If one were to look through the list of America’s past presidents, one would quickly conclude that many of the men who held our nation’s highest office would not have reached the Oval Office if they ran today. For example, James Madison’s soft voice and small stature would have branded him as too meek and complacent to serve, Andrew Jackson’s mistake of marrying a technically-still-married-woman would have been the subject of countless attack adds, Abraham Lincoln’s strange looks and history of deep depression would have deterred many voters, Theodore Roosevelt’s choice to leave his infant daughter behind while he wrangled the wild west would have been looked upon as unsound judgment, Warren Harding’s extramarital flings would have inevitably surfaced quickly in the primaries, Franklin Roosevelt’s fragile health would have caused his opponents to label him as unable to serve…and the list goes on and on.
So what changed? In 1960, an event transpired which would ever change the way the American people chose their presidential candidates: the first televised debate. This debate, which showcased Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy, is seen as the reason Mr. Kennedy was able to push past Mr. Nixon in the polls. Mr. Nixon’s refusal to wear makeup and his unfortunate tendency to sweat under the bright lights was, for many presidential scholars, one of the reasons he lost the 1960 election. Let it be duly noted: television can make or break a candidate.
In recent decades, voters have been looking for candidates who “look presidential,” who “really care about the voter,” and who have the most sophisticated flyers and mailers (and who have the most volunteers to distributed said flyers). Highly qualified candidates who struggle with “presidential appeal” are slowly pushed toward the bottom of the candidate pool. There’s a reason every president over the past 46 years has stood over 5’ 11” ½ (yes, the ½ is important). And the media, mainly televised media, has undeniably played an important role in this conundrum. The television gravitates toward candidates who are popular, have money, and look the part. Candidates who are eloquent get more air time, candidates who have the most money get the prime ad times, and the guys (or gals) who are highest in the polls get center stage on the debates.
But is this the way a country should be run? If you were to ask George Washington, he would reference the electoral college and wonder why popular elections are taking place in the first place. They imagined a convention where all candidates of any political viewpoint would gather and the electorate would decide then and there. Election of 1800 anybody? Unfortunately, our Founders’ ideal presidential election protocol has not been in affect for quite a while.
Ever since the Democratic party formally mobilized behind Andrew Jackson in 1828 and the Republican party convened for the first time in 1856, the electoral college has only been responsible for circling “blue” or “red.” Our two party system which dominates our electoral college has bled over into our primary process, preventing any candidate who does not align with either of these two parties from running. This inculcated system has only been disrupted twice in our history (Teddy Roosevelt in 1912 and Ross Perot in 1992 both received electoral votes), but never has a third party candidate reached the white house. For a country that was founded without any political parties by men who warned of the dangers of party faction, this is strange indeed.
This is exactly why this election is so intriguing. On the Republican side, the current top two contenders, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, are both men who promise to challenge the status quo. Some would even argue that these two men are so radical they don’t even belong in their political party. These candidates are not only challenging Washington, they are challenging the media and the party system’s modus operandi. On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders, the dark horse candidate who has pulled to the front, likewise promises to challenge the status quo and even America’s political and economic system itself.
But maybe this radical behavior is the reason these candidates are succeeding. Americans, especially my generation, are sick of politics as usual—not just in Congress, but in America as a whole. According to a recent Gallup poll, only 26% of American voters identify as Republicans, only 29% identify as Democrat, and a shocking 42% identify as Independent. Furthermore, according to a poll by Harvard’s Institute for Politics 41% of millennial Democrats support Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump leads the GOP field for millennial voters with 22% (the wide gap in the numbers is undoubtedly due to the number of candidates still in the GOP field). In the recent Iowa caucuses, according to CIRCLE, millennial voter turnout reached 11%—note the usual turnout rate in Iowa for millennial voters hovers around 4%.
My generation is tired of the set party rhetoric that permeates every area of society and we are ready for it to change. Amazingly, we, the children of social media and television, realize that the media often acts as king, appointing their chosen candidates to further their own political agenda and subtly force it upon the American people. We realize that this is not how a nation, a republic, should be run. We want our government to once again listen to us, the people, and not the ideas of political parties, mainstream media, and “government as usual.”
Originally published in The Washington Times Friday, February 12, 2016
Juliette Turner is the National Youth Director of Constituting America, and the author of three books: Our Constitution Rocks, Our Presidents Rock and the soon-to-be-released novel, based on life at her ranch with her mom, actress Janine Turner, That’s Not Hay In My Hair (all published by HarpersCollins/Zondervan).