Brutal election ads are an old story; Andrew Jackson depicted as a jackass.
Since I work on mobilizing and turning out voters, I was delighted to encounter the phrase in this post's title, spoken by a party election operative, in Daniel Walker Howe's What Hath God Wrought. Howe's volume chronicles the beginning of the two-party system (then Democrats and Whigs) in U.S. politics, the populist eruption associated with the President Andrew Jackson, and the communications revolution that enabled mass democracy.
His picture of the expansion is not of a sterile or decorous politics. The Democracy, as contemporaries labeled the Jacksonians, could verge on acting like a mob.
We have made some progress in running elections so as to give at least an appearance of fairness. Yet these unruly assemblages were creating a set of democratic realities then unequaled in the world. For one thing, the new nation rapidly did away with the property qualifications that even revolutionary 18th century political men had thought necessary to an orderly state.
The increasingly effective system of communications -- canals, turnpikes, the telegraph and the national postal system -- changed politics: naturally skilled political operatives quickly figured out how to exploit new means of spreading their messages.
In this system, heading up the Post Office became an office akin to leading Fox News in our day. President Andrew Jackson appointed a member of his kitchen cabinet, Amos Kendall, to this vital post. Kendall proceeded to use his office to build up his party.
Though the period saw the rise of a bumptious democracy, it certainly was not only a time of broad empowerment for some. The new nation's popular program included stealing Native American land (the contemporary language was "Indian Removal"), entrenching African-American slavery, an aggressive war of choice to grab half of Mexico, and denying the first sputtering assertions of women's rights. This was not democracy for everyone -- yet it inspired a level of participation we have a hard time equaling. "Rousing the sluggish to exertion" ...