Monday, November 19, 2012

Electoral Collage (and a big block of cheese)

The Amherst presidential election results were not surprising:
  • Obama: 83%
  • Romney: 13%
  • Stein (Green): 3%
  • Johnson (Libertarian): 2%
Our presidential vote was very similar to that of Northampton (82-14) and Pelham (82-15), though noticeably more lopsided than Hadley's (69-29). All of these western Massachusetts towns, though, tilted more decisively toward the President than did the Commonwealth as a whole (61-38).

It was a similar story in the Senate race, in which we opted for Elizabeth Warren over Scott Brown (80-20 % vs. statewide: 54-46).

Indeed, the presidential results were similar to those of 2008, when Amherst tilted for Obama vs. McCain by 87 to 10 percent.

All this would seem to fit our image (caricature?) and self-understanding as the hyperliberal "People's Republic of Amherst." It is true that we, like many of our neighboring towns, opposed the War of 1812, whose 200th anniversary we are (sort of) marking this year. Governor Strong (a Northampton man) rejected the initial presidential request for troops to serve outside the boundaries of the Commonwealth and called up the militia only in 1814, when the threat of British invasion became acute. Indeed, there was fear that New England might secede over the War (sort of puts our current radical activism to shame, doesn't it?).

However, this antiwar movement had little if anything in common with the modern spirit of pacifism, protest, and resistance that prompts residents to proffer resolutions on world affairs at Town Meeting. Rather, although the Governor's reluctance derived at least in part from a constitutional argument about war-making powers, the heart of the issue was material interest. New Englanders were not enthusiastic about British policy, but they soon proved to be even less enthusiastic about  President Jefferson's anti-British embargo on foreign trade, which, as they saw it, threatened to devastate their businesses. Economic interests diverged along lines of region as well as class. (Then, as later, it was "the economy, stupid!")

It is thus easy to forget that our reputation as a bastion of leftist "progressivism" is, historically speaking, a rather recent phenomenon, which began only with the massive growth of the University in the 1960s.  In 1956, we liked Ike much better than Stevenson (3154 to 1071 votes). And during roughly the first half of the century, when even local candidates ran as representatives of formal political parties rather than as individuals, Democrats were a distinct minority. The 1958 rolls listed:
  • Independents 2091
  • Republicans 1753
  • Democrats 642
In the 1960 presidential election, in which turnout reached 92 percent, Nixon bested Kennedy by 2716 to 1789 votes. All members of the Select Board belonged to the Republican Party. Clearly, it's not your grandfather's Select Board anymore.

When, soon after this year's presidential election, a spoof Twitter account referencing President Bartlet of the "West Wing" television series, suggested sending a "big block of cheese" to President Obama and his staff, I could not help but think of the historical antecedents.

The West Wing incident in turn alluded to the giant, 1,400-pound cheese that admirers sent to President Andrew Jackson, who finally managed to dispose of it by giving it to 10,000 representatives of the common people at a public reception in 1837. There was, however, an even earlier precedent.

As MassMoments, the daily historical feature of the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities, reminds us, back in July 1801:
the Berkshire County town of Cheshire made a 1235-pound ball of cheese and shipped it to Washington, D.C. as a gift for the newly-elected President, Thomas Jefferson, who was a popular figure in western Massachusetts. When news of the "mammoth cheese" reached the eastern part of the state, it caused consternation. Jefferson had won the presidency by defeating John Adams, Massachusetts' native son. Westerners were more in sympathy with Jefferson's vision of a nation of independent yeoman farmers than they were with the strong central government advocated by Adams and his supporters in the Federalist Party.
In 1800, it seemed, Jefferson, the advocate of a traditional economy and small government, was the favorite of western Massachusetts. The Embargo and War of 1812 made some rethink that choice. In 2012, Barack Obama, the advocate of a more robust and activist government, won the votes of the Commonwealth. In 2012 as in 1800, however, Massachusetts residents rejected their (in the present case: quasi- or pseudo-) native son and voted for the presidential candidate who, they thought, best represented their interests.

The recent campaign was singularly unedifying on an intellectual, moral, and political level, the more so when one considers how the six billion dollars spent to sway, in essence, a handful of cantankerous, self-absorbed, passive-aggressive voters in a handful of swing states, could have been better spent. And so we have come full circle. It seems safe to conclude: Politics in America has long been and probably always will be (sorry, can't help myself) irredeemably cheesy.

No comments: