Anyone hoping for a civilized presidential campaign where the candidates speak to the voting public about policies and issues, rather than backbiting and slamming each others' misinterpreted words up against a wall to be shot and further rearranged, will be sorely disappointed this election as much as in the past.
What the majority of voters do not know is that mud-slinging and negative campaigning is a classic American tradition, dating back to 1800, just 24 years after the Declaration of Independence and 17 years after the end of the Revolution. Vice-President Jefferson was heavily slandered as being too French, too intellectual, too out of touch with the "common" man - with a strong implication that he couldn't have fought his way out of a paper bag in the Revolution if he'd had to fight - and therefore an unfit candidate for President. (They failed; Jefferson was elected in 1800 as our 3rd POTUS.)
How did this come about? Simply put: the only thing that the Founding Fathers actually agreed upon was that they wanted independence from Britain. After independence had been won, half of them wanted to maintain close ties with Britain as allies; several others wanted to maintain the ties with France that had been built during the Revolutionary War. This mirrored the centuries-old rivalry between France and England - the English, of course, are boring old staid sticks-in-the-mud (with bad food) who care more about homosociality and their horses than their women, while the French are extravagant, over-dressed, snooty libertines. Amusingly enough, wherever you were in the 18th Century, syphilis was the other country's fault.
On top of the French/British partisanship - which was, in fact, a huge political issue in 1800, as Great Britain's policy towards the US involved "liberating" US merchant sailors back into British service on the general premise that the newly created country had "kidnapped" an awful lot of British citizens - there was also the beginnings of the class issues which persist today in the rivalry between rural farming landowners and urban professional ones.
There is little that needs said about this rivalry, save that it still exists in our mythologies of "real America" and the breakdown of "red" and "blue" counties today. Urban professionals still tend to vote one way while rural landowners still tend to vote another. Urban politicians look down on the interests of rural landowners as ill-educated and unfit for a progressive future while rural landowners still suspect urban politicians of colluding to shift policy in their own favor while distracting their children with useless facts in school. The "red state" bias against education has ties in this rivalry, as does the fact that nearly all of the best American universities are located in urban areas. And the bias is alive and well in some quarters that people who do mental work aren't really working, along with the flipside bias that people who do physical work do so because they're not smart enough to do mental work.
Political wrangling devolved to the point, just 50 years after Jefferson's successful election in spite of being called elite and too fond of French food, that it was said that Congress was the "most helpless, disorderly, and inefficient legislative body which can be found in the civilized world". Corruption ran rampant, and Davy Crockett was only the best known of several politicians who were elected into office on the basis of their storytelling skill.
On one side of the aisle, critics of Romney point to his failed attempts at humor and his wealth and evident lack of understanding for less privileged viewpoints as reasons why he is too out of touch to become president. In the Republican primary season, he was criticized for being fluent in French - recalling the charge that Jefferson's principles were heavily seasoned with "French garlic." Much is made of his "woodenness" and a primary goal of the Republican convention was to "humanize" him - make him likeable, approachable - with varying reports of success. In the 2008 election season, Sarah Palin was famously skewered for her "real America" statements, which drew heavily on the rivalry discussed above between rural farmers and urban professionals. President Obama has been touted as equally out of touch by critics as well, both because of his personal income (less than Romney's, but still more than the average American) and because of his international connections and moderate approach to international politics. In these ways, we repeat the election campaigns of our past, focusing on the storytelling skills of candidates and their love or disdain for all things European, instead of actual policy recommendations and leadership. We are nearly at the level of discourse shown in this bit of election propaganda, from the Federal party in 1840:
"These vote traps are generally set and baited in cities and towns, and are usually infested by a considerable swarm of loafers. [...] And they think that the industrious, hard-working people of the country, have no better sense than to be caught just that way."
[Voters are] being told that the election is going to be stolen by "the food stamp army." [True the Vote] say they want to make the experience of voting "like driving and seeing the police following you."
If you enjoyed this post, you might enjoy these articles from elsewhere:
When politics was really dirty (rep-am.com)
Adams vs. Jefferson: The Birth of Negative Campaigning in the U.S. (mentalfloss.com)
ANDREA NEAL: Political mud-slinging as old, and American, as apple pie (courierpress.com)
Dirtiest campaign of all time? Not by a long shot (capitolhillblue.com)