The whole campaign was a sham. It pitted a well-known Washington insider, an incumbent too smart for his own good, against a candidate from the Western boondocks who many thought was simply not up to the job and whom others suspected of having used mind-altering substances. Both candidates tried to hide their shortcomings behind empty slogans and even emptier spectacles. It was, as one of its chroniclers dubbed it, “the Great Image Campaign.”

I’m referring, of course, to the presidential campaign of 1840, between Democratic President Martin Van Buren and his Whig challenger, William Henry Harrison. Van Buren, the “red fox” of Kinder-hook, was considered a political wizard, but in the wake of a devastating national depression he was hard pressed to keep hold of the populist mantle he had inherited from I Andrew Jackson.

Harrison, Van Buren’s operatives whispered, was a desiccated old war hero interested in the Presidency only for the pension it would bring. Otherwise he would be just as glad to retire to some frontier cabin and drink hard cider for the rest of his days.

In fact, before becoming a national hero fighting the British and Tecumseh’s Indian federation during the War of 1812, Harrison had lived in a Virginia mansion. He had served ably as governor of the Indiana Territory, and he and his Whig handlers knew a lot about politics, as they were then rapidly evolving. The Whigs quickly turned the Democrats’ jabs back at them, running parade after parade in which floats depicted Harrison’s alleged cabin, complete with homey cider barrel, woodpile, and coonskin cap. (Not incidentally, campaign workers on the float handed out free whiskey and hard cider in log-cabin-shaped bottles.)

By 1840 politics was already well on its way to becoming mass entertainment, as the masses got the vote. Jackson, the champion of the popular franchise—at least for white males—had presided over campaigns featuring giant barbecues, cannonades, sing-alongs, and the erection of “hickory poles” on countless street corners. Harrison’s campaign augmented its libationary parades with such gimmicks as rolling from town to town an enormous paper ball inscribed with exhortations to “keep the ball rolling” all the way to the White House.

Today, in our infinite wisdom, such base appeals to the public taste would be dismissed as cheap stunts. But Americans seem to be disenchanted with politics even without them; this year, as in most recent elections, it is likely that almost one in every two voters will find it an intolerable burden to go to his local polling place and decide who will fill the most powerful political office in the world. The 1840 race, by contrast, drew some 80 percent of eligible voters.

We have been told over and over again that much of this distaste and indifference can be attributed to negative ads, to too much media attention to process, and to too much money flooding the system, and all these things are certainly true. But could the greater problem be that the process has simply receded too far from most of us, trapped in ever-briefer reports on the evening news? And that a real political culture in the United States no longer exists?

It’s hard to describe adequately how much more exciting, even frenzied, election days used to be in America. On the Lower East Side of New York, children would tie brooms to their tenement stoops, hoping for a clean sweep by Tammany Hall. Their parents would crowd the streets after work, following the results projected by magic lanterns from the upper windows of newspaper offices. In the presidential election of 1900, William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal sent aloft two balloons full of fireworks that filled the sky with gold stars when the Republican candidate won.

Such revelry might be attributed solely to the absence of television—to a more attentive, less entertainment-saturated age—but the TV era too once had its magic. Before the perfection of the exit poll, television served as a great unifying medium on election night. Three different times over 16 years, in 1960, 1968, and 1976, presidential races were not decided until the early hours of the morning. Americans sat spellbound, drawn into the drama and majesty of the contest. The current rush by the networks to identify a winner does not simply discourage voting in Western time zones; it also erases the sense of what a vast collective endeavor we are engaged in.

Of course, the old election-day rituals were not simply grand theater. They were also wild, roiling brawls, punctuated by chicanery and even murder and fueled by copious amounts of alcohol. Corruption was commonplace, especially in the nation’s big-city political machines. Even New York’s enduring hero of reform politics, Fiorello La Guardia, was forced to fight fire with fire, organizing his “Ghibboni” as supporters who took on Tammany’s men mano a mano during his first successful run for mayor. The Little Flower himself marched into a polling place on East 113th Street, tore a poll-watcher badge off a Tammany brave’s coat, and told him, “You’re a thug. Now get out of here and keep away.”