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Would Reagan or Franken have achieved political success in the late 19th century?

Many people have switched to a political career after doing something else. Biography.com lists nine actors who became politicians. I’m going to concentrate on two of those people, former President Ronald Reagan and Minnesota Senator Al Franken, primarily because of the remarkable similarities between them.

  • Both grew up in the Midwest (Reagan in Illinois, Franken in Minnesota).
  • Both majored in the social sciences in college (Reagan in sociology and economics at Eureka College, Franken in political science at Harvard University).
  • Both were union members (Reagan with the Screen Actors Guild, Franken with the Screen Actors Guild and three other entertainment unions).
  • Both enjoyed television success (Reagan primarily with General Electric Theater, Franken primarily with Saturday Night Live).
  • Both participated in movies and radio at various times in their career (Reagan before his television success, Franken after his television success).
  • Both benefited from the Watergate scandal (Reagan from the removal of Nixon, Agnew and Connally from the political scene and the weakening of Gerald Ford; Franken from his “Final Days” sketch on Saturday Night Live).
  • Neither was ever elected to a local political office (Reagan went straight to the Governor’s Mansion, Franken straight to Capitol Hill).
  • Reagan had a secretary named Franken, and Franken had a secretary named Lincoln. (Not true.)

The most important similarity, however, is that both Reagan and Lincoln were able to use their pre-political careers to prepare themselves for politics. Reagan’s time as SAG president, as well as his speeches for General Electric, allowed him to participate in and comment on major issues of the day. Similarly Franken, both through his SNL writing and his Air America hosting duties, was able to comment on various issues.

Of course, both Reagan and Franken – as well as other actors-turned-politicians such as Sonny Bono, Clint Eastwood, and Arnold Schwarzenegger – enjoyed another advantage. Because of their onstage experience, these actors were/are able to speak in front of a crowd, and (especially important today) speak in front of a camera.

But what if Reagan had been born in 1811 instead of 1911, and Franken had been born in 1851 instead of 1951? Could they have acquired the skills necessary to compete in 19th and early 20th century politics?

The opportunities for 19th century entertainers were vastly different than the opportunities for 20th century entertainers. Reagan, rather than engaging people through movie roles, probably would have become a stage actor. And in the 19th century, stage actors did not have much of an influence on politics – with the notorious exception of John Wilkes Booth.

But what of Franken? While vaudeville began to emerge in the late 19th century, it was not necessarily suited for Franken’s talents. It’s more likely that Franken would have pursued a career similar to that of Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), as a storyteller who used his writings to comment on the social condition.

Neither Reagan nor Franken would have built up an entertainment career that was sufficiently powerful to propel them into statewide or national political office. For the most part, people who enjoyed political success in the latter part of the 19th century were lawyers (such as Grover Cleveland), rich people (such as Theodore Roosevelt), and Union Civil War veterans (just about everybody else).

So this is one case in which the technological changes of the 20th century provided new opportunities for people to excel in fields – even when those technological changes (in this case, in entertainment) were not directly related to the fields in which the aspirants eventually participated.

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