Brendan O’Malley

Professor K.C. Johnson

Literature of American History II

Spring 2006

February 27, 2006


Review of Michael E. McGerr’s The Decline of Popular Politics: The American North, 1865-1928 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986)


Michael McGerr’s study places the blame for the decline of popular political participation in the North in the twentieth century firmly on the shoulders of political reformers of the post-Civil War era. While this thesis may exaggerate the influence of these reformers, it does make for a provocative and cogently argued book. McGerr does not place himself in the camp of the quantitative “New Political History” that emerged in the 1980s. He is not so concerned in meticulous counts of voter turnout, but rather in interpreting what they mean. His focus is what he deems “political style” rather than actual issues: the way a message is delivered as opposed to its content. The political style of political reformers of the latter half of the nineteenth century serves as the fulcrum of his book.    

McGerr commences with a vivid description of partisan style politics before the Civil War that led to the high watermark of eligible voter participation between 1876 and 1900, an average of 77 percent. In this somewhat simpler era, voters were more comfortable with seeing the world through a partisan lens. Parties staged elaborate spectacles, with marching companies, torchlight parades, fireworks, bands, and the raising of “Liberty” or “Hickory” polls. Marching companies, combining the names of their patrons with militaristic nomenclature like “Zouaves,” “Escorts,” “Batteries,” or “Phalanxes,” would consist or working class men outfitted by their benefactors. Newspapers would publish hugely biased accounts of political events that did not even try to take on the semblance of objective truth. Parties made emotional, non-rational appeals that reached across class lines during this relatively new age of universal white manhood suffrage.

After the Civil War, McGerr argues that the liberal “best men”—educated, Northern, wealthy, Protestant, urban, and mostly of English descent—began to question the partisan style of politics, having been made particularly anxious by the uneducated immigrant masses flowing into Northern cities. They went so far as to propose the cutting back universal manhood suffrage. Quickly realizing that this was not a viable option—it was far too easy for powerful opponents of reform, like Tammany Hall, to make political hay with this issue—reformers decided to move in other directions. Cognizant of the futile track record of third party efforts during this era, they learned to work within the party framework, but also sought to loosen the party’s stranglehold control. This was the case when the “Young Scratchers,” led by liberal publisher R.R. Bowker, challenged New York machine politician Roscoe Conkling in state elections in 1879 by “scratching” offensive Republican names off of the ballot. Similarly, reformist Republican Mugwumps bolted in from the party in 1884 when its leadership selected renowned spoilsman James G. Blaine for its presidential nominee. Many saw them as essential in the election Democrat Grover Cleveland.

Ultimately, McGerr argues, the biggest impact of reformers came with their focus on a strategy McGerr calls “educational electioneering.” Political organizations formed to print tracts and pamphlets, first coalescing on the issue of tariff reform (though to little effect). Rather than take away the vote from the masses, reformers sought to educate and enlighten them so that they would make better electoral choices. Most of the extra-partisan reform organizations were not very successful, but they did contribute to a broad change in political style as their methods were incorporated by the parties. But “educational” reform efforts did make substantial gains in a few areas, most notably in civil service and ballot reform. The Pendleton Act of 1883 served as an opening salvo in civil service reform on the federal level. The institution of the secret or “Australian” ballot system, in which the government, rather than parties, printed ballots, allowed political preference to be a matter of private preference rather than public party allegiance.

During the 1870s and 1880s, reformers tried to replace the ideal of party with the ideal of business practice. “In place of emotional party spirit, they offered a cool, social scientific politics of education,” McGerr notes. He furthermore argues that although reform politics wounded the party system, they did not destroy it. Reformers did, however, provided a detachment from political partisanship that signaled the forthcoming political style of the twentieth century. Even the most die-hard party hacks adopted the progressive’s educational campaigning methods, so much so that by 1892, these techniques had almost entirely displaced emotional, spectacular displays. Governor Samuel J. Tilden, an ardent Democrat and protégé of Martin Van Buren, plays a key role as a figure bridging the gap between reform and partisanship. Tilden was an unabashed creature of party politics, but as a wealthy and cultivated man, was also sympathetic to social scientific approaches to the problems of the day. He rose to prominence as a railroad attorney and was convinced of the power of highly centralized business organization through that experience. He led the overthrow of the Tweed Ring in the early 1870s, and owed much of his election to the governorship in 1874 to the reformers. He disdained the old spectacular style and used progressive educational methods within a party framework. He relied on Abram S. Hewitt, the congressman and Democratic national chairman, to create a “Literary Bureau” to disseminate publication to make the successful case for Tilden’s presidential nomination in 1876. While Tilden failed to win the election, his methods were widely employed through the rest of the century.

Around the twentieth century, McGerr describes a major transformation of the press that had a direct effect on the demise of the partisan style. In the mid-nineteenth century, the vast majority of newspapers were firmly aligned with a party. Local newspapers benefited from this arrangement. Their finances were so marginal that many relied on their party connections to receive contracts to print ballots, campaign literature, and government documents. After the Civil War, newspapers began to outgrow this dependence, as technological advances allowed them to reach a broader readership, especially in big cities. McGerr divides newspapers’ new relationship to political affairs into three different categories: partisan, independent, and sensational. McGerr distinguishes “independent” journalism from “sensationalism” along class lines: the former appealed to the upper class reformers (like the New York Times), while the latter appealed to the working classes (like Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and Hearst’s papers). As in the cases of Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, editors pursued crusades that boosted circulation but sometimes clashed with the interests of the party with which they were nominally affiliated. He believes that with the rise of newspapers’ editorial independence, politics became more complex and less accessible, and therefore “the partisanship that sustained high voter turnout lost its cultural hegemony.”

The election of 1896, according to McGerr, was a watershed in that it marked a turn away from educational electioneering. The depression that hit in the early 1890s dealt a decisive blow to the Cleveland political style, and the nomination of William Jennings Bryan sent monied Democratic backers fleeing to the Republican camp. With the brilliant campaign manager, Marcus A. Hanna, running the show, and a huge war chest for the first time substantially funded by corporations terrified by the prospect of a Bryan presidency, the McKinley campaign staged a carefully orchestrated and centralized effort that combined spectacular and educational techniques with those of the emerging advertising industry (thus McGerr’s moniker for the new style, “Advertised Politics”). Bryan, with far less money and organizational strength, nonetheless employed similar techniques. The campaigns focused on the candidates’ individual personalities, cementing a new kind of relationship with the press by providing “human interest” stories about candidates. By 1904, the Republicans were sending out significantly less “educational” campaign literature and focusing much more attention on the press. Theodore Roosevelt proved masterful in his command of this new relationship to the media.

The new style was a better fit with the emergent culture of leisure, the glorification of consumption, and the deterioration of local communal ties. By the 1920s, political parades and bonfires could not compete with movie houses and radio; the former seemed “old-fashioned” and hokey. In general, parties could no longer rely on direct appeals to partisanship. McGerr argues that the “Get-Out-the-Vote” movement, an effort by Northerner upper-class intellectuals of the reformist tradition in the 1920s, sought to undo the damage to voter turnout that their predecessors had done, but it proved a total exercise in futility as turnout plunged to new lows. Only the Depression and the New Deal briefly revived voter interest as presidential election turnouts climbed back up to 70 percent in the North. Crisis inspired participation, and the parties at this time once again more clearly reflected social divisions. But even this era never rivaled the heights of voter turnout in the 1880s and 1890s. By the 1980s, even the urban political machines, the last stronghold of traditional partisan politics, had faded. McGerr also argues that the eclipse of partisanship also has meant the eclipse of radical electoral politics. He points to the Greenbackers, Knights of Labor, the Populists, and later, the Socialists, as all fostered by a partisan environment, concluding that the partisan political culture did not create a nation of passive observers.