1952 marks the first year that presidential candidates made use of television “spots” (20-60 second commercials), which may be why Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson’s ads are choppy at best. This ad attempts to call a very specific group of people—Americans—to do a very specific action—vote for the Democratic presidential candidate—by staking out a universal public in the vaguest of terms. In terms of content, this ad tells us little but that Stevenson, like Thomas Jefferson, apparently supports the idea of a single humanity created by a single God. Indeed, Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower’s landslide victory over Stevenson can be attributed at least in part to their radically distinct ways of using this new media. Eisenhower’s ads still serve as a basic template for campaign spots while Stevenson’s ads, featuring unfamiliar faces, unmemorable jingles and inexplicable graphics, serve as a guide of what not to do. However, there also seems to be something more interesting afoot in this universal call intended to motivate a highly specific audience to partisan action.
A strange rhetoric surrounds new media in America, from the telegraph to the internet, that claims a universal scope for a very particular public. The power of new media in America is framed as its reach, the more global the better. Part of the work of these media, then, is to define a broad world that they can unite and access. Hence, President Buchanan’s hope that the Atlantic telegraph cable would be “a bond of perpetual peace and friendship between the kindred nations, and an instrument destined by Divine Providence to diffuse religion, civilization, liberty, and law throughout the world.” Or Thomas Friedman’s claim that the world has been made “flat” by the internet. Of course, in each of these cases, the “whole world” is really very small, bounded by the constraints of religious, national and economic particularity. The Atlantic telegraph cable ran between Ireland and Canada, a far stretch from uniting any great set of nations, kindred or not. And one doesn’t need to study the disparity in high-speed internet cables in America’s own landscape to know that the world is far from flatly accessible to everyone.
Similarly, this television ad turns to the widest public possible and claims it as the very foundation of American exceptionalism. The speaker claims that it was the forefathers’ belief in universal (God-given) liberty that makes “us” a nation. Stevenson’s own Christian universalism—his belief that “the same God made us all”—is precisely what grounds his apparently unique agreement with the speaker and distinguishes him as a candidate (although from what is not clear). The public called into being by this early television ad is a particular and tiny public (very tiny—Stevenson won only 89 out of the 531 electoral votes) that coheres on its claim to universality. This is a critical facet of the publics Americans have imagined into being on the backs of new media—a particular generality, often grounded in a Christian rhetoric of universalism that constrains their global reach from the start.