As he surveyed the landscape of emerging political campaigns in the 1840s, former President John Quincy Adams denounced the “fearful extent [of] itinerant speechmaking” and the “revolution in the habits in the manners of people” that it brought about.
Adams wondered where this all might lead. Now we know: it leads to presidential candidates like Donald Trump and there will be plenty more in future.
What Adams witnessed was the beginning of mass based political campaigns and political parties. Previously organizations of elite opinion, the advent of mass participation in politics during the course of the 19th century changed political parties and electoral politics.
Campaigns became part theater. The tools of the political trade in the 19th century included torchlight parades, hard cider, sloganeering, and public debates. Still, strong party organizations and party leaders who tightly controlled nomination processes tempered campaign appeals to a democratic people.
National campaigns consisted largely of party conventions that involved serious horse-trading and compromise among the leaders of the state and local parties for the twin purposes of putting together a party ticket and platform. Prospective candidates had to appeal to these leaders for support.
Once nominees were selected, parties took over the campaigns. They could be raucous and entertaining, but the nominee was kept an arms length away from it all. It was viewed as beneath the dignity of prospective Presidents to actively seek the office. Thus we ended up with spirited campaigns but nominees who might only speak to the masses from their own front porch.
This was no golden age. Locally strong political parties were engaged in graft, patronage abuse, and serial voting irregularities. Party machines were hostile to emerging efforts at national administrative power and civil service reform. Party leaders like Boss Tweed of Tammany Hall knew that such efforts would reduce their power and influence over political life.
Progressive reformers such as Theodore Roosevelt looked to this system and decided that only the power of the people could cleanse the parties of their corruption. So the party primary was conceived as a tool and change started to emerge in 1912.
The 1912 election has been called the first modern presidential election. It has earned this distinction not only because it signaled a rebellion against party leaders and conventions, the use of primary elections, and actual campaigning by presidential candidates. It also set in motion a series of events that future progressive candidates such as Franklin D. Roosevelt, would seize hold of to distance candidates for the presidency from their political parties; it began a campaign to end the domination of political parties over nominations and politics, to destroy the power of party bosses and party machines that would ultimately be successful in the 1972 presidential campaign of George McGovern.
McGovern completed the progressive assault and brought to presidential politics a completely open system. There is no barrier to entry, no Boss to control the system, and no party organization wielding power. Anyone can enter party primaries and caucuses.
Party leaders were removed from the process. This doesn’t mean they are without clout but the entirely open system invites the candidates from the fringe or those without political merit who rest entirely on celebrity. Add to the system a free for all in terms of financing (something progressives did not anticipate) and the system is ripe for those seeking, and getting, attention.
Donald Trump isn’t the first, merely the loudest.
And he surely won’t be the last. No serious movement to bring party organizations or leaders back into the system has ever gained steam and it won’t unless someone like Trump actually wins a party nomination.
Then the tide may turn back against the revolution in our habits that vexed Adams so long ago.