Exorcising the franchise

Throughout the year 2020 the media have made a big to-do about the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote.  As is always the case when the media look backwards, something that was controversial in its day is no longer controversial.  The history is settled.  It’s been a win-win situation for all of us.  How could it be otherwise?  Drawbacks?  Repercussions?  Side effects?  Of course not!  We’re on the right side of history and we’re sticking to it!  Even to suggest otherwise is…well, some people don’t deserve free speech.

Nevertheless, when democracy buffs tut-tut over the fact that so many eligible voters don’t bother to show up at the polls (even in the contentious 2016 election, 39% stayed home), is it possible that giving women the right to vote has played a part in voter apathy?

During the Reagan presidency there was talk of a gender gap.  46% of women voted for Reagan, 54% of men.  The tacit assumption behind this observation was that if women preferred a candidate, it was the “good” candidate; if men preferred a candidate, it was the “bad” candidate.  Then, as now, the media tilted left, so if women went in the same direction, then it was a testament to the superior morality, virtue, and discernment of the fair sex.  And if men preferred Reagan or some other troglodyte…well, just be glad women voters are around to save the country from those male mossbacks.

Assuming that a gender gap exists among a couple, married or otherwise, why would they bother to vote?  They just cancel out each other’s votes.  That does neither candidate any good.  So why bother to wait in line at the polls?  Why bother to bone up on the issues and the candidates?  Better to keep peace in the family and just blow it off.  Some people characterize voting as a right; others as a privilege.  Either way, it’s optional.

Ah, but what about all the suffragettes who struggled to get women the vote!  Sufferin’ suffragettes!  (Imagine Daffy Duck or Sylvester the cat saying that.)  How can any modern woman stay home after all the struggles her ancestral sisters went through 100 or more years ago!  Well, in truth, a lot of the first-time female voters stayed home in 1920.

The 1920 Presidential campaign pitted Democrat James Cox against Republican Warren Harding.  By a strange coincidence, both were from Ohio and both owned newspapers (Cox in Dayton, Harding in Marion) before getting into politics.

Thanks to the 19th Amendment, the number of eligible voters in 1920 ballooned to 54,165,000, with men having 27,245,000 and women 26,920,000.  When the dust had settled, Harding won in a landslide, 404 to 127 in electoral votes, 16,144,093 to 9,139,661 (or 60.3% to 34.1%) in the popular vote.  Post-election pundits assumed that voters wanted “a return to normalcy,” as Harding put it.  Peace and prosperity – no more foreign wars.  In other words, Democrat Woodrow Wilson’s international pipe dreams were about as moribund as the man himself (he had suffered a stroke in the fall of 1919), and the taint carried over to James Cox.

17,245,150 men (67% of those eligible) voted, while 9,457,033 women (only 35.1% of those eligible) exercised their newfound franchise.  The poor female turnout was attributed to a number of factors, one being that women were new to the game and it would take then time to come around.  Of course, not all women were in favor of female suffrage, so it was assumed that they sat this one out.  Surprisingly, a number of women stayed away because of their age.  It has never been polite to ask a woman to reveal her age, but the county registrar of voters is no gentleman.

Harding got the bulk of the suffragette vote.  Until the end of his administration, Woodrow Wilson and the Democrats had not been overly enthusiastic about women voting (probably because of the overlap between the suffragette movement and the women’s temperance movement) while Harding and the Republicans had been more upbeat about it.  Strange as it may seem today, however, another dynamic was at work: Warren Harding was a sexy beast!  Move over, JFK; step aside, Bill Clinton!  Warren Harding just might have been the biggest horndog daddy to ever occupy the White House!

Pictures of the mature Harding (he turned 55 on election day) provide no clues as to his appeal.  It is hard to see him as a heartthrob, yet he had multiple mistresses and fathered at least one and likely two children out of wedlock.  In his younger days, he said, “It’s a good thing I’m not a woman.  I would always be pregnant.  I can’t say no.”  I guess you had to be there.

The few pictures available of Harding as a young man portray him as a much more dapper character.  Perhaps even in his maturity he had some sort of Svengali-like hold on distaff voters.  Of course, there was no television in 1920 but he was visible in newsreels shown in movie theaters across the country.  Silent movies might seem like an unlikely medium for conveying animal magnetism, but about the time Harding was inaugurated women were swooning over Rudolph Valentino.

When Harding died after just two and half years in office, taciturn Vice-President Calvin Coolidge took over.  A sexy beast he was not.  Famously, in 1933 when writer Dorothy Parker heard Coolidge had died, she wondered, “How can they tell?”

Typically, the Presidential election does not offer candidates with sex appeal. The rise of television, however, made the exceptions stand out.  The first TV President was Harry Truman, who ran against Thomas Dewey in 1948.  Neither was likely to inspire femme hearts to go pitter-pat.  Then we had Dwight Eisenhower vs. Adlai Stevenson twice (1952 and 1956), an old soldier vs. an old egghead.

By 1960 television had penetrated even the most remote corners of the republic.  That was the year the Democrats nominated John F. Kennedy to run against Richard Nixon.  Kennedy was far more telegenic than Nixon.  As was often remarked by politic pundits, there was a split in the ranks as to who won the Nixon-Kennedy debates.  Among radio listeners, Nixon was the winner; among TV watchers, it was Kennedy.  On the radio, they were just a couple of Irish politicians.  But on TV Kennedy was a Celtic Prince Charming, while Nixon looked like a constipated pallbearer.

Of course, that shouldn’t have made any difference when it came time to cast a ballot.  But to the young woman voters, Kennedy was a dreamboat, Nixon was a barge.  Kennedy whetted the interest of female voters while wetting their panties.  Indeed, after Kennedy’s death, his priapic extracurricular activities became part of his legend.  Camelot described his administration; came a lot described his sex life.  Significantly, he was the youngest man (43) ever elected President.

After Kennedy, it was a long dry spell: Barry Goldwater vs. Lyndon Johnson (1964), Nixon vs. Hubert Humphrey (1968), Nixon vs. George McGovern (1972), Gerald Ford vs. Jimmy Carter (1976), Ronald Reagan vs. Jimmy Carter (1980), Reagan vs. Walter Mondale (1984), and George H.W Bush vs. Michael Dukakis (1988).  None of these candidates had sex appeal; in fact, it was debatable if they still had sex lives.  In some cases, if not for the presence of offspring, any kind of prior sex life might have been in question.

Over the decades, as the candidates came and went, women were catching up to men.  By the 1970s eligible male and female voters were voting at about the same rate.  Appealing to the female sex was a must even in the absence of sex appeal.

Then along came Bill Clinton in 1992.  Running against two old men, George H.W. Bush and Ross Perot, he made it into the White House with a majority of electoral votes while garnering just 43% of the popular vote.  When he took office, he was 46 years old – middle-aged by human years but young for a President (in fact, he was only 32 when he moved into the Governor’s Mansion in Little Rock, Arkansas).  Like Kennedy, he had a full head of hair, which never hurts.

A famous photo from 1963 shows a young Bill Clinton (then 16) shaking hands with his idol, John F. Kennedy, in the White House Rose Garden. Did some sort of hot mama mojo transfusion take place at that moment?  If so, it probably wasn’t necessary.  Growing up in Hot Springs, Arkansas, known for gamblers and gangsters, Clinton was probably no stranger to worldly pleasures.

As it turned out, Clinton’s sex life was as active as his idol’s, though JFK certainly got classier women.  Unfortunately, by the time Clinton was running for President, it was no longer possible to keep “bimbo eruptions” out of the media.  Given who he was married to, Clinton’s sexual adventures might be understandable.  In fact, he might have garnered some pity votes from men.

When Clinton left office, it was back to the bores.  George W. Bush v. Gore (2000), then Bush v. John Kerry (2004).   Then in 2008 it was John McCain, who was 72 and looked older vs. Barack Obama, who was 47 and looked younger.

It’s hard to speculate on why Obama struck a chord with female voters in 2008.  He was a relative unknown who had risen quickly not on the basis of achievement (when nominated, he hadn’t even completed one term as the Illinois junior senator) but largely on charisma.  I actually knew a young woman who took a day off work and used precious air miles to fly out of town for the day just to see him deliver a speech.

So we might say that to score with young female voters, a man must be young, by Presidential standards.  35 is the minimum age but no one under 42 has ever occupied the Oval Office (VP Teddy Roosevelt was that age when he took over for the assassinated William McKinley in 1901).  With more and more women entering the fray, it would be intriguing if a bona fide babe got a nomination one day.  The minimum age requirement would work against female sex appeal, but a well-preserved supermodel might arouse the attention of male voters.

Whatever age he is, a candidate must always look younger than he is.  In short, he must look like a guy who gets laid a lot, even while parading the family around for photo ops.  JFK and Clinton looked as though they got laid a lot – and they did.  There are a lot of stories out there about Obama getting laid a lot but not by women…though I don’t want to go down that rabbit hole in this article.

Sadly, while it helps to look like a player, a candidate cannot openly behave like one.  Remember that woman I mentioned a few paragraphs ago…the one who used up air miles just to see Obama in person?  Before that, she had been an ardent supporter of John Edwards, who was something of a rising star in the Democratic party (he had been John Kerry’s running mate in 2004).  Then it was revealed that he was having an affair and had fathered a child while his wife was battling cancer.  I’m sure his stand on the issues was not affected by any of the contortions of his personal life, but the point was moot, as women voters hurled themselves off his bandwagon.  According to Wikipedia, he is back where he started: chasing ambulances in North Carolina.

One might think that marriage vows would be a hindrance to a man running for public office, but just the opposite is true.  Even today, with plummeting marriage rates and the rise of single adults, a bachelor just isn’t acceptable in high office.  If a candidate isn’t married by age 35, he’s wasting his time seeking high office.  As they do with other men of that age, women would look at such a man and wonder what his flaw was.  You know the litany…he can’t commit…he’s irresponsible…he’s selfish…in fact, deep down he might be a misogynist.  And there’s always the old fallback, he’s gay…not that there’s anything wrong with that and not that I have anything against gays and some of my best friends are gay and I have a second cousin who’s gay and I would never let that affect my vote.  I just don’t like his stand on the issues.

Today there are more eligible women voters than men and they aren’t staying home any longer.  It is possible to win an election without getting a majority of the female vote, but impossible if their vote totals sink below a certain percentage.  Consequently, women’s issues play a key role in every election.  Men’s issues do not matter because men’s votes are not needed to win an election.  Still, it’s hard to say, since neither side talks about men’s issues, probably because the female voters who would be scared away would outnumber the male voters who joined up.

So in the year 2020, with two geezers running for the highest office in the land, let us ponder what the 19th Amendment hath wrought.  Has extending the franchise to women given us a better caliber of candidate?  Has it given us a better caliber of officeholder?  Is our political discourse on a higher level?  I’m no scholar regarding pre-1920 elections, but I can’t answer any of the above questions in the affirmative.  (We might ask the same questions of the 26th Amendment which gave the vote to 18-year-olds.)

Having reservations about democracy, however, is almost as dangerous as bad-mouthing social security.  If you’re serious about running for public office, forget about it.  For the most part “our democracy” is motivated by two types of voters.  The idealist votes for what he thinks is best for the country; the pragmatist votes in his own self-interest (after all, by definition, nobody else can do it for him).  Then there are the fusion voters who believe that one’s self-interest dovetails with the country’s best interests.  Did I say fusion?  Pardon me, I meant delusion.

Speaking of delusion, that brings us back to the women voters.  To be sure, some vote for what they perceive to be the best interests of the country, while others vote their self-interest.  Then there are other women whose motivations are simply to follow the herd, as they do in so many other pursuits – take fashion, for example.

While knocking around a local shopping mall the other day, I came to a clothing store that had an enormous window display of mannequins – must have been at least two dozen of them – wearing those jeans with pre-cut holes in them (apparently, they’re called ripped or distressed jeans).  For reasons that I cannot fathom, these items of apparel have become inexplicably popular among women, even those old enough to know better.  They are also available in men’s jeans but I don’t think I’ve seen more than two or three men wearing them.

Hard to believe, but clothing that a ragpicker would have passed over during the Depression has now become all the rage among fashionistas (but what do I know…by now they may already be on the way out).  Why in my day, ripped jeans were no big deal, just part of the natural evolution of new jeans.  When they got ripped, usually at the knee, you cut them off and then you had shorts (and women with outstanding legs had short-shorts).

So I was chuckling to myself as I pondered the flock of mannequins in the store window.  There it was, proof positive that you could sell women anything so long as it was acceptable to the herd.

And then I was no longer amused.   If you can sell women marked-up rags and call it fashion, there’s no telling what sort of seriously flawed political candidate could be deemed fashionable given the right promotion.

The realization that the millions of women who bought ripped jeans were also eligible to vote was a sobering thought…almost enough to make me rend my garment in despair.