A Short History of Politicians and Their Love for Technology

Alexander Hamilton used pamphlets and broadsides to connect with constituents. Donald Trump loves Twitter. Politicians haven’t been shy about using the latest technological marvel to spread their message.

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(Sattalat Phukkum/Shutterstock)
Are there politicians today that aren’t on Twitter? Not too many. Twitter has emerged as the center for immediate online political discourse, and politicians know that they can reach reporters, journalists, their fellow public officials and their constituents with one tweet. Critically, they can reach these audiences immediately and without many of the traditional forms of gatekeeping of television or print media. While Twitter is the newest form of political communication, it is only the latest in a long history of technological innovations utilized by politicians to influence political debate.

Politicians worked to influence their constituents long before they called themselves Americans. In 1475, William Caxton brought the printing press to London, ushering in the era of newspapers and broadsides. As the number of newspaper publications grew, so too did newspaper culture. In London, coffeehouses sprung up on nearly every corner, where patrons could sip a beverage, chat about the events of the day and read the shop’s newspapers. But these newspapers weren’t just scanned in silence, they were often read aloud. As a result, even illiterate customers could consume the news and share it with their families at home.

Colonists imported this culture to North America with their own twist. Rather than coffeehouses, which required bustling urban centers, taverns served as the primary location of news dissemination. Most colonists lived in small communities and towns in which the local tavern served as a gathering spot, a post depot, a hotel for weary travelers on the road and a place to buy or barter goods. But the importance of newspapers and the communal sharing of news remained the same. For example, after its publication, the Declaration of Independence was read aloud at taverns up and down the continent. Almost like the original retweet, if you will.

Readers weren’t just limited to their local newspapers. Editors regularly subscribed to publications from other cities, and then reprinted the news and letters to facilitate the spread of information. Individuals boosted this process as well. The Adams family regularly clipped important articles or editorials and included them in their personal correspondence to friends and family across the globe.

Eager to take advantage of these communication networks, politicians regularly authored broadsides and newspaper editorials arguing in favor of a particular policy or lambasting their opponents. Sometimes, if they were very serious, they signed their name. Other times, when politicians wanted to make a point but didn’t want their name involved, they used a nom de plume. Alexander Hamilton is an excellent example. Under the name An American, he argued in favor of a national bank; under the name Tully, he lambasted the rebels in western Pennsylvania for violently protesting a federal whiskey tax; and under the name Horatius, he voiced support for the Jay Treaty. But when he wanted to derail John Adams’ re-election campaign, he published a pamphlet with a list of objections and grievances, and signed his name.

Over the course of the 19th century, the scope and reach of newspapers expanded apace with technological advancements. Steams ships, canals and railroads sped up the delivery time for newspapers, and the advent of the telegram in 1838 made the concept of breaking news possible. No longer did it take weeks for newspapers from Boston to reach Georgia; now deliveries could arrive in a matter of days, and the newspapers would be filled with news that had occurred just the day before. For example, when miners struck gold in Sutter Creek, Calif., in 1848, the discovery was relayed to the East Coast the next day. Newspapers across the country shrieked “CALIFORNIA! EXTRAORDINARY INDUCEMENTS!” sparking the migrations of thousands of hopeful miners to the West Coast.

Naturally, the world of politics adapted to these technological innovations. Election results were reported by telegram and printed in the newspaper the following day, including the pivotal election of 1860. On the night of Nov. 6, Abraham Lincoln waited up at a local ice cream parlor in Springfield, Ill., until the election results were reported by telegraph after midnight.

Then on Nov. 2, 1920, at 8 p.m., Pittsburgh’s KDKA broadcasted the result of the president election to 100 listeners and everything changed. The invention of the radio forever altered political communication. Think about the famous Abraham Lincoln–Stephen Douglas debates. The attendees certainly grasped the two competing personalities, but Americans across the country could only read descriptions printed in newspapers. With the advent of the radio, politicians could demonstrate their personality and charisma (or lack thereof) to the whole country. The whole world even.

The introduction of television has the same seismic effect. For the first time, debates weren’t just a local event. Sure, the voices of politicians had been carried across the airways, but now voters could see the candidates. They could see politicians give speeches or presidents give addresses. The presidential debate in 1960 demonstrated the power of this new medium. The debate between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy was broadcast on both radio and television. Listeners on the radio believed that Nixon won the debate, while television viewers reported that Kennedy came out on top.

Once television was a regular part of political culture, C-SPAN presented a new opportunity to capture the attention of voters — an opportunity Newt Gingrich grasped faster than most. He frequently delivered speeches to an empty chamber, ranting against the Democratic Party. Gingrich cared little that he had no in-person audience, knowing full well that he was reaching millions of viewers across the country.

The Internet, and most importantly the advent of social media, is the most recent political revolution. Twitter has become the home of most political pundits, but Facebook was the first platform to capture politicians’ attention. Some experts attribute Donald Trump’s win in 2016 to Facebook, and that platform was his primary fundraising apparatus during his presidency. For example, the week in 2019 that Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi announced Congress would pursue impeachment, the Trump campaign spent $1.8 million in Facebook ads, which reaped $15 million in small-dollar donations.

The financial and marketing value of social media explains why Trump’s expulsion from Twitter and Facebook matters so much. As traditional news sources, like newspapers and TV productions, are fracturing and reaching smaller audiences, social media is increasingly the most important way for politicians to reach their constituents. Every generation has argued that the advent of new technology would be the end of civilization and the downfall of the nation. Hopefully, this version will just be the newest iteration of “kids these days.”
Dr. Lindsay M. Chervinsky is an expert in the cabinet, presidential history, and U.S. government institutions. She can be found on Twitter at @lmchervinsky.
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