Big Sort

This Campaign Has Gone Positively 19th Century

This election is getting out of hand. For one rally, I read, the locals rigged up six horses to a wagon big enough to carry a pipe organ and a glee club with 40 singers.

Was this a prop for another Barack Obama mega-rally? Or maybe a Sarah Palin revival? Nope. The six white horses were put to the service of Republican William McKinley in 1896. A two-score political singing group was nothing special back then. Campaigns were exercises in organizing large groups of marching partisans. In Sullivan County, Ind., that year, both parties organized glee clubs for their candidates—although only the Republicans thought of the wagon.

The parties discarded the mass rally as a political device before the turn of the last century, replacing the energy of the throng with a more isolated, individualistic kind of campaign advertising. The grand political rallies went missing for more than a century, but now they’re back, and the raw expressions of political anger and feeling produced at these massive gatherings have shocked both candidates and the press. We’re simply not accustomed to having people play such an active part in presidential political campaigns.

Just after the Civil War, campaigns were based on these mass movements. The war shaped both the language and the tactics of political campaigns. “Elections were treated like battles in which the two main armies (parties) concentrated on fielding the maximum number of troops (voters) on the battlefield (the polls) on election day,” wrote historian Richard Jensen. Party organizers had been in the military and so that organized their parties like Civil War armies. The language we still use in politics came straight from the fields of Gettysburg and Antietam: the “opening gun,” party “standard bearers,” “last ditch stands,” “war horses,” “precinct captains,” “rank and file” voters and “spoils of victory.” Voters would chant battle cries, wave signs and flags, and they would march.

Voters (only men had the franchise) were extraordinarily loyal to their parties then. “Men spoke of political attachments in the same breath as loyalty to religion,” Jensen wrote, “for as one Presbyterian historian explained, ‘Every man … is expected to stand up for the creed of his church as he does for the platform of his party.’” Nine out of 10 Americans were firmly committed to one party or the other. Local elections became proxies for the national battle between the parties.

All this roughly describes politics today, a time of intense party loyalty, increased straight-ticket voting, and stark political divisions directed, in part, by theology.

And, of course, the most visible sign that we have developed a 19th-century attitude toward politics is the return of the mass rally.

We should keep following this parallel between the 19th century and today because, as I said, the parties found reason to abandon the mass rally as a political device. The change began after Benjamin Harrison won with a military-style campaign in 1888. Harrison appointed John Wanamaker as his postmaster general, and Wanamaker set out to change the way Americans ran their elections.

John Wanamaker opened in Philadelphia what was considered the nation’s first department store, and he brought his sales skills to Harrison’s White House when he introduced the merchandizing style to politics. Wanamaker, by the way, is the guy who first said, “The customer is always right” and that half the money he spent on advertising was wasted but that he didn’t know which half.

The military approach to political campaigns was unpredictable, Wanamaker realized. The problem with mass marches and parades led by horse-drawn wagons, according to one Wisconsin Democrat, was that the events “stir up the other side almost as much as their own. The trumpet that sounds the note of battle not only inspirits its friends but awakes its enemies.”

The alternative was a campaign of “education” and isolation—that is advertising. Instead of relying on torch-lit parades, the merchandizing style printed pamphlets and newspaper ads. War cries were replaced with reasoned arguments. Instead of inspiring dependable supporters, the merchandizing campaign concentrated on identifying and then appealing to independents and waverers.

The goal wasn’t to increase turnout. It was to control the vote. And it was effective. The merchandizing style replaced the mass marches and rallies within a few election cycles.

Voters were unimpressed. “The voters’ reaction to the new style educational campaigns was lethargic,” Jensen reported. Partisan loyalty declined, apathy increased, and voter turnout plummeted. Advertising was more expensive than torch lights, so fundraising became a political preoccupation. The parties had more control over the electorate, but voters were dispirited. Isolated by the merchandizing style, they stopped coming to the polls.

Now we have two candidates who began this campaign as leaders of a post-partisan future running in an election that has become partisan in the extreme. Nine out of 10 Republicans say they’ll vote for McCain, and nine out of 10 Democrats say they’ll vote for Obama—party loyalty that matches that of the military campaigns of the late 19th century. Local elections have become nationalized, and people show willingness to march and demonstrate in ways that have been missing for the past 100 years. Funny how things work out.