How Did Television Change the Politics of the 1950s?

Television helped change Americans' perception of their political system.
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Television changed how Americans in the 1950s saw their political system and in so doing changed politics itself. As media-savvy politicians and consultants found ways to make direct connections with the television audience, election campaigns came to resemble commercial advertising, while those less adept at using the medium could actually foster distrust. Television's greatest impact, though, was arguably increasing awareness of racial injustice, which helped build support for major civil rights reform.

1 The Rise of Media Consultants

As author Kathleen Hall Jamieson observes, by the late 1940s television was beginning to have a significant impact on political campaigns. As campaigns sought to increase their television presence, they began to hire media consultants to help them be more effective. However, the role of media consultants began to grow from editing video and helping candidates choose video-friendly clothes to formulating campaign strategy. Pioneering this trend was Madison Avenue advertising firm BBD&O, whose president, Ben Duffy, was an influential Republican adviser.

2 Marketing Campaigns

As televisions increasingly became a standard household appliance around the country, political campaigns started resembling the era's commercial campaigns, with cartoon characters, catchy jingles and personal interaction with ordinary people. By 1956, television coverage of the parties' presidential nominating conventions was noticeably transforming the conventions from political free-for-alls into media-friendly marketing events.

3 The Television Candidate

One of the most influential and prophetic television appearances by a politician in the 1950s was Richard Nixon's famous Checkers Speech. After accusations of financial corruption prompted members of the Republican establishment to push for his removal as Eisenhower's running mate, Nixon purchased a primetime television spot and made a direct appeal to the American people. In his speech, Nixon emphasized his humble lifestyle and claimed that the only campaign gift he would keep was the family dog, named Checkers. Nixon's speech not only saved his spot on the Republican ticket; it also provided a template for other politicians using television as a campaign tool.

4 Transparency and Distrust

While Nixon's speech highlighted the power of television in establishing a personal connection between politicians and the public, Sen. Joseph McCarthy's notorious televised hearings on communists in the army showed how exposing the inner workings of the U.S. political system could also promote distrust. For instance, the popular magazine "Collier's" opined that for millions of Americans observing Congress in action for the first time, the hearings' lack of dignified statesmanship was all but certain to have fostered disillusionment with the political system as a whole.

5 Broadcasting Civil Rights

Ralph Ellison's classic 1952 novel "The Invisible Man" critiqued white America's failure to see the plight of African-Americans living in their midst. Television brought racial politics directly to the country's living rooms. In addition to the increasing the visibility of African-American athletes and entertainers, television exposed Americans throughout the country to the problems created by racial discrimination, which in turn helped strengthen the growing movement to promote civil rights. As William G. Thomas III of the University of Virginia has documented, the impact of the nascent broadcast medium was particularly strong in the South, where television news tended to provide more balanced and forthright coverage of desegregation than newspapers.

John Green is an attorney who has been writing on legal, business and media matters for more than 20 years. He has also taught law school and business courses in entrepreneurship, business enterprise, tax and ethics. Green received his J.D. from Yale Law School and his Ph.D. in religion from Duke.