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    Poster for Thomas Dewey (Rep) 1948

Fascinating new book documents 200 years of US election posters

Posted by Rob Alderson,

We seem to have been battered by coverage of the American presidential elections and they are still SEVEN months away, but the world is watching. Anything that helps us outsiders understand this faintly baffling process has a real value, none more so than those insights into the socio-cultural by-products of election campaigns.

We all remember that Shepard Fairey poster for Obama but you may be less familiar with the venerable, centuries old tradition it belonged to. A fascinating new book charts nearly 200 hundred years of the election image, from General Andrew Jackson’s 1828 bill (“Protector and Defender of Beauty & Booty”) right up to the intoxicating “Yes We Can” of Obama 2008.

Of course it’s not just a political story the book tells, but the story of America’s cultural development, how it understood itself and how it represented those understandings. Below is an extended excerpt from writer Brooke Gladstone’s preface, which sets it out much more elegantly than we ever could…

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    Poster for Ronald ReAgan (Rep) 1980

We media consumers are far too jaded to be influenced by campaign posters, right? We all know that posters are blatant manipulations, intended not to inform but to enlist. They emphasise faces and catchphrases. They condense complicated issues into jagged little pills. They are blunt instruments.

At the same time, the most effective campaign posters of every era leave as much as possible to the voter’s imagination. They are like Japanese manga; the less detailed the image the more easily we can identify with the candidate, the more space for projecting our dreams. The more specific the image, the greater the risk of creating a feeling of “otherness” which translates into death at the polls.

Fundamentally it isn’t pitching politicians; it’s hawking images of America. The America we yearn for. Or, when the message is negative, the America we fear.

What is perhaps most striking about this collection of posters from the Library of Congress – our oldest federal institution, and one that serves as America’s memory – is what it reveals about the unchanging nature of American politicking.

In these posters we see the same posturing, the same accusations (of corruption, of moral turpitude) and insinuations (of suspicious religious beliefs or hidden affiliations) hurled across party lines through the centuries. We see in black-and-white and color that the incivility that modern Americans decry as symptomatic of a sick political system has, in fact, always been with us.

“Political art is nothing less than an illustration of the skirmishes and stalemates that created and continue to animate the American experiment.”

Brooke Gladstone

A candidate has to catch a wave and ride it to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The posters and catchphrases contained here are like little skiffs navigating the currents of America’s turbulent political waters. The ultimate lesson of this collection is how choppy those waters are.

Political art is nothing less than an illustration of the skirmishes and stalemates that created and continue to animate the American experiment. As you look at each poster and read about each campaign, it becomes increasingly clear that the tug of war over taxes and trade, the distribution of wealth and power, and the role of government itself will never end.

Every generation renews the battle and fights it again. And every time, political candidates borrow from past campaigns the lexicon of perpetual political war. It reverberates in the slogans and the speeches, the urgent need for tax relief or social protections, for an active government or a dormant one, for war or peace, to stay the course or to change direction.

We each carry a notion of an America that has never existed and can never exist. But we take our posters into the real streets anyway.

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    Poster for William McKinley (Rep) 1896

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    Postre for Bobby Kennedy (Dem) 1968

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    Poster for Jesse Jackson (Dem) 1988

Presidential Campaign Posters is out at the end of May, at £22.99

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Posted by Rob Alderson

Editor-in-Chief Rob oversees editorial across all three It’s Nice That platforms; online, print and events. He has a background in newspaper journalism and a particular interest in art, advertising and photography. He is the main host of the Studio Audience podcast.