection and ostracism, as it were? That is, what does a landslide mean for the victor?

            The same questions arise when looking at the aftermath of Richard Nixon’s landslide victory over George McGovern in 1972 insofar as Nixon’s second term ended with his certain impeachment, which was avoided only because Nixon chose to resign the presidency. Again, whatever a landslide electoral victory might mean, it does not insulate the victor, protecting him or her from the vicissitudes of politics.

            This vulnerability of such victors could seem a bit strange at first glance. However, upon reflection, such a phenomenon is not all that strange if one notices that these landslides occurred in part because of the actions of the losing party, most importantly, the candidate they ran in the election. Both LBJ’s landslide victory and Nixon’s were victories over candidates that could not be considered “mainstream” candidates. Both Barry Goldwater and George McGovern were what may be labeled “fringe” candidates who were more representative of the outliers and insurgents in their parties than they were of mainstream Republicans and Democrats. It can also be assumed that these candidates were not given the wholehearted support of their parties. In other words, the actions – and the inactions – of the losing parties in these elections contributed to the landslide.

            Therefore, what looks like a smashing victory that leaves the losing party prostrate or barely alive, turns out to be something like a purge of that party, and a purge that cleanses that party, leaving it more unified and even stronger than it was before it lost the election by a landslide. In other words, despite appearances, landslide victories are not smashing nor do they create a political arena that is controlled by the victorious party. And insofar as the victorious candidate believes his or her victory to be devastatingly powerful, granting a “mandate” to govern that will brook little opposition, s/he will be surprised by and vulnerable to political opposition more formidable than s/he expected. As a result, the victor’s attempt to govern as if s/he had such a mandate, allowing her to govern unilaterally or while disregarding the opposition, is almost bound to fail.

            Does this mean that the losing party was collusive, that it helped to set up what is labeled a “landslide electoral victory?” Well, that would be a difficult thing to demonstrate or argue but what isn’t so hard to argue is that “landslide electoral victories” benefit at times the losers as well as the winners. And the winners would be prudent to keep this in mind.

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