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Reading: Why Don't Americans Vote?

If more people voted, the argument goes, the nation might move toward the left. But if the left could find a way to move the nation, maybe more people would vote.



Last election day, voters in Chicago and across the nation won another international civic booby prize. Only about 70 percent of registered voters and half of the voting-aged population cast ballots. Nationally, it was the worst performance since 1924, when most blacks were effectively barred from voting in the South. For all of the United States outside of the south, the turnout of eligible voters this year was the lowest since 1824.

Why don't Americans vote? In a city where the folklore is that we all "vote early and often," why did Chicagoans not vote? It's not always been so bad: in 1960, about 84 percent of registered voters nationally went to the polls. But the turnout has declined pretty consistently ever since. Yet in most European countries, from 80 to 95 percent of eligible voters participated in their most recent national elections.

Are Americans just lousy citizens, a people with a bad attitude or a collective lazy streak? Are they too contented to vote? Are they turned off by the choices? Or do obstacles block their way to the polls?

When so many potential voters don't take part, government may appear less legitimate. After all, we assume our government, unlike a monarchy or dictatorship, rests on the active consent of the governed. But there is a second reason that nonparticipation has become an important issue. It's argued that poorer people are the ones least likely to vote, but that when they do go to the polls they are likely to vote Democratic. If more voters participated, the argument goes, Democrats would be more likely to win and politicians generally would have to respond better than they do to issues of interest to lower-income voters. And this might shift the whole political spectrum to the left. After all, in Europe the major conservative parties are usually no more right-wing than is much of the Democratic party in the U.S., and there are large, often successful, socialist or social-democratic parties.

Chicagoans saw how this might work in 1983. For years, black voters took a small and declining part in local elections; they did not feel the Daley government represented them. Then a huge increase in voter registration, aided by changes in voter registration procedures, made victory possible for a liberal black whose message stirred black voters' passions. This year, there is less enthusiasm about the election and less effort to register voters. Turnout is likely to be low, and the beneficiaries will probably be the remnants of the old machine. But the political spectrum has shifted: even the machine heirs now at least talk in favor of reform ideas, and conservative white politicians acknowledge the need for minority representation.

During this past year, several books have shed some light on these interrelated questions of why Americans don't vote and of what Democrats must do to achieve and benefit from increased voter participation.

Political scientists Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward argue in Why Americans Don't Vote that the path to voter registration in this country is simply too complicated and too strewn with barriers. It's not a matter of voter disinterest, they argue, since registered voters go to the polls at about the same rate here as in many European countries. But in much of Europe, voter registration is virtually automatic.

The problem goes back to the late 19th century, they write. White American males, motivated by patronage and "tribalisms" of religion and ethnicity as much as by middle-class virtue, had turned out in large numbers earlier in the century. But with the growth in power of the big corporations after the Civil War, many farmers and laborers began to respond to class-conscious, economic rallying cries, such as those signaling the rise of Populism.

Republican William McKinley defeated the Populist-tinged William Jennings Bryan in 1896, and in the following years a wave of electoral "reforms" reduced the possibility that challenges to the domination by one party or the other in various parts of the country would succeed. Republicans in the north attacked big-city machines and established new voting restrictions that encumbered immigrant workers. Democrats in the south imposed poll taxes, literacy tests, and other barriers that virtually disenfranchised all blacks and also greatly reduced the participation of poor whites. The combination of voting barriers and lack of competition between parties stifled political involvement.

During the 1930s there was a new surge of voting interest, mainly in the north. The growing labor movement and some big city machines, such as Ed Kelly's in Chicago, mobilized voters to support the New Deal, which in turn helped both the cities and labor. Cloward and Piven argue that voting barriers, particularly those that still excluded blacks in the south, may have kept the Democrats from becoming even more of a European-style, class-oriented party. As it happened, Roosevelt had to strike a deal with the conservative Democratic party of the south, which suppressed blacks and also fought the more liberal elements of his New Deal. The compromise might not have been necessary had southern blacks been able to vote.

After World War II, the growing ranks of northern, urban blacks helped force the Democrats to respond to the civil rights movement in the south. The response provoked an exodus of southern whites from the national Democratic ticket. But the Democrats, always fearful of the white backlash, were unwilling to mobilize blacks forcefully, even though blacks abandoned their traditional Republican ties in the 60s presidential races of Kennedy and Johnson. Big-city Democratic mayors like Richard Daley kept down black registration, both to appease white racists and to limit a turnout they couldn't control. Daley led the mayors in lobbying Congress to prevent any 60s-era poverty program money from being used for voter registration.

In recent years, the labor movement and big-city machines have both been losing their ability to turn out voters. And many barriers to registration remain. Even if these seem small, such as ones requiring voters to go to a downtown office or to a ward office to register, they reduce the registration of poor people, who are already overburdened and often poorly informed about election rules. It is not preordained that poorer people are less likely to participate: in Sweden, for example, election participation is equally high among all income levels.

But the barriers have been dropping in recent decades. For example, since 1982 in Chicago, deputy registrars have been able to register voters door-to-door or in public locations such as shopping centers. In some states voters can register at driver's license bureaus or welfare offices. In others they can simply register at the polls on election day. But even in states with relatively easy registration, voter participation has not uniformly increased and in some cases has even declined. Something else needs to be done.

Political scientist Ruy A. Teixeira, in his similarly titled recent book, Why Americans Don't Vote: Turnout Decline in the United States, 1960-1984, argues that nonvoting has increased in recent decades because people are more mobile and less rooted to their communities, because they feel that their vote would have little effect, and because political campaigns don't involve them. But these explanations beg the question of why people feel so indifferent. Poor people, particularly.

In sharp contrast to Piven and Cloward, Teixeira argues that if nonvoters participated, election results would not be very different. That seems to go against intuition: after all, if the poor are generally both more Democratic and more likely to sit out elections, then a greater turnout should help the Democrats. But a CBS/New York Times postelection survey last November suggested that George Bush might have slightly increased his margin of victory over Michael Dukakis if nonvoters had gone to the polls. Another study, however, suggested that if nonvoters had gone to the polls in 1980 Carter would have defeated Reagan (but they wouldn't have saved Mondale in 1984).

There are serious problems with the postelection polls that form the basis of these projections about nonvoters' impact. For example, there's the possible tendency of people who haven't been much involved in an election to identify with the winner after the fact. But clearly, nonvoters are a mixed bag. Even among the poor, there are fundamentalist Bible-thumpers of the rural south who might negate liberal urban blacks.

Piven and Cloward can't simply rely on blanket registration to revive the Democratic party or to strengthen the electoral left, their ultimate goal. Their actual argument is the one of shifting the political spectrum slightly to the left.

Ultimately many voters do not take part because they think voting makes little difference. They don't see themselves with a stake in the country to be tended at the polling booth. This is a national problem for which Democrats must find a political solution. Robert Kuttner, who shares Cloward and Piven's sense of urgency about registration reform, attempts to provide a political prescription in The Life of the Party. David Osborne, who seems more concerned with figuring out how to appeal to the existing electorate rather than with expanding it, offers a different solution in Laboratories of Democracy: A New Breed of Governor Creates Models for National Growth.

Kuttner is the neo-populist, Osborne the neo-progressive. Populism was the movement associated with the late-19th-century revolt of small farmers, sharecroppers, and workers against the big economic powers; progressivism was the early-20th century effort to reform and tame a chaotic American economy through regulation, education, and protection of the common national interests.

Osborne's heroes are executives like Dukakis and former Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt. These neo-progressives hope to rebuild electoral majorities by focusing on the old Democratic ideal of economic growth. They want to achieve that by promoting education, research, industrial modernization, and new partnerships of business, government, and labor or community groups. They want government to use its public hand to make the supposedly magical "hidden hand" of the market better serve the needs of the whole community (for example, by making it easier for small new businesses or women and minority entrepreneurs to raise capital or by encouraging certain kinds of technological innovation). By contrast, post-World War II liberals seemed little interested in manipulating the economic marketplace. At best they were willing to pay for some of the damages to those hurt or left behind.

The neo-progressives try to get more bang for the buck, stressing efficiency and recruiting private business into partnerships with state government. Dukakis's Employment and Training program to train welfare recipients for jobs was one notable example, but other governors have also developed centers for industrial renewal and public-private housing partnerships.

Osborne's book chronicles the many good ideas that state and local governments have pursued in a time when federal largess has shrunk. But much as the book may appeal to "policy freaks," there's something missing. That's a sense of the meaning of government and the values of society. Dukakis embodied the neo-progressive approach when he declared at the Democratic convention that the presidential race was a matter of competence, not ideology. Neo-progressivism can degenerate into a technocratic managerialism that may win back some middle-class white voters to the Democrats but is hardly likely to stir the masses of uninvolved nonvoters. And indeed, it did not stir them for the Duke. George Bush demonstrated that ideology, especially at the presidential level, is important. Bush conducted a negative and ideological campaign--labeling Dukakis a "liberal" and defining that to mean soft on criminals, unpatriotic, and militarily weak. But Ronald Reagan not only ridiculed his opponents, he also elaborated an alternative ideology.

In The Rise of the Counterestablishment: From Conservative Ideology to Political Power, Sidney Blumenthal wonderfully captures Reagan's mythmaking powers. He had a few simple prescriptions, but most basically his message was that government was the problem, not the solution. Running as an outsider for office, he continued to run against government for eight years in office. Ironically, at the end of his second term, polls indicated that people today not only trust government more but want to see it doing more to solve the nation's problems.

Reagan capitalized on the people's spreading sense of discontent and powerlessness as the United States stumbled through the 70s. America had not been able to impose its will on the world, and even under Reagan could impose it only on tiny Grenada. America had been slipping economically, and under Reagan slid even more, although the wealthy fared far better than they had in decades.

Reagan represented the return to a mythical yesteryear, to a Tinseltown America of cheery white families walking down the street to the clapboard Protestant church before having Sunday dinner at Grandma's. In the face of daunting new problems, people wanted an image of America to hang on to, even if this image had little to do with the reality of influence peddling by Reagan's top aides, gunrunning to thuggish Central American right-wing guerrillas, and the abandonment of millions more Americans to homelessness and poverty (including one-fourth of all children).

Reagan appealed to the dominant American ideology of competitive individualism and to the messianic vision of the United States as the perfect nation, morally sanctioned to impose its way on the rest of the world.

Although Bush basked in the rosy glow of Reagan's mythmaking, he could not articulate the myth as well as Reagan did. Besides, he and his aides could read the polls showing that Americans wanted government to do more for the environment, for schools, for health care and child care, and to spend less on the military. So Bush tempered the Reagan doctrine but kept the myth.

It was not clear what vision of America Dukakis stood for, so Bush filled in the blanks. By the end of his campaign, the Duke was talking to people about being "on your side," had sharpened his attacks on corporate takeovers, and was stressing the slide in living standards by middle-class families. He sounded a bit like an economic populist, and his support grew.

Precisely such populism is Kuttner's prescription for the Democrats. He argues that populism not only can bring back straying white working-class voters but also can motivate many nonvoting poor people to elect liberal Democrats. Against the Reagan view that we are all isolated, ravenously consuming individuals whose private greed ultimately creates a harmonious and happy world, Kuttner argues that Democrats must appeal to us as citizens, as inhabitants of a community. There's no reason why that appeal can't be just as patriotic as Reagan's myths.

Democrats have to put some meaning into citizenship and justice. In Kuttner's words, they have to "restore the link between citizen, polity, and party by addressing the actual economic needs of ordinary voters." In spirit, that's a far cry from the comment, quoted by Blumenthal, of Richard Posner, a Chicago appellate judge appointed by Reagan: "I hate the word 'justice.' The word is meaningless.'"

When Congress last year finally required that workers be given 60 days' notice of plant closings, it recognized that justice does have some meaning. Government delivered something small but important to ordinary Americans and gave them a reason to look to its helping hand (and to the Democrats, despite their belated, fragmented support for the measure). It delivered justice to both black and white Americans, although blacks have disproportionately suffered from plant closings. The measure helped undercut the unfortunate white perception that "justice" simply means help for blacks or for the poor (who are, incidentally, mainly white, even though most people think of the poor as black).

Democrats have no choice except to fight back with their own ideology, their own vision of America. The neoprogressive policy ideas are often valuable, but they don't inspire and are usually too timid. Many other tendencies in the party simply want it to capitulate to the conservative victories. But the failures of Reagan's rule will become more evident as time passes, and Democrats must be prepared to offer solutions.

Ultimately, they must credibly promise to deliver the goods better to the average person, while not separating the poor from the rest of us. When they do that, and if voter registration is made much easier, they may find themselves once again with national electoral majorities. They may find themselves once again able to frame the national debate about how to confront the real world, which is much different from yesterday's world and certainly much different from the dreamland that served Reagan so well. They may find that, given the opportunity and a reason to do so, more Americans will vote.

Why Americans Don't Vote by Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward, Pantheon, $19.95.

Why Americans Don't Vote: Turnout Decline in the United States, 1960-1984 by Ruy A. Teixeira, Greenwood Press, $32.95.

The Life of the Party by Robert Kuttner, Viking, $18.95.

Laboratories of Democracy: A New Breed of Governor Creates Models for National Growth by David Osborne, Harvard Business School Press, $24.95.

The Rise of the Counterestablishment: From Conservative Ideology to Political Power by Sidney Blumenthal, Times Books, $ 19.95; Harper & Row (paper), $9.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/John Figler.

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