Many things about “the good old days” were not good at all. For example, there were uncontrolled infectious diseases, including deadly or crippling childhood illnesses. A full spectrum of antibiotics became widely available only after World War II. Poor diets led to such disorders as pellagra and going barefoot often exposed children to hookworms. The “bad” list is long.
However, compared to present practices, the process of electing public office holders in the past was brief and benign. These days one election cycle is hardly over before another batch of wannabees begins to organize exploratory committees and to bank war chests for campaigns that begin far too soon for ordinary people who are still trying to recover from the previous ordeal. Advertising — too often false or at best misleading — begins months in advance and continues in a drowning flood to the point that the mute button on a TV clicker becomes essential equipment.
Back then, candidates announced their readiness to run shortly before official qualifying dates. Salaries for most public offices were modest, in some cases nothing at all. There were no deep-pocket lobbies or PACs behind every pine tree. Legislators had not yet bestowed upon themselves retirement, health care and travel benefits not available to other citizens. Most were part-time officeholders who made a living with hometown occupations. They did not have money for advertising, no yard signs or billboards. The curse of TV political advertising had not yet fallen upon the land. And what’s the point in spending money if winning brings no financial rewards?
Even now, most local political campaigning is civil, a matter of “elect me and not that other person.” While civility was not universal back then because almost nothing was universally civil, many factors worked against personal attacks. First, the right to retribution against character assassination was imbedded in the culture. Depending upon the nature of the affront, an offender might expect to get beat or shot with public approval for the beater or shooter.
Moreover, bad-mouthing an opponent could cost votes due to social ties. Most local candidates were from families that had been around for generations. Thus, they had extensive kinship networks and were married into more of the same. Speaking ill of anyone could be costly unless the speaker knew all of the connections in the area and spoke only to trusted confidantes.
Some people just did not approve of personal attacks in public. Once during my childhood, a candidate included a personal reference to his opponent as part of an advertisement in the local weekly newspaper. My mother judged this to be a breach of good manners for a potential office holder and firmly declared that she would not vote for him. In fact, he was not elected.
Politicking is the process of putting together alliances of voters and might begin sometime before the public campaign. A candidate would start with his/her own family and its extensions, paying close attention to powerful or influential elders. If “Uncle John” did not support the run, it might be wise not to run. It was also helpful if Uncle John could kick in some money to transport voters on Election Day or fund other inducements. The next step was to link to other kinship groupings. If elected, the office holder understood that paybacks might be required under certain conditions.
Electioneering was the actual pursuit of votes during campaigns. Advertising in local newspapers had limited impact because many people did not subscribe to them. Door to door visits were more personal but limited by the fact that farmers were in the fields most of the day and went to bed early at night. Visits to church services were of some value but direct vote seeking was frowned upon and various people thought that candidates should support their own churches. However, I knew of one church that used electioneering time as a fund raiser. Office seekers paid handsome prices for homemade cakes and left bills in open collection plates after singers from the church sang. It is unknown whether or not voting was affected.
Elections for state offices were somewhat different but social connections were still key. Candidates sought tacit alliances with local officials and influential members of large family networks. Most of the votes in a county might turn upon endorsements of a few such people. Candidates were able to trade upon paved roads and state jobs, which were prized because pay was dependable and regular.
Electioneering often involved large local events for the candidates. Typically, this was a barbecue hosted by a prominent supporter with plenty of food and drink, including alcohol even in officially “dry” counties. At the proper time, the candidate would stand on a temporary stage or truck bed to speak at length about his common origins, just like theirs, and what they could look forward to when he was elected. Also, typically these speeches included segments of racist rants. There was no appeal to the Black vote because African-Americans rarely voted back then.
Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.