The Individual's Role in 20th Century U.S. Politics

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson we will examine the role the individual in 20th century U.S. politics. We will highlight key themes and developments to show how the role of the individual has expanded throughout the course of 20th century American politics.

The Power of the Individual in 20th Century American Politics

Have you ever known anyone who really likes a particular political figure not so much because of their political views, but because of who they are as a person? You really can't deny that personal charm, personality, and charisma are important factors in modern politics. The power of the individual is arguably more pronounced in our time than it has been in politics of the past.

In the past, a politician's platform was primarily what attracted followers. A political platform consists of the policies and approaches to which a politician holds. For example, a Republican platform typically favors limited government, free market economics, and socially conservative values, while a Democratic platform typically favor government intervention, a state-regulated economy, and more liberal social values. Throughout the 19th century, what mattered most wasn't necessarily how characteristic a politician was, but how closely he was aligned with his party's platform.

During the 20th century, however, there was an evolution away from this. We've become used to supporting politicians who speak well or have a great personality. Today's political leaders are more like celebrities than they have been in the past. Let's highlight some key developments in this process and learn more about the role of the individual in 20th century American politics.

Theodore Roosevelt and the Bull Moose Party

Let's go back to the very beginning of the 20th century. The winner of the election of 1900 was William McKinley, but he was assassinated in 1901, which is when Theodore Roosevelt took over. Roosevelt was President of the United States between 1901-1909. Roosevelt was enormously popular. While George Washington and other presidents have been very popular, in many ways 'Teddy' Roosevelt was one of the first celebrity presidents.

This guy was bold, tough, masculine; he was someone who couldn't be pushed around. He even hunted lions and wild beasts on African safaris. More than his policies, Roosevelt is remembered for who he was as an individual person. He was energetic and larger than life. The people loved him. He was popular because of his dynamic persona.

Teddy Roosevelt was dynamic, larger than life figure. Here he is pictured on one of his famous African safaris.

Teddy Roosevelt served two terms. At this time, there was no law forbidding candidates to run for a third term. But so as to not break the tradition set by George Washington, Roosevelt pledged to not run for a third term. After a few years, however, he regretted his choice, so he decided to run again in the election of 1912. However, the Republican Party already had their candidate, so Roosevelt decided to create his own political party and run as a third-party candidate. The party he formed was nicknamed the Bull Moose Party after Roosevelt commented to a reporter, ''I'm as fit as a bull moose.'' Roosevelt ended up losing the election of 1912. As popular as he was, the American public still had strong party loyalties. His individualism alone was not enough to secure him a third term.

FDR and His Four Terms

While Roosevelt wasn't successful in being elected as president for a third term, his cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was. In fact, 'FDR,' as he's become known, was elected to not only three, but four terms! He was in office between 1933-1945. FDR was president during the Great Depression and World War II, probably the two most traumatic events the U.S. faced in the 20th century. FDR became known for his confidence and optimism, even in the face of almost insurmountable odds. Radio technology grew rapidly during the 1920s and 1930s, and FDR used it to his advantage. He gave weekly radio talks, called 'fireside chats.' These chats helped relieve the anxiety of millions of Americans. They were a method for FDR to express himself in a new and authentic way to the American people and it allowed them to feel like they were connecting with him as a human being. Like his cousin, FDR was a dynamic figure, but he was also polarizing. To his supporters, he was the savior of America; to his detractors, he was almost on-par with a socialist dictator.

Franklin Roosevelt was an inspiring and confident leader. Here he is seen making a radio broadcast.

John F. Kennedy and the Election of 1960

By the election of 1960, television had become available and was in many American homes. In many ways, the election of 1960 was the first truly modern presidential election (in terms of the type of elections we think of today in the 21st century). Why? Well, it was the first election in which a formal presidential debate took place. Furthermore, the debate was televised. Participating in this debate was Democratic senator John F. Kennedy and Republic Vice-President Richard Nixon. Kennedy was young, charismatic, and handsome, and during the televised debate Nixon looked tired, nervous, and old (he was actually ill at the time).

The election of 1960 was the first to feature a presidential debate.

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