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Humours of an Election

Humours of an Election William Hogarth on why we are governed no better than we deserve

One would think that, like Nostradamus, William Hogarth was given visions of the future which he could only portray through the filter of his culture and surroundings, in Oxfordshire, England, in the middle of the 18th century. His four paintings, collectively entitled “Humours of an Election”, read like an allegory of present day elections, whose wholesome exteriors are at odds with the vice often coursing underneath, erupting into sight either accidentally or at the instigation of rivals. The first three paintings (“An Election Entertainment”, “Canvassing for Votes” and “The Polling”) illustrate the endemic corruption during the election of a new Member of Parliament, supposedly from the 1754 elections. The last one, “Chairing the Candidate”, shows the Tory candidate victorious and celebrated by his supporters. The paintings are stunning for their detail and their intentional aesthetics of ugliness. Many threads are weaved simultaneously in the same painting.

“As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”

― H.L. Mencken

For myself, two ideas stand out from the paintings. The first is that countries such as Great Britain, the United States and others have been working on this democracy thing for centuries, literally stumbling in the dark to eventually and organically arrive at a system that works reasonably well for them. At least, until a critical mass of people act in ill faith to pervert the informal rules and spirit that are the necessary counterparts to formal institutions. Without excusing outright bad behavior, I am inclined to cut my country some slack over the growing pains of its own democracy. The second idea is that these people have been devising new ways for graft and illicitly influencing elections for hundreds of years. No wonder they are masters at it, and our own would-be electoral larcenists seem so coarse and barbaric by comparison. The refinement of corruption and its increasing ambiguity are meant to leave its practitioners and beneficiaries unsullied both in front of the world and in front of the mirror. Agents of interests at odds with the commonweal become regulated lobbyists, heavy coin purses and envelopes stuffed with cash are replaced with charitable donations to one’s Foundation, collusion with moneyed interests turns to Political Action Committees acting independently to promote issues and the act of appealing to a voter’s interests is slowly replaced with the election of a new people.

Historians have pointed out that Hogarth’s paintings are not a wholly truthful representation of the political life of his day, since he overindulged in the squalor that only sometimes afflicts elections. If so, then it says something about our mindsets and our societies that, nearly three centuries later, his satire is indistinguishable from our reality.




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