Check your References — War and Politics

As part of Election 101, we are posting exclusive content from The Concise Princeton Encyclopedia of American Political History on subjects related to Election 2012.

“War and politics have always been entwined in American history,” writes Michael Sherry in the opening to this article that tackles among other things how war affects the presidency.

The presidency underlines how war and politics constituted each other. War or its apparent threat underwrote the presidency’s expanding powers, both legal and illegal. Major crises, none more so than 9/11, produced presidential claims that constitutional provisions, international laws, and humanitarian norms should be altered, suspended, or reinterpreted. War also brought greater power for individual presidents, though less often lasting glory. Many Americans suspected presidents of using war for political gain, but presidents usually achieved little that endured. Those who secured lasting luster— Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt— died before the emergence of the sour aftermath war usually presents. Woodrow Wilson’s presidency crumbled after World War I; Republicans seized the White House in 1921. Truman and the Democrats barely survived World War II’s aftermath and then succumbed to the Korean War; a Republican, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, became president in 1953. The Vietnam War and their handling of it destroyed the presidencies of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon (his abuse of war powers shaped the Watergate crisis of 1973– 74). Difficult wars readily damaged presidents, as George W. Bush found in the Iraq War, but even a triumphant Gulf War gave no lasting political traction to his father, defeated in 1992 by Bill Clinton. By the same token, three of the four post- 1945 presidents who served two full terms— Eisenhower, Reagan, and Clinton— avoided costly war making and remained popular. War was as fickle in its political ramifications as in its conduct and global consequences, often overwhelming the state’s ability to control it and ensnaring presidents.

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The preceding is an excerpt from The Concise Princeton Encyclopedia of American Political History, edited by Michael Kazin, Rebecca Edwards, and Adam Rothman. To learn more about this book, please visit Copyright © 2011 by Princeton University Press. No part of this text may be distributed, posted, or reproduced in any form by digital or mechanical means without prior written permission of the publisher.

France and America: Richard Kuisel compares elections

As voters went to the polls for the French presidential elections, Richard Kuisel, author of The French Way: How France Embraced and Rejected American Values and Power shared his thoughts with Election 101 on the distinct differences between election season in the US and the one in France. Read on for an interesting study in contrasts between two political cultures including treatments of key issues like the market and capitalism, immigration, as well as a marked difference in the amount of interest in candidates’ private lives and religious faith.



France and America: Comparing Elections

Richard Kuisel


Mitt Romney speaks French! For some voters, this French connection is a handicap.  A look at the concurrent presidential elections in the U.S. and France reveals some striking parallels, telling differences, and intriguing connections.

In both campaigns the principal issue is the incumbent president.  For many renewing mandates is the question that outweighs all other considerations.  In France large majorities say they oppose reelection.  Presidents Obama and Sarkozy have provoked determined opponents, some of whom would go to great length to limit them to one term. The far right of the Republican Party, despite reservations about Mitt Romney, would hold their nose and vote for him in order to oust Barack Obama.  Similarly, in France, the far Left, who are not enamored of the Socialist candidate, François Hollande, seem willing to endorse him if need be to block Nicolas Sarkozy.  For many voters in both countries these elections are referenda on the inhabitants of the White House and the Elysée Palace and much of the energy originates in oppositional politics.  In both countries legislative elections (which in France follow in June) may not ratify the presidential vote and may thus bring divided governments.

Critics in both electorates are also motivated by a perception of national decline and blame this downward momentum on their presidents. Voters worry about a loss of international status, domestic cohesion, a sense of common purpose, and even national identity.  They ask “Are our best days behind us?”  This is an old Gallic anxiety that dates back to the Fall of France in 1940, if not earlier. For Americans this is a newer concern. The way to return the U.S to greatness according to the Tea Party movement is to remove President Obama and revive the spirit of our Founding Fathers. Sarkozy speaks of restoring traditional values like work and responsibility and his slogan is “The Strong France.”  For the Left in France the solution is to send Sarkozy into retirement and revive social democracy and civic solidarity.

Both presidential campaigns have focused on domestic rather than foreign affairs.  Candidates debate unemployment, budget deficits, and strategies for economic revival rather than  international affairs.  In the U.S. even though we are engaged in a seemingly endless war, Afghanistan is not a major issue. The war is less and less popular but the end game is depressing rather than controversial.  The principal international problem is how far the U.S. should go to block Iran’s nuclear ambitions.  Otherwise the question is how to create jobs, reduce government debt, and remedy health care.  Among the French attention is on unemployment, the cost of living, job security, and law and order. And worry about immigration is keener in France than in the U.S. Foreign affairs are peripheral except for Europe and there debate centers on the EU’s new fiscal compact and the union’s openness to immigration.   None of these concerns, however, compete with the agenda set by the current economic and financial crises.

What is perhaps more illuminating than similarities are transatlantic differences starting with religion.  In France’s secular political culture the religious convictions of presidential candidates are irrelevant and the French are dismayed at how American politicians parade their religiosity or question the beliefs of their rivals, for example, the Mormon faith of Romney. Claiming “I am a better Christian than you” seems to enhance a candidate’s political profile here but not in France.   If one’s faith is not an issue in France, however, treatment of the Muslim community is controversial.

Private lives, like religious faith, occupy the American electorate but not the French. In the U.S. presidential candidates parade their wives and children, their records as parents, and their marital fidelity as certificates of electability.  And they undermine rivals by raising questions about such matters, e.g. Gingrich’s divorces.  Not so in France where politics do not intrude on privacy.  That François Hollande sired four children outside of marriage is not a handicap.  Sarkozy, however, has crossed this boundary with his high-profile divorce and remarriage to a former model while occupying the Elysée.  And he has made his temperament and life style a minor issue, but this is atypical of Gallic politics and a faint echo of how Americans conduct elections.

Money also distinguishes the American electoral process. Some ask whether or not the spending of Super PACS and the media have fundamentally distorted this election.  No such problem exists in the current French campaign.

All candidates in the American campaign praise the market and capitalism. Not so in France where both Sarkozy and Hollande  denounce market fundamentalism and the far Left presents an openly anti-capitalist stance.  Unlike the U.S. virtually all French candidates also agree on raising taxes, especially on the wealthy, avoid discussing spending cuts, and indict the financial sector for the crisis.

Are there any connections between the two elections?  A perceived “French connection” is a handicap in the U.S. Thus the Super Pac of Gingrich (who himself knows French) has belittled Romney for speaking French and Santorum has claimed (falsely) that France has not sided with America for the last 20 years. And labeling any Democratic initiative as the “European (French) way” is now a familiar Republican indictment. In France Obama remains popular and anti-Americanism is out of bounds except for latent reservations about Sarkozy.  In 2007 the latter had campaigned openly as a friend of the American way, the first presidential candidate in French history to do so, but he has retreated from this stance and America, including France’s reintegration into NATO in 2009, is not a serious issue.

Mercifully all this will be over by May 6 in France while Americans will have to struggle on until November.

Richard F. Kuisel holds a joint appointment at the BMW Center for German and European Studies and in the History Department at Georgetown University. His books include Seducing the French: The Dilemma of Americanization

When it comes to the election, what do the Europeans REALLY think?

Is Anti-Americanism in Europe a kind of lingua-franca that reaches new heights during the election season? Recently I asked Andrei Markovits, author of Uncouth Nation: Why Europe Dislikes America to provide a sense of what the view from Europe looks like now that the campaigns are in full swing. Is there befuddlement? Consternation? Identification? Exhaustion? What is the general consensus on the strategies being employed and the issues being addressed? Read on, after the jump:


When it comes to the election, what do the Europeans REALLY think?

Andrei Markovits

Even an intermittent reading of the European press’ (the British, the German, the Austrian, the French, the Italian) reporting on the months-long and seemingly endless presidential campaign reveals that most of the attention – quite naturally — has focused on the Republican Party’s primaries with little, if any, given to President Obama though, he, too, has attained greater scrutiny of late as a candidate rather than as the incumbent president. Given much of the West European media’s and public’s a priori antipathies towards most things Republican – especially since George W. Bush’s presidency – it should come as no surprise that the tone and content of much of the coverage has been deeply critical and negative. While it is very hard to generalize, here are some of the most salient themes that have emerged:

First and foremost, there is sheer bafflement with the low intellectual quality of the debates and the content of the campaigns. There appears the perception that candidates have opted to “dumb things down” as a clear strategy for success, that in their quest best to connect with the Republican activists and primary voters, no inanity seems safe. Starting with the negative depiction that Mitt Romney speaks French and thus should be placed on an equal level with John Kerry with whom he also shares the scarlet letter of being from liberal Massachusetts; to the constant denunciation of Barack Obama as a socialist, most European observers cannot escape the notion that the Republican Party has gone off the deep end; that in the quest to reach its hard core, the balance of political content has shifted so far to the right that blatant nonsense is uttered with conviction as long as it gets the votes. To much of the European media’s credit, this development is bemoaned and depicted as a sad aberration, even a dangerous development for the level of public discourse and even democracy in the United States. Alas, of course, there also exist voices that see this development as an all-too-obvious revelation of the true nature of Americans’ innate yahooness that contrasts so starkly with the equally innate enlightened nature of Europeans.

Then there is the rightful consternation with the Republican Party’s presidential candidates’ explicit, even proudly acclaimed, anti-Europeanism as a marked form of product differentiation: the more anti-European, the better. The constant barrage of equating Europe with socialism – I wish this were much more the case in reality, especially in this day and age, and not a pejorative staple in the Republican presidential candidates’ distorted view of reality in contemporary American politics – and thus with ultimate evil strikes European observers not only as asinine and infantile; but clearly ill-willed and prejudiced. With “Europe” having become a veritable Schimpfwort – a pejorative term – in the Republican Party’s milieu, an anti-Europeanism has emerged in American politics that differs little, if at all, from the anti-American essentializing that has informed some of Europe’s discourse about America and Americans for many decades, indeed since 1776, and was well-nigh de rigueur in most conversations at pretty much any dinner party in Europe’s elite circles during George W. Bush’s presidency: meaning the liberal, even careless, and often willfully distorting utilization of a word denoting a complex and overarching social, cultural, economic, political and national phenomenon for the sole purpose of demeaning something that one opposes and dislikes.

As to the European view of President Obama – and thus the other side of the presidential race – a much more measured tone has replaced the Obamamania of yore which, as I have argued in a number of publications[1], reflected merely the other side of the coin of standard European anti-Americanism by depicting Barack Obama as a quasi-European sophisticate with all the correct and requisite European social democratic sensibilities and attributes who – so one hoped – would civilize these uncouth Americans.  Whereas the negative view of virtually all things Republican has emerged as a common denominator in the European reporting on the presidential election, regardless of the commentator’s and the outlet’s political leanings and preferences, I could not detect any such uniformity concerning Barack Obama. Roughly, and as expected, the right-of-center approved of Obama’s foreign policy positions but criticized his quasi – and all-too-meekly – Keynesian steps of countering the Great Recession. The exact opposite pertained to the left-of-center voices: heavy criticisms of Obama’s veritable Bush-like Cowboy-ish foreign policy measures, particularly in his steps against Al Quaeda’s leadership, and muted praise for his domestic measures on the economy, including the passage of his health care reform that, of course, to many Europeans, well to the right of the established left, was no great achievement but merely a long-overdue step to a normalcy that Europeans, independent of their political leanings, have come to view as part of their daily fabric since the end of World War II.


[1] See, for example, “Obamamania and Anti-Americanism as Complementary Concepts in Contemporary German Discourse” in German Politics and Society, Volume 28, Number 1 (Spring 2010); pp. 69 – 94. [with Ruth Hatlapa]

Andrei S. Markovits teaches at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. His most recent book published by Princeton University Press is Gaming the World: How Sports are Reshaping Global Politics and Culture.