2016 has certainly been a surprising political year for many people. Many words have been written from every perspective about the how and why of campaigns and elections happening the way they did (and what it means for the future). In my admittedly limited study of coverage, though, I’ve been surprised that many people view what has transpired as novel, unprecedented, even.
The political events of the past year certainly have new characteristics, but a review of history reveals that, while perhaps not common, shocking governmental upsets, defamation and fake news are anything but neoteric.
Truman, a biography by David McCullough, describes the result of the 1948 race between Harry Truman and Thomas E. Dewey in terms that seem tailor-made for our most recent election1:
The country was flabbergasted. It was called a “startling victory,” “astonishing,” “a major miracle.” Truman, said Newsweek on its cover, was the Miracle Man. He had won against the greatest odds in the annals of presidential politics. Not one polling organization had been correct in its forecast. Not a single radio commentator or newspaper columnist, or any of the hundreds of reporters who covered the campaign, had called it right. Every expert had been proven wrong, and as was said, a “great roar of laugher arose from the land.” The people had made fools of those supposedly in the know. Of all amazing things, Harry Truman had turned out to be the only one who knew what he was talking about.
—David McCullough, Truman – New York Simon & Schuster 1992
Quartz, a fairly young digital publication owned by Atlantic Media Co., recently published an article about the damaging effects of fake news during Abraham’s reelection effort in 18642:
Abraham Lincoln was more than just a foe of slavery. He was also a mixed-race eugenicist, believing that the intermarriage of blacks and whites would yield an American super-race.
Or at least, that’s what newspapers in 1864 would have had you believe. The charge isn’t true. But this miscegenation hoax still “damn near sank Lincoln that year,” says Heather Cox Richardson, history professor at Boston College. In February 1864, Lincoln was preparing for a tough re-election campaign amidst a bloody civil war when he and his Republican party were blindsided.
Quartz summary of those events over a century ago also feel uncomfortably relevant:
Back then, telegraphs and other technological changes let news spread swiftly and gave rise to more starkly partisan newspapers. Public trust in government was in tatters. With little consensus or authority over the truth, the purest gauge of veracity was gut feeling. And in an America so deeply divided—especially over differences about race—what tended to feel real were stories that confirmed fears and biases.
When something we experience seems unprecedented, it’s a healthy practice to look back at history.
1. I finished reading Truman this year and highly recommend it. For a ~1000 page book, it read surprisingly quickly. You can pick up a copy on Amazon.2. You can read the full Quartz article, titled “Fake news isn’t a recent problem in the US—it almost destroyed Abraham Lincoln,” on their website.