A Historian’s View of American Politics, Circa 2016

Well-paid consultants, anti-party candidates, mass media–driven campaigns—they all go back to the turn of the last century

v2_research_16-10466-BRUCE-034The tumultuous 2016 Presidential campaign, shaped by unorthodox candidates, relentless media coverage, and hugely divided political parties, is often characterized by pundits as unprecedented. But according to Boston University historian Bruce J. Schulman, Americans experienced similar cultural and political transformations a century ago. The period from 1896 to 1929 brought the rise of cities and the arrival of more than 20 million immigrants from Europe, Asia, Mexico, and the Caribbean. The birth of radio, film, newspaper chains, and advertising campaigns for brand-name products—Quaker Oats, Heinz Ketchup, Coca-Cola—also changed the country, unifying and nationalizing the American experience.

Bruce Schulman has won a National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar Award for his forthcoming book on how the US remade itself between 1896 and 1929. Photo (above) by Cydney Scott.

“What it is to be America, and to be an American, relative to institutions and the larger world, is very different in 1929 than it would have been at the beginning of this period,” says Schulman, the William E. Huntington Professor of History in the BU College of Arts & Sciences. “A fundamental conflict of the early 20th century was people wrestling with the question of what are we going to do with all these immigrants? That is something that still resonates today.”

Schulman recently won a National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar Award for his forthcoming book, a volume of the Oxford History of the United States covering the years from 1896 to 1929. He is the author of three previous books on modern American history, including From Cotton Belt to Sunbelt, Lyndon B. Johnson and American Liberalism, and The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Society, and Politics, which the New York Times named one of its Notable Books of the Year for 2001.

BU Research sat down with Schulman in his office, which is decorated with historic Presidential campaign posters and a bust of Lyndon Johnson, to talk about how the turn-of-the-century changes he is studying connect to today’s politics.

BU Research: How is the outsider candidacy of Donald Trump reflected in the period you’re studying?

Schulman: The central problem in the last century of American political history is how we get from the era of the politics of the party and the machine to the era of the consultant, interest groups, and the mass media–mediated campaign. It’s a shift from a time when parties structured every aspect of political, social, and cultural life—and local party organizations formed the principal intermediaries between politicians and ordinary citizens—to an era when politicians communicate with and mobilize voters primarily through mass media. It’s a transition to today, when even though partisan attachments are strong, parties are not very strong. Donald Trump is Exhibit A in that change.

What are some of the key developments you’re writing about?

Think first about just the practice of voting. We have an idea that even though the technology is different, voting was pretty much the same 100, 120 years ago as it is today, that you had a secret ballot in which you could choose between and among rival candidates for office. But these aspects of voting are products of the 1890s, when the Australian, or secret, ballot, which originated in Australia, was adopted. Before that, either the party organizations or the newspapers, which were mainly partisan institutions, printed ballots. You’d walk up to your polling place, you’d find your party’s precinct captain, he’d hand you a ballot, and you’d stuff it in the ballot box. Maybe you’d try to stuff three or four in the ballot box.

You mean before the Australian ballot, you wouldn’t fill out a ballot and choose a candidate?

No. The ballot was called the ticket—because it looked like a railroad ticket — and what we call ticket splitting was all but impossible. You had to be literate in English, and remember, there were lots of immigrants, not all of whom were literate in English. You’d have to have a pen or a pencil to cross out a name and write in a name in full view of all the people who were there. That didn’t happen. Politics wasn’t about trying to convince people to vote for your candidate. It was about mobilizing voters. Affiliation was defined largely by things like race, ethnicity, region, religion. People were pretty much born a Republican or Democrat.

To continue reading, a version of this article originally appeared on  BU Research.

Author, Sara Rimer can be reached at srimer@bu.edu.