We often forget that previous election campaigns juggled and were shaped by new media forms just like our own, albeit with different “contraptions.” Politicking and Emergent Media, US Presidential Elections of the 1890s, by Yale American Studies/Cinema Studies professor, Charles Musser, is a fascinating read about the election campaigns of the 1890s (and I mean read–in sense that as erudite as it is it’s very readable). In those days the Democratic party was the less adventursome one in terms of media–it was comfortably ensconced in newspaper formats. It was the Republicans who experimented more with new media that included the steriopticon (what’s that?) and later motion pictures, telephones, and phonographs. Writes Lisa Gitelman (New York University), “Charles Musser shows how screens first entered American politics. Whether they are true politics junkies or frothing critics of America’s quadrennial horse race, readers will be tickled by the resemblances between presidential campaigns then and now. This is media history of the finest kind, rendered by one of our most accomplished scholars of early cinema.”
I like Jeffrey Alexander’s observation, writing about the book. “It turns out that technology has been newly emerging over the past three centuries, and the performance of politics has long been deeply transformed as a result.”
If you’re multitasking as you listen to the endless election and post-election punditry, consider opting for this book in your lap rather than just another screen.