The following is adapted from the recently released The Beltway Bible: A Totally Serious A-Z Guide to Our No-Good, Corrupt, Incompetent, Terrible, Depressing and Sometimes Hilarious Government, published by St. Martin’s Griffin.
It’s easy to conclude that American elections have taken a serious turn for the stupid, what with this election defined by hand size, fascist frog memes and campaign events that feel like timeshare presentations. True, there’s no real precedent for the successful candidacy of a TV personality best known for critiquing Dennis Rodman’s business sense and selling steaks through a technology catalog. But to suggest that campaigns have gotten increasingly superficial, breathless and dumb would be incorrect. Let’s not forget that campaigns have always been superficial, breathless and dumb. After soybeans, moronic public dialogues are the second-biggest driver of America’s economy.
Take, for example, the vibrant pamphleteering tradition in the early United States, through which political operatives disseminated the most far-fetched, unsubstantiated and generally stupid accusations. One Anti-Federalist rag alleged that John Adams was “a hideous hermaphroditical character which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” Davy Crockett, the famed frontiersman and folk hero, was so entrenched in Whig Party politics and incensed by the populism of Andrew Jackson’s presidency that he published a scathing biography of Jackson’s successor, Martin Van Buren, titled ...
The Life of Martin Van Buren: Heir-Apparent to the “Government,” and the Appointed Successor of General Andrew Jackson. Containing Every Authentic Particular by Which His Extraordinary Character Has Been Formed. With a Concise History of the Events That Have Occasioned His Unparalleled Elevation; Together with a Review of His Policy as a Statesman.
Assuming people were still alive after reading the title, they would have learned that Van Buren “is laced up in corsets, such as women in town wear, and if possible tighter than the best of them.” It was observed at the time that if all the charges leveled against the day’s politicians were true, “our presidents, secretaries and senators are all traitors and pirates.” Actually, if early U.S. obsession with gender dysphoria and sexual ambiguity was any indication, all our early presidents, cabinet secretaries and senators bore more in common with a midcareer David Bowie than with a post-Enlightenment philosopher king.
And let us not forget sloganeering. Sure, 140-character tweets and carefully crafted zingers are no way to drive political discourse, but the politicians of yesteryear assumed that most Americans were so stupid they couldn’t even handle 140 characters. Starting in 1840 with William Henry Harrison’s catchy “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too,” the practice of “sloganeering”— the development and dissemination of pithy campaign catchphrases — became central to political campaigns up to, and continuing through, the age of mass media. This is what counted for viral content back in the day: the fact that “canoe” rhymes with “too.” Americans would have to wait another 170 years for cat videos.
Oh, and let’s not forget Franklin Pierce’s presidency. His administration is generally considered one of the worst in history, and his profoundly awful campaign slogan, “We Polked you in ’44, we shall Pierce you in ’52”— a reference to the Democratic Party’s presidential candidates in 1844 and 1852— should’ve been an indication of what was to come (namely the near-total collapse of the Democratic Party in national politics for roughly 80 years). Had contemporary communications firms existed in colonial and antebellum America, one suspects Paul Revere might have gotten rich as a campaign consultant, leveraging his skill at crafting short, easily digestible messages:
“Charles C. Pinckney jobs-focused agenda is coming! Charles C. Pinckney jobs-focused agenda is coming!”
Nineteenth-century political marketing developed at the same time that the culture of Victorian leisure took root and blossomed in the United States. When middle- and upper-class Americans weren’t moseying about on penny farthings, lifting medicine balls, wearing power-stripe bathing suits, and throwing each other over waterfalls in barrels, they were often in the home playing music.
The same year of “Tippecanoe,” the Harrison campaign distributed sheet music so that supporters could rock out in the comfort of their own homes to ditties like “The Harrison Waltz,” “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too! A comic glee,” and “The National Whig Song.” Songbooks proliferated in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and in addition to the Harrison numbers, the electorate was treated to such crazy hot bangers as “A Miniature of Martin Van Buren,” “The Republican Hot Shot: A Campaign Songster for 1900,” and “Greeley Is the Real True Blue.” Remember this the next time you hear “Fight Song” in CVS and want to vomit.
It didn’t take much time for radio to become a stupidity conduit, either. Most early broadcasts were remarkably dull: don’t expect Rush Limbaugh to launch into a tirade titled “The Vicissitudes of a Practical Politician” ― the title of an early radio broadcast ― anytime soon. As media historian David G. Clark has noted, officials in both parties quickly recognized the medium’s potential for vapid, easily digestible content and did away with their initial, overly cerebral offerings. An internal Republican memo from the era observed that “broadcasting requires a new type of sentence. Its language is not that of the platform orator. ... Speeches must be short. Ten minutes is a limit and five minutes is better.” Political radio content quickly got much peppier, and you can thank the guy behind that memo for Limbaugh.
That brings us to the modern era, which most of us are more familiar with, but as a quick recap, let us recall the three most memorable political TV advertisements:
Much as we may hate to acknowledge it, American politics have always had more in common with Donald Trump’s taco bowl tweet than the Lincoln-Douglas debates, subject to the same lowest-common-denominator calculus. Trump’s Crippled America is certainly not Profiles in Courage, but let us not forget that it was JFK’s campaign that ran an ad featuring a jingle so saccharine it would send Percy Faith into diabetic shock and words so vapid they had all the lyrical depth of a Daft Punk song (“Kennedy! Kennedy! Kennedy! Kennedy! Kennedy! Kennedy!”).
Donald Trump is new. Our politics are old. Very old.