In America, politics as entertainment may well be as old as the nation itself. Granted, the election of George Washington was an uncontested and dignified affair, but it didn’t take long for political parties to form and election contests to heat up. By 1828, in most states the popular vote had replaced the legislatures in determining the Electoral College. That changed the political dynamic. Now it became necessary for politicians to campaign for citizens’ votes. Political parties took up the slack, as a nominee was not expected to ask directly for the votes of his constituency. “Party” appears to have been the appropriate term. According to Jon Grinspan, author of The Virgin Vote, writing for the Daily Beast:
In the 1800s, political parties held massive midnight campaign rallies, promising booze, bonfires, and barbecue. America was a new nation without its own popular culture, so democracy stood in as the chief form of entertainment. And in a country that brimmed with bawdy young people (the average age was about 18), flirting at political rallies became, in the words of one Massachusetts school-teacher, “quite the thing here for ladies to do.”
From prostitutes to presidents, Americans often looked to their democracy for “fun and frolic.” Newspapers frequently reported on the “young couples making love” (by which they meant flirting and cuddling) at party events. Some young people used partisan rallies to meet new partners, while many young women, denied the ballot, expressed their politics through their courtships. Parties looking for votes catered to young people looking for love. Together they built a reciprocal relationship, blending the most public and private aspects of life.
Marching clubs were formed as political parties organized their supporters. The Wide Awakes supported presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln, holding torchlit parades to encourage voters to turn out for elections. Complete with uniforms, duties, and ranks, they were among the first to sign up for military service when the Civil War began. Jon Grinspan, this time writing for the Journal of American History:
The Wide Awakes
Youth and militarism distinguished the Wide Awakes from the hundreds of other clubs milling around nineteenth-century American elections. The organization appealed to white men in their teens, twenties, and thirties, attracting ambitious upstarts sporting youthful goatees who were “beginning to feel their true power.” Using popular social events, an ethos of competitive fraternity, and even promotional comic books, the Wide Awakes introduced many to political participation and proclaimed themselves the newfound voice of younger voters. Though often remembered as part of the Civil War generation stirred by the conflict, these young men became politically active a year before fighting began. The structured, militant Wide Awakes appealed to a generation profoundly shaken by the partisan instability of the 1850s and offered young northerners a much-needed political identity.
There were other clubs, not quite so martial. From Glenn C. Altschuler and Stuart M. Blumin’s Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century (Princeton University Press, 2000 p. 63), as quoted by Wikipedia:
The regular campaign clubs, meanwhile, were given a different attraction. One of the first items of business, once the club was organized, was to invite "the ladies" to meetings. Many members were single young men, and the campaign occurred during a relatively slow social season following the picnics, steamboat excursions, and other outings of the summer, and preceding the balls sponsored by militia companies, fire companies, and fraternal lodges during the winter. Campaign clubs helped to extend and connect the social seasons for single young men and women, and gave both an occasion for high-spirited travel. "Coming home there was fun," wrote the Democratic editor of a Dubuque Republican club excursion to a rally in Galena. "There were frequent 'three cheers for Miss Nancy Rogers.' ... Captain Pat Conger was the best looking man on the ground and we can only say that it is a pity he is not a Democrat.,
America was still a mostly rural nation during the 19th century, and political rallies were heavily attended as one of the only forms of mass entertainment available. A political debate meant a day in town, picnicking and socializing, and erhaps meeting a future mate. It also meant listening to the talented debaters of the era, including Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas.
According to Harold Holzer, author of 40 books on Lincoln and the Civil War:
Despite his twang, Lincoln was “no country bumpkin,” Holzer clarifies. “This was a man who committed to memory and recited Shakespearean soliloquies aloud. He knew how to move into King’s English. He could do Scottish accents because he loved Robert Burns. He was a voracious reader and a lover of poetry and cadence. When he writes something like the Second Inaugural, you see the use of alliteration and triplets. ‘Of the people, by the people and for the people’ is the most famous example,” he says. “This was a person who truly understood not only the art of writing but also the art of speaking. People should remember that, though we have no accurate memorial of his voice, this is a man who wrote to be heard. Only parenthetically did he write to be read.”
According to William Herndon, Lincoln didn’t saw wood or swat bees, meaning he did not gesture too much. Apparently, he didn’t roam the stage either. Herndon once wrote that you could put a silver dollar in between Lincoln’s feet at the start of a speech and it would be there, undisturbed, at the end. “He was very still,” says Holzer. “He let that voice that we question and his appearance and the words themselves provide the drama.”
Abraham Lincoln was a performer. With Stephen Douglas, he appeared at political rallies across the state of Illinois, entertaining the crowds with the skillful arguments and wit that were on display during the debates. Lincoln may have lost that race, but the notoriety generated by the debates, which were published in newspapers throughout the country, set him up for his 1860 presidential run. He was not the only notable orator to run for political office during the 1800s. From the New York Times:
Americans have long had both great respect and mixed views of political discourse. Inspiration or bombast? Take your pick. Much of 19th-century politics was dominated by such celebrated masters of gilded political rhetoric as John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay and Daniel Webster. Along with William Jennings Bryan, who straddled the 19th and 20th centuries, all were spellbinding orators versed in classical rhetoric.
Oratory was a huge spectator event during the 19th century. By late in the century a combination of the political parties and their clubs, with their parades and barbecues and “fun and frolic,” managed to turn out between 80 to 90 percent of the vote on a regular basis.
As technology advanced, campaigns changed to meet them. The newspapers, heavily partisan, were the media that was used earliest, as citizens in large cities and small farming towns met to discuss the events of the day.
Radio was used sparingly at first, and it took until 1960 for television to claim its role as an influencer of political outcomes when it inadvertently juxtaposed a youthful, healthy John Kennedy with a sallow-faced Richard Nixon sporting a five o’clock shadow.
Television, now with its 24-hour news coverage, demands more and more entertainment to fill its time and sell its products. Candidates are expected to energize crowds. Ted Sorenson, a speechwriter for President Kennedy, is quoted in the New York Times article linked above as saying:
“The most important quality for a president, as Kennedy and Roosevelt demonstrated, is not how many roll call votes he answered sitting in the Senate, but his qualities as a leader who can mobilize people, inspire them, galvanize them, arouse them to action,” he said. “The ability to inspire and excite an audience on the campaign trail is one of the reasons I think Obama will be a success as president.”
Mario Cuomo was right when he said, “You campaign in poetry, but you govern in prose.” In order to earn the opportunity to govern, politicians have to woo voters with entertainment. It may not be pretty, as Trump has proven, but it is effective.
And it is time for the elected leaders of the Democratic Party to learn how to inspire the public in order to lead it. At the very least, in the future, they should make it a point to avoid appearing as a Grant Wood parody.