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When The Lever Breaks

It’s been said by a million writers and pundits but I’m adding myself to the official record and stating definitively: this will go down as the most unusual presidential election ever.

It’s been an ugly two years with seemingly unprecedented levels of rancor, intolerance, dishonesty, frustration and hostility. Family members aren’t speaking to each other over their opinions, and friends are being un-friended, both on social media and in real life, over their different takes on what path is best for the nation. Couples are uncoupling. Even some marriages are straining under the weight of political opinion. And yet, this is kind of what the Founding Fathers expected.

As national elections began to play out in the first half of the 19th century, elections were almost always ugly, obnoxious affairs. Newspapers abounded as the only source for information, and many sprung up solely to spread lies, propaganda and innuendo about the candidate(s) the newspaper’s owner happened to like or not like.

For example, the 1828 election that pitted challenger Andrew Jackson against sitting President John Quincy Adams raised the bar on rancor at the time. Adams’ proxies spread rumors that Jackson committed war crimes as a general in the War of 1812 and called out Jackson’s marriage to a divorcee as illegitimate, accusing him of adultery and labeling his wife Rachel a bigamist.

In return, the Jackson camp accused Adams of pimping out the sexual services of an American woman to the czar of Russia to curry favor.

At one point an Adams-supporting newspaper wrote, “General Jackson’s mother was a common prostitute, brought to this country by the British soldiers! She afterward married a mulatto man, with whom she had several children, of which number General Jackson is one!”

Ugly stuff, and it puts this year’s ugliness in context. Americans have always been nasty about their political opposition.

But what I find interesting about “the new level of ugly discourse,” as Bob Schieffer calls it, is the startling role technology has played in it.

The Internet has taken the place of the 18th century newspapers as the playing field for propaganda and innuendo, and raised it a million-fold.

Hillary Clinton’s biggest crime in many peoples’ eyes is her lack of understanding of how email, data security and hackers work. She certainly got a crash course in it as WikiLeaks dripped out stark details of her classified mishandling and raw politicism almost daily.

And then there’s Donald Trump, who seems to lack understanding of how digital recording works. Spewing untrue, salacious or ignorant things within the range of cameras and microphones (or his own Twitter feed) is his specialty. And when somebody points out what he said, the only answer he can come up with is “Wrong!” or “I never said that!” There’s a disconnect there.

What I hope that comes out of this election is a new understanding by the political class that technology is only good when it is used for good. Some get it, like Sen. Corey Booker (D-NJ) or Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-TX), who are not only working together(!) to address the problems of data privacy, but are also trying to shape policy that uses technology to solve the everyday problems this country faces.

But they are the exception. The majority of our political players need to understand that if they’re going to do or say something stupid, most likely everyone will know about. Eventually. Technology is everywhere.