Five Past Visions of Our Political Future
Twentieth-century Americans saw many different predictions for what the world of politics might look like in the 21st century. Some people imagined a world where politics ceased to matter much in daily life. Others saw a world where computers would allow for direct democracy and people voting from their homes. Some people thought that once women were allowed to vote, men would soon lose that privilege. Still others saw the complete conquest of the western hemisphere by American forces — and a president from Montreal by the year 2001.
Today Americans head out to the polls and while they may not be able to vote yet by home computer, they can rest assured: you’re allowed to vote regardless of gender.
Government by Computer
The 1981 kids book World of Tomorrow: School, Work and Play by Neil Ardley imagined the impact that the emergence of smaller and smaller computers for the home might have on government. While the book acknowledges that there might be downsides to government storing records of citizens or using electronics for surveillance, there would also be benefits by enabling direct participation in the political process:
In a future where every home has a videophone computer system, everyone could take part in government. People could talk and air their views to others on special communication channels linking every home. These people would most likely be representatives of some kind — of a political party, a union, an industry and so on. But when the time comes to make a decision on any issue, everyone would be able to vote by instructing their computer. A central computer would instantly announce the result.
This kind of government by the people is a possibility that the computer will bring. It could take place on any scale — from village councils up to world government. In fact, it is more likely to happen in small communities, as it would be difficult to reach effective national and international decisions, if millions of people always had to be asked to approve everything. Nevertheless, the computer will enable really important decisions to be put before the people and not decided by groups or politicians.
The February 11, 1911, Akron Daily Democrat in Akron, Ohio relayed the “breezy and imaginative” world of 90 years hence wherein the Senate will have swelled to 300 members (it currently has 100) and the House 800 (it currently has 435). And oh yes, the United States will completely take over the entire western hemisphere and the president will hail from a city formerly in Canada:
An unique feature of the coming inauguration will be the official program now being prepared by the inaugural committee. The elaborate designs for the front and back covers and the wealth of half-tone and other illustrations within, will make it really remarkable as a work of art and valuable as a souvenir. Besides a full description of the parade and the inaugural ceremonies the book will contain several interesting and timely articles by writers of note, among which will be a picture of the inauguration of the year 2001. The author assumes that the United States, then will have acquired the whole of the western hemisphere attaining a population of 300,000,000; that the President will be from Montreal, U.S.A., will have forty cabinet members to appoint; that the Senate will consist of 300 members and the House 800, and that Washington on that day will entertain 3,000,000 visitors, most of whom view the inaugural parade from airships.
Women Dominate in the Year 2010
The 1910 film Looking Forward featured a Rip Van Winkle type character who awakens in 2010 to find that men no longer have the right to vote. Produced ten years before American women gained the right to cast their ballots in 1920 with the passage of the 19th Amendment, the film depicts a world of men oppressed by women as soon as they’re allowed to vote.
The film is probably lost to history (as so many of this time period are), but thankfully a description exists from Eric Dewberry. His paper, “A Happy Medium: Women’s Suffrage Portrayals in Thanhouser Films, 1910-16" explains the peculiar premise. Dewberry’s knowledge of the film comes from a description in the December 28, 1910 New York Dramatic Mirror:
The comedy Looking Forward (1910) centers around Jack Goodwin, a chemistry student who discovers a liquid compound which allows people to fall asleep for a determinate period of time without the pitfalls of aging. One day, Jack drinks the potion and wakes up in the year 2010. In addition to the marvels of futuristic “rapid transit facilities,” Jack is shocked to discover that men are in the social and political minority, and do not have the right to vote. In an attempt to “restore order,” Jack becomes a ‘suffragehim’ and is sent to jail for his activities. The female mayor of the city falls in love with Jack and offers to free him from prison if he will marry her. Jack wishes to restore “the rights of men,” however, and refuses to leave prison and accept the proposal unless the mayor signs a decree giving men their liberty. Upon signing, the end of the film shows Jack correcting the bride during the wedding ceremony, leading the Mayor down the aisle instead of vice versa and transferring the veil from his head to her head.
Less Politics, I Hope
In the 1984 edition of his book Profiles of the Future (that’s the edition I have, so I can’t speak to other editions) Arthur C. Clarke predicted that politics would become less important in the future — at least that was his hope.
I also believe - and hope - that politics and economics will cease to be as important in the future as they have been in the past; the time will come when most of our present controversies on these matters will seem as trivial, or as meaningless, as the theological debates in which the keenest minds of the Middle Ages dissipated their energies. Politics and economics are concerned with power and wealth, neither of which should be the primary, still less the exclusive, concern of full-grown men.
The TV Influence
There’s absolutely no denying that broadcasting has transformed the modern political campaign. Radio created the need for the political soundbite, and television created campaigns absolutely beholden to images. The 1949 book Television: Medium of the Future by Maurice Gorham was written at the dawn of television’s acceptance into the American home. Gorham argued that the naysayers of the day were wrong; that the television will have no more an impact on the opinion of the voting public than the radio.
Fears have been expressed lest this new reliance on television may lead to choice of candidates for their face rather than their real qualities; that the film-star types will have it all their own way. Personally I see no reason to think that this is a greater danger than we have faced in the radio age. Is it worse to vote for a man whom you have seen and heard than for a man whom you have heard but never seen except for fleeting glimpses in photographs and films? Is there any more reason why a man who is good on television should be a charlatan than a man who is good on radio? Or any inherent merit in a fine radio voice uttering speeches written by somebody else?
This post originally appeared at Smithsonian.com.