Twain Illustrated that he was Running for Governor
Twain Illustrated contains three funny stories by Mark Twain. All three stories are funny, but one, Running for Governor, is also scary, since it strikes so closely to what is currently happening in the USA and elsewhere. Democracy is in danger because too many people don’t know what to believe in this information/disinformation age of ours. Of course, as the story shows, this phenomenon is not exactly brand new. For most of the nineteenth century, politicians funded major newspapers throughout the US. In 1870, only 11% of urban daily newspapers were independent of corrupt influence by politicians. Twain surely had this in mind while writing Running for Governor for his monthly column in The Galaxy, a literary magazine, in which he portrayed his fictional candidacy for Governor to be just as hopelessly futile as it would have been in fact. He knew it inevitable that newspaper propaganda generated by both major party candidates in the actual New York election of 1870 would doom any honest candidate to defeat. Ironically, the New York Times ran a series of articles in 1872 that exposed the self-enriching misdeeds of the winning candidate in that election, putting a deserving end to his corrupt political career.
Also, around the time of Twain’s column, newspapers had just started becoming largely independent of political funding. But now, more than 150 years later, the foundation on which Twain built Running for Governor—inaccurate news reporting—is again a persistent topic of discussion. Although disinformation has been around forever, the term ‘fake news’ was not in general usage until 2014. That’s when a BuzzFeed News editor began using it to label propaganda that social media sites promoted as real news. These widely circulated, ongoing lies are akin to those which Twain hilariously describes and exaggerates in Running for Governor.
Then came an abrupt twist. A 2016 presidential candidate co-opted and popularized the term ‘fake news’ when he repeatedly used it to disparage mainstream news reports, usually entirely accurate, that contradicted his statements and examined his actions and proposals. Since that candidate succeeded in getting elected, the term ’fake news’ was voiced countless times throughout his presidency, and ever since.
It’s pretty easy to guess what Mark Twain might say about the twisted meaning of ‘fake news’ if he were still around to comment, and it’s very easy to wish that he was. Corrupt political leaders in his day inspired him to write satire incisive enough to cut to the core of their deceits and witty enough to provoke audible laughter from his readers. To varying degrees and under many guises, corruption remains an unfortunate feature of democracy. Besides ‘fake news’, there are many political characters and systems nowadays that would inspire Twain’s satire. Does anyone doubt he would direct his pointed wit at our present-day scoundrels and the systems in which they operate?