The tradition of going out to canvass in an area other than one’s own runs deep in American politics. At least as far back as the 1850s, political friends coordinated across state lines to help deliver the vote for their party, going to stump in other states and in some cases giving money to facilitate distant campaigns. These customs have not merely persisted but burgeoned with American mobility, high-tech modes of connectivity, and detailed tracking of local voting patterns.
If I were to canvass for Biden in my home county, it would be a waste of time. I’d be preaching to the choir: Cook County, Illinois, is as blue as they come. Conditions are more promising in Berrien County, Michigan, where I’m living temporarily. Berrien leans Republican but may be in flux. Population-wise, it’s a mix of former Illinoisans (mainly from Chicagoland) who are affluent and older, and native Michiganders who, whether farmers, small-business owners, tradesmen, or unskilled workers, have probably had their fill of economic upheavals and uncertainty. The wealthy areas along Lake Michigan’s shoreline, which forms Berrien County’s western boundary, shade off into eastern expanses of rural and semi-rural poverty, interspersed with thriving farms. Except for the New Buffalo area, which has grown dramatically, the population of the county has shrunk.
Counties such as this will matter as Biden strives to improve upon Hillary Clinton’s dismal Michigan showing in 2016. While Obama won Michigan handily in 2012, garnering 54.2% of the popular vote, Clinton lost the state to Trump by a margin of just 0.2%. Votes cast for third-party candidates exceeded the margin of her loss to Trump. Will Biden have more success appealing to the types of people who inhabit Berrien county? It would be exciting to see purplish Berrien turn blue.
Image: Detail from a Princeton Election Consortium map. The fuchsia blob on the east side of Lake Michigan is the congressional district encompassing Berrien County, MI.
Their heads on a platter: Presidential portrait tray. Susan H. Douglas Collection of Political Americana, Cornell University Library.
Susan Havey Douglas (1901-1962) was an affluent stay-at-home wife and mother whose husband, Damon G., ran a successful commercial construction firm in New Jersey. Susan, a native of Yonkers, NY, had dropped out of college to marry her husband. Damon was a graduate of Cornell, where he had studied engineering.
‘William H Harrison and Reform’: A piece of fabric incorporating political images from the ‘Log Cabin’ campaign of 1840. Susan H Douglas Collection of Political Americana, Cornell University Library.
The Douglas’s children were Damon Jr., and two daughters, Sally and Susan. The latter died of a streptococcus infection and spinal meningitis at the age of seven, a heartbreaking loss occurring in 1936.
GOP elephant bank from the 1900 presidential campaign. Susan H Douglas Collection of Political Americana, Cornell University Library.
Mr Douglas was a serious collector of coins by then. He wrote papers on numismatics and served as president of the New York Numismatic Society circa 1940. A passion for collecting gripped the family. Around 1941, his wife, ultimately the more notable collector, began visiting curio shops with her son to help him fill out his “Lincoln and Indian penny-board collection.” There, she began noticing campaign memorabilia, which became her special branch of collecting.
Campaign ‘coins’ from the 1830s, expressing various views, some satirical, of Andrew Jackson and his controversial money policies. Susan H Douglas Collection of Political Americana, Cornell University Library. One coin depicts Jackson as a Roman emperor; another, as a pirate, waving a saber in one hand and bag of gold in the other, proclaiming, “I take the responsibility.”
Among the first items Douglas bought were old campaign medals, which resemble coins. They were but one of many types of political objects she collected over the next twenty years. Wonderful in its size and range, her collection eventually encompassed 5,500 items, including sheet music, engravings, hair combs, convention ribbons, political torches, posters, lunch pails, pin boxes, tea trays, even beer glasses stamped with the images of political heroes and wannabees. (I have often featured pictures from her collection on my blog.)
Snuff boxes and campaign medals bearing the image of Zachary Taylor, along with other political ephemera dating from the late 1840s.
Beginning at a time when few collectors cared about these items, Douglas amassed a large and important body of American political memorabilia, including some of the earliest campaign trinkets ever made. Dating from the late 1820s-1840, these early objects were invented at a time when American politics was becoming more thoroughly democratized, and industrial advances made it possible to produce cheap objects to mobilize the masses and build political community. Ultimately, Douglas’s collection spanned an entire century, containing items up through the 1940s.
Candle lantern from the McKinley-Roosevelt campaign, stamped with the slogan “Four Years More of the Full Dinner Pail.” Susan H Douglas Collection of Political Americana, Cornell University Library.
Such objects expressed the bonds between political leaders and their followers, providing voters with a tangible means to express opinions and loyalties. Ephemeral objects that instead proved surprisingly long-lasting, the items preserve by-gone political ideas and passions, while offering clues to how politics featured in the lives of ordinary people. As political ideas and customs have changed, so too have the props of political theater.
By the 1950s, the caliber and breadth of Mrs Douglas’s collection had gained recognition. In 1952, the US State Department borrowed 500 items for a government-sponsored exhibition to be displayed in London at the Pan American Building. According to the Mason City Globe Gazette, which interviewed Mrs Douglas in 1956, “17,000 Britons visited the exhibit, which portrayed political Americans and was designed to help Britons understand the Eisenhower-Stevenson campaign then underway.”
In the late 1950s, Mrs Douglas sold her collection of political Americana to Cornell University Library. She died in Orange, New Jersey on April 14, 1962. Her collection has been digitized and is freely accessible to the public online.
A canvas bag, circa 1920, the year American women won the right to vote. Susan H Douglas Collection of Political Americana, Cornell University Library. Did Mrs Douglas use this when she was young?
Left unanswered is what motivated Douglas as a collector. Why did she have such a passion for political things? Why was she so in love with the ‘love affair” that is part of every presidential campaign? Douglas came of age in 1920, just as the long campaign to secure women’s right to vote reached its glorious culmination. When the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified that year, she became part of the first generation of American women free to vote and participate in politics on an equal footing. Whatever the source of Douglas’s enthusiasm, it continues to light up our sense of political tradition.
The nauseating staleness of partisan politics is a disgrace to the American intellect and a nation fond of thinking it’s great.
Whether one ponders the intransigence gripping the Capitol or the never-ending corruption strangling government at every level in Illinois, one sees the evils of a too-entrenched party system—a system that can only be shaken up by innovative third parties, bringing with them new ideological visions and the threat of competition.
Much of what appears on Our Polity springs from the conviction that our political parties are poorly positioned for the challenges the US faces. The parties are entrenched bureaucracies, most concerned about their own futures as institutions, with the fate of the Republican Party, in particular, now overshadowing its members’ patriotism and concern for the country.
Our political system need not remain in this state. Throughout time, the electorate’s loyalties have been organized around many other platforms, goals, and ideas. In the early part of our history, firm party loyalties didn’t even exist. Instead, coalitions of voters formed and re-formed dynamically around the most promising ideas and leaders. In the seventy-some years before the Civil War, many political parties and factions came to life, fluidly combining and recombining with others to advance some vital cause or interest, catapulting their standard-bearers to prominence before they died.
Many of our greatest statesmen, including such luminaries as Thomas Jefferson, Henry Clay, Charles Sumner, and Abraham Lincoln, rose to power as the stars of parties that no longer exist. Instead, parties of adherents amassed around their far-seeing talent and ideas, giving them the political power and authority that they needed.
When I’m despondent about the state of American politics today, I think back to these other by-gone parties, which bespeak other ideological visions around which American politics could be organized.
What about the short-lived Whig Party, for example, which flourished in the early 19th century and was a bridge between the too-aristocratic Federalist party (d. circa 1820) and the anti-federal Republican Party (b. circa 1860) we have today? The Whigs were a progressive party: they were pro-business, but they saw federalism as a positive force necessary to bind up the wayward states into a nation that was both powerful and refined. Whigs were sophisticated and cosmopolitan. They stood in opposition to the Democrats, who were the states-rights, laissez-faire proponents of the time. The Whigs championed independence and personal prosperity, but they thought that individual opportunity could be best safeguarded and maximized through the agency of an active federalism. Yet they differed from present-day Democrats in being the foes of corruption and a patronage state.
The constellation of ideas that animated the Whigs is only one instance of a different ideology that Americans could be using to reorganize their politics now. The purpose of political parties is to organize large masses of voters around constructive and unifying national goals. Since both the Democrats and Republicans have lost their power to thrill, rising talents would be wise to conjure up new partiesnow.
Image: Friedrich Graetz’s 1882 lithograph, “The Political Sodom and Gomorrah Are Doomed to Destruction,” shows the angel of a new party leading political honesty and wisdom out of the fires of public condemnation consuming the Republican and Democratic parties.
From this source.
“No new taxes.” The pledge has had a baleful effect on government, reducing Congress’s ability to problem-solve and foreclosing broad-ranging discussion of how best to increase the revenues that an established government needs.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the parties could be persuaded to take other sorts of pledges? Such as:
We pledge to refrain from negative advertising.
We pledge to refrain from casting aspersions on our opponents or their families.
We pledge to foreswear super-PAC money.
We pledge to attend the Senate when it’s in session and to debate openly and in person with members of the other party. . . .