Let's not talk about qualifications.

How Playing 'Bumpkin' Became a Political Winner

Stephen Mihm, an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia, is a contributor to the Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter at @smihm.
Read More.
a | A

These days, a member of Congress is required to command a staggering array of issues: terrorism, pandemics, complex financial regulations and global warming, to name a few.

Fortunately for them, candidates for office don’t have to demonstrate their competence in all these domains. In fact, they sometimes even go out of their way to emphasize their lack of qualifications.

Take the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in Iowa, Joni Ernst. If her campaign ads are to be believed, her main preparation for national office is her extensive experience castrating hogs on the family farm. Not to be outdone, her Democratic opponent, U.S. Representative Bruce Braley, has assured voters that he “grew up doing farm jobs and working a grain elevator.”

Welcome to what Mark Leibovich describes in the Nov. 2 issue of the New York Times Magazine as the “bumpkinification” of U.S. politics, which requires politicians to prove they share the voting public's disdain for, well, politicians. There is a long U.S. tradition of office-seekers who try to come off as just ordinary Joes but, contrary to Leibovich’s claim, a government of outsiders wasn't what the framers of the Constitution had in mind.

The men who gathered in Philadelphia in 1787 to draft what became the Constitution were overwhelmingly members of the elite: planters, lawyers, merchants, financiers, land speculators. Although some may have come from humble origins, they had attained a remarkable degree of education, wealth and status.

No surprise, then, that this generation of leaders envisioned a republic run by disinterested, virtuous men like themselves. Most believed the best and the brightest would and should be in charge, and they naively believed that the populace -- whom they privately referred to as “the rabble” -- would be more than happy to be governed by their social and intellectual betters.

It didn’t work out that way. Ordinary people versed in the revolutionary rhetoric of equality didn’t appreciate the condescension, and they pushed back. The novelist Hugh Henry Brackenridge captured the origins of “bumpkinification” in "Modern Chivalry," a comic tale published between 1792 and 1797.

In one scene, an office-seeker accuses his opponent of being seen holding a book.

“I am innocent of letters as the child unborn," the accused says proudly. "I am as ignorant as an ass.”

As suffrage laws permitted an ever growing number of white men to vote, winning office required candidates to play to the crowd by emphasizing their humble roots and obscuring their actual achievements. In the process, the bumpkin and his close cousins -- the crude frontiersman, the simple but honest farmer and the graduate of the school of “common sense” -- became stock figures of campaigns.

This made for strange politics. When John Adams ran for re-election against Thomas Jefferson in 1800, he was labeled an aristocrat, even though he was one of the few founders who evinced sympathy for the common man (Adams was the son of an ordinary farmer). Jefferson, who lived in splendor at Monticello and owned slaves, managed to portray himself as a defender of the era's equivalent of Joe Sixpack.

QuickTake American Political Jargon

A reprise of this battle took place in 1828, when Adams’s son, John Quincy Adams, faced off against Andrew Jackson. Although by then Jackson was wealthy and powerful, his partisan supporters stressed his humble origins, distributing pewter goblets with an image of a log cabin that they claimed had been his childhood home.

The Adams campaign fought back, painting Jackson as a backwoods ruffian who couldn’t spell. The tactic backfired. Jackson's campaign used the attacks to highlight his common touch. Indeed, it is thought that Jackson’s nickname (“Old Hickory”) may be the basis for a more modern epithet: hick.

The gold standard of bumpkification remains the election of 1840, when Jackson’s handpicked successor, Martin Van Buren, ran against Whig candidate Henry William Harrison. The Whigs, who emerged out of the nasty political battles of the late 1820s and 1830s, remade Harrison into a man of the people.

The emblem of this campaign was the log cabin where Harrison lived as a younger man. This was an exaggeration: Harrison briefly occupied a log cabin, but he had added 12 rooms to it. More to the point, Harrison was a highly educated, sophisticated man with a taste for the finer things.

No matter. His handlers reproduced pictures of log cabins on everything from women’s handkerchiefs to medallions to whisky bottles. And, notes historian Sean Wilentz, his campaign workers “hastily restored Harrison’s commodious residence to look more like the log cabin it had originally been.”

According to Wilentz, when Harrison delivered campaign speeches (he was the first presidential candidate to do so), he would often pause and “ostentatiously take a few swigs” from a barrel labelled "hard cider," delighting the audience with his bumpkin ways.

Harrison died a month after taking office. But his remarkable legacy of bumpkin-based politics remains visible every time a modern candidate poses with guns, tours a farm or bites into a corn-dog.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Stephen Mihm at smihm1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net