The election over, there's some sense of relief that we won't be assaulted with campaign bombast for a while. Whether your candidate won or you're licking emotional wounds with the losers, it's liberating to put it all into historical perspective.
The most important element is the very democratic phenomenon of living with the victors, even if you do not like them. In accepting the principle of majority rule, along with the rule of law, we ensure the stability of the republic, believe that the nation supersedes any one vision of it. And the Constitution protects the rights of minorities, albeit less perfectly than the ideal suggests.
Only once in American history did the losers opt out of the game, after the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860. That cost the deaths of more than 600,000 Americans from the north and south combined, and an uncomfortable legacy still with us.
But there have been plenty of elections when people held their collective breath wondering just how deep the divisions in the country were, and to what they might lead. The historian Gordon S. Wood has written of the clash between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, which nearly tore the new nation apart. The Jeffersonians believed Adams, Hamilton and their fellow Federalists were bent on re-establishing a monarchy. Adams and his cohort were sure democracy would lead to the failure of the republic and to mob rule, ending inevitably in tyranny. Their anxiety and anger were rekindled by James Madison's War of 1812, which led New England Federalists to hold a convention at Hartford to discuss secession, or if not, amending the Constitution.
A decade later, the country was torn apart politically by the election of Adams' son, John Quincy Adams; it was the first presidential election in which the winner of the popular vote was thwarted by the opponent's victory in the Electoral College. Andrew Jackson made that his clarion campaign issue for the next four years, and there were reasonable fears for the survival of the nation.
In regard to the Civil War, Lincoln laid out what was at stake as clearly as anyone ever has in his Gettysburg Address: "Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure."
Fears that the center could not hold afflicted the electorate again in the election of 1896. While maintaining gold as a basis for the currency was the ostensible issue, what was at stake was whether the vision of the People's Party, an agrarian populist movement dedicated to the overthrow of a government/corporate partnership, would prevail. "You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold," William Jennings Bryan thundered at the Democratic national convention. Not dissimilar competing visions echoed in the Hoover/Roosevelt campaign in 1932.
Some modern national elections have been fraught with division, as well. Two splinter groups challenged the center in 1948 — Henry A. Wallace and the Progressive Party, and Strom Thurmond and the segregationist Dixiecrats. In 1968, perhaps the most tumultuous year in recent memory, anti-Vietnam protest coupled with the civil rights and the women's movements led many to worry that the country was finally coming apart, that their notion of what the country is was being trampled. Such fears surfaced again, though not so strongly, when the Supreme Court-settled Bush v. Gore in 2000.
Alaska has had its share of tension-filled elections, as well, including Egan/Hickel in 1966, the Hammond/Hickel primary in 1978, Hickel/Knowles/Sturgulewski in 1990, and Palin/Knowles in 2006, though none of these led so deep a sense of division as some of the nationals.
What unites them all is the conviction that the system, the national democracy, is more important than who wins or loses, and that we will abide by the outcome, however unsettling.
Theodore White wrote most poetically of this phenomenon in "The Making of the President 1960." In the midst of night, he wrote, the power of the republic slipped invisibly across the dew-wet lawn at Hyannisport, and the people accepted it.
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