He may not have been a very memorable president, but nearly two centuries ago Martin Van Buren did much to create the modern political system we have in America today—the idea of strong national parties, the creation of nominating conventions and the contours of political organizing.
"He was a master of manipulating the electoral college and winning elections by what you do at the local level, how you have voting in districts," says Barbara Bair, who oversees Van Buren's manuscripts at the Library of Congress. "In that way, he was a political magician that is the forefather to this very statistical way that we engineer political campaigns today."
And yet, in many ways, the 2016 election is showing the limits of Van Buren's original design.
Van Buren cemented the concept of having national "party establishments" that keep voters—and candidates—in line. That system seems to be falling apart, though, as Donald Trump takes the lead among GOP candidates in spite of (or perhaps because of) his unwillingness to play by the party's rules.
"I don't think there's any bigger storyline in the 2016 election," says Washington Post reporter Chris Cillizza in the latest episode of the Presidential podcast. "We focus on Trump, and rightly so. But Bernie Sanders's challenge to Hillary Clinton is also meaningful in this regard of the decline and fall of the two party establishments."
Interestingly, Van Buren's vision for nominating conventions and for a highly organized national political machine emerged out of the chaos of the 1824 election, in which multiple candidates within the same party cannibalized each other's votes in a way that ultimately threatened to fracture and weaken the party as a whole. Similar assessments have been made of both the Republican and Democratic fields in 2016.
Is the type of election system that Van Buren helped build no longer effective at keeping the two American political parties united within their own ranks? Bair, Cillizza and Van Buren expert Mark Cheathem explore that question in the most recent podcast episode of Presidential:
The Presidential podcast, consisting of 44 episodes leading up to election day in November, examines of each of the American presidents. In previous episodes, we explored topics like the mythology of George Washington and why John Quincy Adams made an effective congressman but an ineffective president. The podcast is hosted by Lillian Cunningham, editor of The Washington Post's On Leadership section.
As listeners tune in each week, the podcast reveals the ways in which our collective sense of what’s ’presidential’ has evolved over the years and how each president—esteemed, loathed or nearly forgotten—has something to tell us about what it takes to hold the nation’s highest office.
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