Horses, Bayonets and the Use and Abuse of History on the Presidential Campaign Trail

Obama – an historic win for an historic campaign

When I woke up on Wednesday morning to find that there weren’t nuclear missiles flying past my window at regular intervals, I realized that Obama had won the election and was glad.

Nevertheless, I almost felt a twinge of sympathy for Mitt Romney during the presidential debates. After being derided for declaring his love for Sesame Street’s Big Bird in the first debate and revealing that he had ‘binders full of women‘ stored away in the second, Obama’s now famous ‘horses and bayonets‘ put-down provided yet more cannon fodder for political commentators and Tumblr site creators alike. Obama’s comparison of out of date naval technology to earlier (and therefore now redundant) military equipment such as horses and bayonets provides just one example of how heavily references to the past are used by politicians to support their own policies whilst undermining those of their opponents. In this case it took the form of a seemingly throwaway reference; at other points it provides the entire foundation on which to base a policy.

The main form the candidates’ use of the past has taken has been to try and legitimise their stances on contentious issues. Take, for example, the issue of same-sex marriage and how Romney tries to support his belief in ‘traditional’ marriage through reference to a past in which the institution of marriage has remained unchanged, between one man and one woman, for three thousand years. Such a past is, of course, a myth, and exists only in the popular memory of segments of the population, but is nevertheless useful in providing some justification (other than ‘the Bible’) for a standpoint that otherwise has very little to base itself on.

President Obama has employed similar tactics in his bid to get re-elected. Earlier this year, White House staff modified official online biographies of every president since Calvin Coolidge (with the exception of Gerald Ford) to include a couple of lines of reference to something Obama has done to continue their work. In Coolidge’s case this takes the form of a rather innocent comparison between the first presidential speech broadcast on radio in 1924 and Obama’s innovative use of social media to engage with greater numbers of the electorate. In other cases, this device is used in an attempt to legitimise some of Obama’s more divisive policies through links to the past; comparisons between Obama’s ‘Buffett tax‘ and Reagan’s call for a fairer tax system, or Johnson’s signing off of Medicare to Obama’s own health reforms, stand out particularly in this respect.This marks a significant, yet understandable, shift in rhetoric since the 2008 election. Attempts to depict Obama’s actions as a culmination of decades’ worth of policy making, rather than as a messianic bringer of change, mark the fact that he is now campaigning as an incumbent president. Relying on the same rhetoric would have, of course, undermined all his efforts over the past four years. It could also be a response to right-wing rhetoric depicting him as a socialist (and the rhetoric of their lunatic fringe, which doggedly accuses him of not being born in the US). In the context of such discourse, links with both Republican and Democratic policies paint Obama as reassuringly American, nobly carrying on the work of the great presidents of the twentieth century. However, the validity of such claims is more than a little questionable. The Reagan comparison in particular doesn’t quite ring true, especially as Reagan’s idea of a ‘fairer tax system’ involved slashing the top rate of income tax from 70% to 28%, contrasting quite considerably with Obama’s own economic policy.

References to history, both as small reference points and as ways of justifying central policies, have been prevalent throughout the course of the US presidential campaign. What, therefore, could be a more fitting way of rounding it up than Obama referencing America’s first struggles for independence and a democracy of its own in the first lines of his victory speech? Given Romney’s predilection for unfortunate soundbites, a part of me was morbidly curious about what he would have said in a similar situation. It would, quite possibly, have been unintentionally and awkwardly hilarious. His subsequent presidency would have been more sobering.

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