Everyone loves a Top 10 list, right? Well, this time you’re getting a Top 5. Why only five, when there have been so many important United States presidential elections? Quite frankly because I think when you are formulating a “best of” list you inevitably lose effectiveness if you include too many entries. So I picked five.
However, I hate hyperbole so I’m not going to try and convince you I’m creating the ultimate, definitive “Most Important Elections Ever” list. As time goes on we re-interpret past elections and our opinion of their importance is always evolving. So my list won’t be ranked. Consider this a discussion piece. Below is a list of five important Presidential elections in United States history because they had a transformational impact on American politics and society.
The Election of 1800: America’s Test Vote
This election was the first transition of power from one party to another in American history. It showed the world that such a transition could be done peacefully, if a bit rancorously. The ultimate battle came down to old friends turned enemies John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Of three times in American history where Americans were most polarized (1800, 1860, 2010), this was probably the worst. John Adams was accused of being a monarchist attempting to destroy American democracy and Thomas Jefferson was accused of wanting to destroy the Constitution in favor of states’ rights and of wanting to bring French Revolution chaos to America. The Jeffersonian Republicans went head to head with the Federalists in a culmination of years of festering disputes. It ushered in the era of Jeffersonian republicanism that would dominate for decades and established the conservative philosophy in America that can be traced all the way to current events.
The Election of 1868: Grant Prevents a Second Civil War
What? I didn’t include Lincoln’s election in 1860 or 1864? It was a touch decision, but I ultimately opted out of those two elections for a few reasons: the South was on the way out the door regardless of whether or not Lincoln was elected, and Lincoln’s re-election, while a unexpected (and fortunate) turn of events, wasn’t quite radical enough. The election following Lincoln’s assassination is a different story. With the American Civil War still fresh in the minds of voters, and the South under various forms of occupation governments, a spark could have re-ignited the Civil War. Americans could have voted to end Reconstruction, which inevitably would have eroded any gains in civil rights and restored the South to political dominance. Instead, they voted war hero Ulysses S. Grant into office. Under his presidency Reconstruction continued, rights were granted (and protected) to newly freed blacks, and Southern efforts to subvert the government were effectively curbed. President Grant, despite being tarnished for corruption in his cabinet, effectively led the nation on a positive post-war settlement that made a lot of progress toward creating a modern America. But unfortunately Reconstruction would ultimately be done in by our next significant election: 1876.
The Election of 1876: The End of Reconstruction
The 1876 election has to be easily the most controversial Presidential election. Even moreso than the oft-derided “Decision 2000.” The progress in civil rights under Grant were swept away after a ridiculously corrupt election deal brokered between Repulicans and Democrats to secure the Presidency for Rutherford B. Hayes, who actually lost the popular vote. Samuel Tilden, a racist Democrat, was ahead in the polls and electoral votes, but three states were still being decided: South Carolina, Louisiana and America’s most voting-challenged state Florida. Legend has it that a backroom deal was struck that if given the Presidency Hayes would pull troops out of the South and end Reconstruction. This is exactly what happened and the freed blacks were basically sacrificed to the racist Democrat wolves who would dominate the South until the 1950s.
The Election of 1980: The Reagan Revolution
1980 transformed the political landscape. I’ll probably sound like a broken record here so I’ll keep this one short. Reagan effectively linked the religious right with the fiscal conservatives that would last until the present day. There’s a possibility that the Tea Party has forced a split in this coalition but that really remains to be seen. What is undeniable is that Reagan’s election ushered in an era of almost complete Republican domination. Republicans would occupy the White House 20 of the next 30 years, and hold dominance in Congress for many years after 1994. And if current polls are any accurate indication (which they admittedly are not) Republicans are poised to retake the White House in 2012.
The Election of 2008: Obama’s Election Backfires
Despite the rhetoric, there hasn’t been a truly significant election since. Obama’s was hailed as one but seems to be important for a totally different reason than we first anticipated. The birth of the Tea Party movement, for good or for bad, is going to transform American politics. Fresh off their 2010 mid-term election victories, the Tea Party has opened the door for a third party. Recent polls find Americans more open to voting for a third party than ever before. I’m not convinced the transformation has happened yet, no matter what the pundits say on the 24/7 news channels. The Tea Party may have opened the door but it’s up to a third party, like the Modern Whigs, to step through it. (Full disclosure: I count myself as a Modern Whig.)