Politicians Shouldn't Be Afraid to Give 'em Hell Once in a While

Harry Truman demonstrated that you could insult your opponents—and the voters—and still win.
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Harry Truman was so widely expected to lose the 1948 election that the Chicago Tribune had printed papers with this incorrect headline before all the returns were in. (Photo: Byron Rollins/Associated Press)

Harry Truman was so widely expected to lose the 1948 election that the Chicago Tribune had printed papers with this incorrect headline before all the returns were in. (Photo: Byron Rollins/Associated Press)

As the rhetoric in the 2016 election heats up (particularly on the Republican side), party insiders are already sounding the quadrennial call for civility. This is a regular concern for many political observers, who find themselves disheartened by the coarsening of campaign discourse. They worry (without much evidence) that incivility is alienating voters from the political process and dooming their own candidates. Why can't we return to the gentlemanly politics of the mid-20th century, when national leaders sat down across party lines to hammer out solutions to the nation's problems?

In a recent episode of the wonderful Whistlestop Podcast, John Dickerson reminds us what those civil days of yesteryear were like. Dickerson follows the 1948 campaign of President Harry Truman, seeking his first election to a full term in office. Truman was widely expected to lose that election to New York Governor Thomas Dewey. The punditry class had nearly unanimously predicted the president's defeat, and the Roper polling organization actually stopped polling early in the campaign, arguing that early poll leaders almost always win; why waste money?

Truman was "willing to destroy the unity and dignity of this country and his government for partisan advantage after he himself has lost the confidence of the people."

Truman's team developed a novel campaign strategy that put the 64-year-old president on a train visiting small town after small town across the country, ultimately logging more than 30,000 miles and delivering up to eight speeches a day. His strategy additionally called for frequent and brutal verbal insults toward the Republican Congress elected in 1946, which had famously refused to act on virtually any of Truman's policy goals. Truman called the 80th Congress the worst in history, decrying it as a "do nothing" legislature. When he spoke at the Democratic National Convention in the summer of 1948, he said that the Republican Party "favors the privileged few and not the common everyday man."

He then demanded that Congress, then in recess, come back into session to finish its work. Republican insider Hugh Scott said that Truman was "willing to destroy the unity and dignity of this country and his government for partisan advantage after he himself has lost the confidence of the people."

But more striking than Truman's attacks on Republicans were his attacks on voters themselves. In several public speeches, Truman would complain about the priorities of the current Republican Congress, and then blame the voters for it. As he said during a June speech in Spokane:

This is partly your fault! That is partly your fault. In the election of 1946 you believed all the lies that were published about your president. And two-thirds of you didn't even go out and vote. Look what the other third gave you! You deserved it.

Now, if you let that sort of situation continue—you have got a chance to remedy it this fall—if you let that sort of situation continue, I won't have any sympathy with you. You will get just what you deserve.

Perhaps the most famous moment of the 1948 campaign was its surprising outcome. Despite all expert predictions, even up until the last minute, Truman actually won the election handily, beating Dewey by 4.5 percentage points (a 303-189 Electoral College rout).

How did Truman go from a sure loss to a solid win? Political scientists and historians have tended to focus on two factors: an economy that improved sharply during the summer of 1948, and Truman's championing of labor unions, which most voters then supported. It would be a real stretch to say that Truman's campaign of insults against Republicans and voters actually delivered him enough votes to win the election.

On the other hand, there's not much evidence that his incivility hurt him, either. The ideas that the people would turn against a blatantly partisan president or would turn off of politics once it became nasty really weren't borne out by the events of 1948. Civility can surely make politics a nicer place to work, but politicians shouldn't worry too much about giving people a little hell once in a while.

What Makes Us Politic? is Seth Masket’s weekly column on politics and policy.

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