The most effective campaign posters of every era leave as much as possible to the voter's imagination. They are like Japanese manga: the less detailed the image, the more easily we can identify with the candidate, the more space for projecting our dreams. The more specific the image, the greater the risk of creating a feeling of "otherness" which translates into death at the polls.
What perhaps is striking about this collection of posters from the Library of Congress--our oldest federal cultural institution and one that serves as the nation's memory--is what it reveals about the unchanging nature of American politicking. The Library of Congress houses, in its Prints and Photographs Division, one of the most comprehensive poster collections in the world. The collection, international in scope, numbers over 100,000 posters addressing a vast range of subjects, including an extensive collection related to American political campaigns.
In these posters, we see the same posturing, the same accusations (of corruption, of moral turpitude) and insinuations (of suspicious religious beliefs, of hidden affiliations) hurled across party lines through the centuries. We see in black and white and color that the incivility that modern Americans decry as symptomatic of a sick political system has, in fact, always been with us.
Political art is nothing less than an illustration of the skirmishes and stalemates that created and continue to animate the American experiment. Every generation renews the battle and fights it again. And every time, political candidates borrow from past campaigns the lexicon of perpetual political war. Fortunately, the Library of Congress has preserved all of these examples for future generations to see, both in their online collections and in the pages of Presidential Campaign Posters. The posters and catchphrases in this collection are like little skiffs navigating the currents of America's turbulent political waters.
Brooke Gladstone wrote the introduction to Presidential Campaign Posters: Two Hundred Years of Election Art [Quirk Publishing, $40.00] by The Library of Congress.
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