Thursday, October 04, 2012

History of Campaigning: Canada got there first?

FDR campaigning in Kansas, 1932

Slate, the American online magazine, has a "slideshow" on American presidential campaigning. How recent it is! If Slate is right, the first American presidential candidate to campaign openly was ... Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s.

The notion lingered long in American politics, t'seems, that it was undignified for gentlemen like Washington and Jefferson actually to seek office, rather than have it thrust upon them.  More important, perhaps, was the ideology that that a president, as a kind of elective king, should aspire to be above factional division. So Abraham Lincoln derided an opponent who travelled out of state on the pretense of visiting his mother when he was actually, gasp, seeking votes. Well into the twentieth century, even as party lines hardened and campaign managers professionalized, would-be presidents remained on the front porch and let surrogates do their campaigning for them.

Was there ever such a phase in Canadian politics? John A. Macdonald gets a lot of credit for developing a  coherent, centrally-controlled party "platform" and selling it -- and himself -- at campaign picnics and electoral tours, particularly after his return to power in 1878.  But well before confederation, party leaders toured relentlessly during elections, debated each other frequently, and pressed the flesh across the towns and crossroads of British North America.  Even patricians like the Blakes and Baldwins campaigned ferociously, often attended by the gangs of streetfighters who might be needed to get them and their voters safely to the polling station. 

King on the trail, 1926
Presumably all that was more acceptable in a parliamentary context, where no one aspired to be the president-above-politics.  It was always accepted in Canadian politics, at least from the dawn of responsible-government thinking, that the public interest was served by the clash of partisan differences in an elective and representative assembly. 

Well, the Yanks started slower, but they caught up, they caught up. Best thing about Canadian election campaigns is how brief they are -- though the trendy fixed election date craze is inexorably screwing that up.

Photos:  Washington Independent and Canadian Encyclopedia, via Google Images/


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