When American voters have strong feelings about a politician, they award a nickname. Understand the nickname and you’ll understand what its popular sentiment portends.
In 1860, Americans may have known with facts and figures that Abraham Lincoln was a savvy politician who often subscribed to the ends justifying the means, but “Honest Abe,” with his way-tall physical stature, slow, considered speech, common humor, quiet, ironic smile, worn face and haunted eyes, was above cynical politics. The pain of a genuinely good man was clear to anyone with eyes, or so the winning narrative went.
When Andrew Jackson (“Old Hickory”) faced off in 1824 against John Quincy Adams (“Old Man Eloquent” or “The Madman from Massachusetts”), the Electoral College handed Adams the Presidency even though Jackson had earned more popular votes. During that 1824 election boondoggle, the slaveholding South had tagged Adams with the “Madman” label because it hated his Abolitionist stance with all its cotton-stuffed heart. Four years later, The South and its stalwart warrior, Old Hickory, sent the Madman packing and had their revenge against “a corrupt system where elite insiders pursued their own interests without heeding the will of the people.”
In 1956, when “Ike” Eisenhower and Progressive Adlai “Egghead” Stevenson vied for the US Presidency, huge swaths of our old, pre-WWII American culture were crumbling before an onslaught of rising expectations. Women were loath to trade in their rivets for aprons. Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Boycott, Brown v Board of Education, Beatniks, Jazz and (holy talismans forfend!) Elvis combined to scare the living bejesus out of whites, conservative religious institutions, men, old political hacks and many other guardians of the old America. In 1956, Ike — the General who’d saved us from Hitler, whose feet were solidly on no-nonsense ground — successfully defended the status quo from the Egghead’s Progressive winds of change, but the bells had been rung. In 1960, the New World of Camelot was born.
To my point that nicknames reflect the passions of the time and may be an election bellwether, the dearth of them in 2016 seems strange and notable. The best Hillary’s supporters have come up with is “Her,” as in “I’m With Her” and of course, she won’t use the ones assigned by her opponents. “The Donald” is fine for a mogul-playboy but doesn’t resound on the political stage. Cruz’ depiction of himself as “TrusTED” hasn’t gained traction the way Trump’s moniker for him, “Lyin’ Ted,” has. And Kasich? Well, Kasich is Kasich.
Into the 2016 nickname desert has come “Bernie,” a Vermont Senator with rolled up sleeves, one new suit, unbridled hair and large, emphatic gestures. The Senator’s impatience with old models is familiar ground for young “Berners.” They grew up with The Wild Things of Maurice Sendak, another curmudgeon who trusted them to understand the power of dreams and uncomfortable truths. “Bernie” is a name for Brooklyn and The Rust Belt. It belongs in a union hall, at a night school lectern and on picket lines. Its lack of adornment feels comfortable on the tongues of people whose jobs have disappeared overseas, of students crippled with debt and of the impoverished who are more likely to do jail time than college time.
In truth, I don’t know what it all means for November but I do know that today’s political parties should learn what nicknames say about the future in a way that Stephen Douglas, John Q Adams, Ike’s Republicans and Debbie Wasserman-Schultz’ Democratic National Committee haven’t.
(Disclaimer: I can’t swear that my Berniephilia hasn’t informed the “tone” of this post.)