1800s civic virtue’s comeback dubious

Posted Nov. 12, 2008, at 7:15 p.m.
Last modified March 20, 2011, at 3:28 a.m.

The significance of the election of Sen. Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States can hardly be overstated. His campaign energized tens of thousands of people in ways not seen since the election of 1960. It set a new record for voter turnout, with more votes cast for president than ever before.

Nonetheless, CNN’s Election Center reported on Nov. 6 that voter participation was projected to be only 61 percent, less than the modern record set in 1960. The next day CNN’s Bill Schneider reported that out of 187 million registered voters, 130 million voted, which would mean a participation rate of close to 70 percent, nearly 10 percent more than reported the day before. Why the divergence?

Calculating political participation rates is a tricky business. Do we measure the number of votes cast against the number of registered voters, or do we measure the votes cast against the entire population of voting age, regardless of whether they are registered?

According to Schneider, the voting-age population of the United States is currently about 208 million. Of those, only 187 million are actually registered to vote. If we use that as our base, the participation rate is anywhere from 68 percent to 70 percent. But if we use the entire voting-age population as our base, it would suggest a participation rate of anywhere from 61 percent to 63 percent. In other words, well over a third of those citizens who could have voted in 2008, didn’t. These statistics are of interest when compared to those of an earlier time.

Prior to the 1820s, most presidential electors were chosen by state legislatures rather than directly by the voters, so statistics before then are meaningless. But by 1828 and the election of Andrew Jackson, nearly all adult white males could vote directly for presidential electors. From then on, it is possible to measure voter participation by comparing the census figures for adult white males with the number of votes actually cast. (While limiting the franchise to adult white males falls considerably short of our definition of democracy, it does not follow that the addition of women and minorities to the electorate would change the rate of participation.)

The proportion of adult white males who voted in 1828 was approximately 57 percent. By 1840, 12 years after Jackson’s election, the percentage had risen to 80 percent. For the rest of the century, it never dropped below 69 percent. The election of 1860, which chose Abraham Lincoln, saw a participation rate of over 81 percent. In some individual states, fully 92 percent of the eligible population went to the polls in some elections.

Then, in the twentieth century, the rate of participation began to drop. It fell to 59 percent in 1912, to 49 percent in 1924 (even after the Nineteenth Amendment, giving women the right to vote), and has hovered between 64 percent (1960) and 53 percent (1948) ever since. Again, these are percentages of the potential electorate, not of the registered voters. How do we explain this decline in voter participation when compared to that of many of our ancestors?

There have been many suggestions, beginning with the obstacles thrown in the way of those seeking to register. In many states (but not in Maine) the process is needlessly complicated. In Indiana and Georgia, photo identification is required. Those seeking to vote, as in the last election, often have to take time off from their jobs to stand in lines for hours, often losing wages as a result. What is a right is all too frequently treated as a privilege. In contrast, the voting process in other democracies such as Britain, Germany, or Canada, runs far more smoothly, with a much higher rate of participation.

There are other more deep-seated reasons for the low rate of participation the men who wrote our Constitution in 1787 believed in what was called civic virtue, a commitment first and foremost to serving the community, which could be defined as the nation, the state or the town. Citizens were expected, and for the most part did, to participate in town meetings and local elections. And once the barriers to voting for president were dropped, they threw themselves into presidential elections with a vengeance.

From the days of Andrew Jackson to the days of Theodore Roosevelt, politics — raw partisan politics — absorbed the passions of the electorate. If you were a Whig, or a Democrat, or a Republican, you were engaged in the fortunes of your party much in the way that many are engaged in following professional sports today. As with professional sports, you rarely abandoned your party. To vote for the candidate rather than for the party made little sense a century and a half ago.

But in the twentieth century, not only have professional sports replaced political engagement, so have the many other forms of popular entertainment. Television, movies and other media crowd politics into a much smaller part of our daily lives. Once the election cycle is complete, politics as a source of interest disappears, to be replaced by American Idol, Dancing with the Stars, the World Series or the Super Bowl. None of those distractions were around in the days of Jackson or Lincoln, and the political participation rates show it.

Which brings us to the obvious question: do the multiple distractions of modern life make the assumptions of the framers of the Constitution obsolete? Is there any time left for civic virtue once we have caught up with the antics of Lindsay Lohan or Paris Hilton?

It is indeed possible that the election of Barack Obama, with all its exciting implications, may indicate a change in our political culture. It is possible that the twenty-first century will be more like the nineteenth than the twentieth. But it would be a mistake to bet on it.

Lynn Hudson Parsons of Castine is professor of history emeritus at the State University of New York at Brockport. His book “The Birth of Modern Politics,” dealing with Andrew Jackson’s election in 1828, will be published next year by Oxford University Press.

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