Americans are about to have a doozy of an election this November. Let’s take a moment to add up just a few of the situations at play here: a pandemic, voter suppression, the possible collapse of the United States Postal Service, an unsettling level of political polarization, a haphazardly tweeting and retweeting president who’s out of touch with reality. We could go on. My routine of having a nice, autumnal stroll to the little church down the street and saying hello to the same nice ladies who volunteer at every election seems little more than a dream in this current world. The problems we’re undergoing can snatch your breath away, if you let it.
A little rewind of sorts might be helpful here, and author Chris Barsanti (a longtime PopMatters contributor contributor) has presented us with The Ballot Box: 10 Presidential Elections That Changed American History to offer some much-needed historical perspective.
To begin it’s a simple book. Ten subjectively important elections are detailed in chronological order. It may have been written for inclusion in school and public libraries, being of quick and easy access for researching and learning cursory details. The events chronicled are a couple hundred years in the making, but you could easily read it on an especially leisurely afternoon, of which some of us have way too many right now. Reminding ourselves that US presidential elections have always been a dang mess is as good of a use of time as a puzzle, at least.
Even if it is a little short on depth, Ballot Box does well to cement at least one thing in our minds: change is coming. We just have to make sure it’s of the good kind this time, because that has not always been the case.
The book attempts to organize all these questions and even more facts into neat little boxes. Barsanti presents each election with six sections: “Why it Mattered”, “The Election”, “The Aftermath”, “What If…”. “Why it Mattered” and “The Aftermath” deal in historical context while “What if…” imagines alternate universes with varying levels of success. Where would we be if FDR had been beaten by Hoover, with Hoover’s dislike of government intervention in economic affairs? Reagan’s campaign slogan was, “Let’s Make America Great Again” by the way. Did we ever get back to the great part? Where would we be now if Jimmy Carter had been able to muster the personality to eek out a win in election ’80?
“…[V]oters are so often told that the upcoming election is the most important one of their lifetimes,” Barsanti writes in the introduction, “While that cliché has been shamelessly overused by pundits and operatives to hype a candidate or boost turnout over the years, there are times when it is actually somewhat true.” We are approaching an election year during a worldwide pandemic and with historical economic instability, all with an unusually polarizing incumbent president, so I think 2020 fits the bill as the most important election of some of our lives.
I predict a re-print in 2021: “Ballot Box: 11 Presidential Elections That Changed American History.” Let’s hope the change is a good one.