In the late 19th century, American politics transitioned from the Jacksonian popular campaigns, complete with parades and the pizazz that had dominated politics since the 1820s, to the political marketing of today, which began to emerge in the 1890s. In the middle, however, there was a brief transitional moment when something different arose. A group of elite Republicans dreamed of campaigns as educational experiences, but their vision vanished as quickly as it had appeared: Its failure revealed the risks of a strategy that leans too heavily on proposals and not enough on exciting voters.
With the advent of white male mass democracy during the 1820s, new forms of political campaigning emerged. The 1828 Andrew Jackson campaign created a template: parades, ruckus, invectives and aggressive partisanship. In 1840, William Henry Harrison’s Whig Party pushed this paradigm further, building a whole narrative around a log cabin and hard cider to rebrand Harrison, a plantation owner, as a common man, complete with carnival-like events.
This basic model remained in place until the late 19th century, when an expanding electorate and new concerns about the perils of democracy emerged.
After the Civil War, a new political force — so-called Liberals (who were quite different from liberals today) — emerged within the Republican Party. At first, they focused on fiercely opposing rampant government corruption spurred by a patronage system in which public offices were a reward for political service and favors. By the 1880s, the president alone doled out more than 100,000 jobs, usually to political supporters, with little regard for competence. This institutionalized corruption reached a high point during President Ulysses S. Grant’s administration, and prompted Liberals to make the patronage system their primary target.
Liberals firmly believed that universal suffrage was a key contributor to this corruption. To their mind, government officials courted an ignorant electorate by handing out jobs as political favors. Instead, Liberals thought the right to vote should be reserved for an educated and visionary elite who would be above corruption.
Most famously, they promoted a limitation to universal suffrage in New York City, where corruption had been publicly exposed since the revelations around the Tweed Ring in the early 1870s. Despite the city being the backbone of this newfound liberal movement, where most of its representatives and newspapers were located, the campaign flopped.
So the Liberals reoriented their strategy, adopting a tactic that national associations were then employing to push political causes: mass education campaigns. If the Liberals could not exclude, in the words of Charles Francis Adams, the “ignorance and vice” that necessarily came with universal suffrage, they would try to educate the masses on the issues.
Their hopes were distinctly paternalistic and hierarchical: They weren’t aiming to empower autonomous individuals to navigate a rational and informed public space. Instead, they saw campaigns as a chance for the generous, enlightened elite to provide a gift to an ungrateful and uncivilized public.
The Liberals intended to replace the parades and songs that had been the norm in campaigns since the 1820s with public readings, pamphlets written by researchers working in new social science fields and appeals to voters based on their perceived socioeconomic interests, rather than ethno-cultural ties.
While the Liberals emerged within Republican Party circles, theirs was an independent movement that ignored party loyalty and in many ways fit better with the racist and elitist conceptions of the post-Civil War Democratic Party. Unfortunately for them, in their first national convention in 1872, when they split from the Republicans, they nominated Horace Greeley as their champion. But the former star editor of the Whig Party ended up being more ideologically erratic than truly independent from the partisan fray. Grant crushed him in the general election, turning the Liberals into the butt of their opponents’ jokes.
Subsequently, Democrats such as Samuel Tilden embraced and championed Liberals’ ideas and vision for campaigns, as Republicans largely continued to embrace the old style of politics and patronage.
But Republicans started to come around to issue-based education campaigns as they saw candidates such as Tilden (who won the popular vote in the 1876 presidential election) and Democrat Grover Cleveland (who captured the presidency in 1884) gaining political ground with this strategy. Under the leadership of James Clarkson, a network of political clubs mapped the national territory and organized the new type of campaign without the use of traditional — and corrupt — local political machines.
This meant that in 1892, this new vision of political campaigns as educational exercises shaped the presidential race. Both parties organized a real educational campaign, almost entirely devoid of ruckus and parades. And they discovered that this style of politics had a cost: a significant decline in citizens’ interest in the election. Everywhere, political operators noted a general apathy and a lack of mobilization. The turnout, which had averaged 79.5 percent between 1876 and 1888, dropped to 74.7 percent.
By turning its back on the more joyful and exciting campaigning practices and events, and by attempting to convince the undecided by reason only, the educational campaign transformed an opportunity for popular entertainment into a succession of austere public meetings.
The two parties quickly grasped this, and four years later, the educational aspect of the campaign, particularly on the Republican side, was complemented with traditional events. The Republican candidate, William McKinley, made many public appearances and speeches in his hometown of Canton, Ohio, while his campaign director, Mark Hanna, coordinated several major parades for a newly created National Flag Day in October.
On the other side of the aisle, William Jennings Bryan’s embrace of bimetallism — adding silver-based money to gold — left him short of the resources necessary for proper educational literature. Therefore, he set off to bring his message directly to the people in one of the first modern stumping tours in the history of American presidential campaigns.
Moreover, new campaign techniques started to emerge in 1896. Most notably, Hanna’s past as an industrialist prompted him to use commercial advertisement techniques to promote McKinley, who got “sold as if he were a patent medicine,” in Theodore Roosevelt’s words.
This combination of new and revived tactics proved a rousing success. Both McKinley at home and Bryan on the road generated huge crowds — and excited voters flocked to the polls as well. Turnout jumped back up to 79.3 percent, a figure more in tune with elections before 1892.
This success would lead to the campaign’s tactics becoming the norm in American politics. Treating candidates as merchandise only gained in import over time. Modern polling appeared in the 1930s, and by 1952, Dwight D. Eisenhower’s campaign was employing an advertising agency to run its effort. The idea of campaigns as educational exercises was long forgotten.
While Elizabeth Warren’s liberalism is drastically different from the liberalism of the late 19th century, some lessons from the failed experiment with educational campaigns are still useful for her today. Most important, she has to keep focused on energizing and mobilizing large crowds, a strategy that has proved effective in building her momentum. Additionally, she must guard against the perceived paternalism and elitism inherent in running a more education-oriented campaign. Especially given her academic background, she must remember that she is campaigning to be president, and connecting with voters is far more efficient than educating them.