All the whining these days about how this year’s presidential campaign is so nasty suggests that some people think that American politics were more polite and civilized in the golden age of yore.
But such a notion is at odds with the real story of the time when politics were one of the principal entertainments in America, as Jon Grinspan explains in THIS ESSAY:
In the final months before our next election, with bombastic conventions and so much more mudslinging to come, it is comforting to imagine a golden age of informed, civil, sober democracy. No one is happy with contemporary politics, but this should not fuel nostalgic fantasies of cleaner leaders or wiser voters. During the peak of American campaign excitement, in the second half of the nineteenth century, our democracy was louder, meaner and merrier than it has ever been since. Populist campaigners perfected the art of political show business, a genre that seems to be making a comeback.
Public politics – the stuff of torchlit rallies, ale-drenched elections and “jollification” barbecues – served two purposes from 1840 through 1900. Campaigns helped select the men who would lead the government, but these gaudy, gonzo rituals were also the most popular form of entertainment in the adolescent nation. Though politics didn’t appeal to or include everyone, it reached out to more people than any other entertainment at the time.