The NY Times asks an interesting question: what makes people into voters and non-voters? The conclusion, though not addressed by the Times even with clear data in the article, is that non-voters are making a logical choice based on the limited amount of selection and impact they perceive their vote to have in an electoral system that is mostly rigged in favor of particular outcomes. This has a two-fold component: an historical attack on working-class organizations that dates back to the rise of mass parties, labor unions and socialist politics in the late 19th century, and modern hurdles to ensure continued flat voter turnout outside of groups that are unlikely to vote in a radical fashion: the wealthy and the professional managerial class of college-educated workers.
The Historical Assault on Voting
The 19th century was a time of robust political participation in the United States – both among groups that were enfranchised and those that were fighting for suffrage. In the 60 year period from 1840-1900 voter turnout in presidential elections fluctuated between 73%-82%, similar to high-turnout nations today like France, the Netherlands, Sweden, South Korea, and New Zealand. We can see this clearly here (and note the sharp decline after 1900):
The youth vote, unlike today, was similarly high, since:
“From children to 20-somethings, young people were considered the most wildly political Americans. The Newark Evening News declared the “great majority” of school-kids “violent little partisans,” who hollered nasty rhymes at rivals (“Democrats eat dead rats” was a favorite). Many youths joined political marching clubs—girls dressed as goddesses, boys in military uniforms, wielding torches, playing brass instruments, sometimes concealing bowie knives or revolvers. And so-called “virgin voters” turned out on Election Day, excited to cast their first ballots for their beloved parties.”
We may have to revive the “Democrats eat dead rats” slogan…
Class barriers to political entry fell away in the mid-19th century, as the Jacksonian Revolution stripped away the last property qualifications to voting. By 1840 – the year of the spike in voter turnout – they were gone in all but three states, and by 1856 in all of them. Keep in mind that this was the result of fierce struggle between the old elite and the rising petty-bourgeoisie (as well as the small but growing working class) fought over the first few decades of the 19th century much like in the U.K. (where it resulted in the Reform bill of 1832 and eventually the Chartist movement).
We know the jumble of political issues in mid-to-late 19th century America; slavery, suffrage for African-Americans (and women), labor rights, the tariff, imperial annexation. Political machines provided material benefits to supporters in rapidly expanding metropolises.
Yet the inevitability of mass political participation and growth of political parties and organizations across the United States, like much of the West, brought with it increasing class consciousness and militancy. It was the fear and inability of the ruling class to control these movements that lead to changes in electoral laws specifically designed to decrease voter turnout and strangle mass left-wing political party growth.
The crucial period is 1876-1900. Rutherford B. Hayes’ election signaled the end of Northern elite interest in Reconstruction, and the ensuing twenty-five years would be punctuated by massive economic growth coupled with boom-and-bust cycles of economic depression.
Growth, and with it unparalleled economic consolidation brought with it growing mass participation in large political organizations. The growth of (American) capitalism brought with it the rise of large bodies of people able to engage in collective action, and the passing of sectional rivalries meant political consciousness could shift to class issues.
The largest worries for the ruling class and their intellectual advance guard – the Progressives – were not truly urban-ethnic city machines (though they were hated by nativists and attacked) but three movements:
- Populist success in the Midwest.
- Socialist and Labor Union gains in the urban centers of the Northeast and Midwest.
- North Carolina & the poor white farmer-African American alliance
Populist organizing in the 1880s culminated in the formation of the People’s Party in 1891. Populism was a largely agrarian movement of poor white farmers in the Midwest and South opposed to large commercial and financial interests that kept farmers in perpetual debt. The party was left-wing reformist in the sense that they wanted to break up large monopolies in the railroads and on Wall St., and attempted some alliances with labor unions in large cities to do so. The People’s Party was successful at the state level in the Midwest and managed to elect a number of representatives to Congress.
Socialist and union organizing was in its formative stages during this period, but the growth of working class political parties and labor unions around the globe in the 1890s was mirrored in the United States: from the failure of the American Railway Union strike in 1894, Eugene V. Debs helped form the Social-Democratic Party of America in 1898 (later to merge in 1901 with elements of the Socialist Labor Party to form the Socialist Party of America). The SDP almost immediately began to elect members to local offices.
Finally, in North Carolina the People’s Party formed an alliance with the Republican Party (which was largely controlled by African-Americans). Poor white farmers and blacks united in an uneasy but successful political partnership from 1894-1898, instituting economic reforms intended to benefit small farmers, loosening suffrage restrictions and democratizing government.
Ruling Class Reaction and Voting Decline
There were largely three reactions to suppress voter turnout very pointedly during an era where working class and poor farmer organization was having success:
- Co-option of the movement and candidates.
- Restrictive and confusing electoral laws.
- Violent suppression.
Co-option is a powerful tool used to this day in various front parties (see the Working Families Party) and in mainstream candidates promising social movements legislation for electoral support; inevitably the radical edge of that organizing is blunted. Victorious parties rarely feel the need to deliver on the pledge to their working class constituency, and unsuccessful campaigns can leave the movement tied to an organization that no longer wants or needs them beyond election day. The Populist movement was famously co-opted during the Presidential election of 1896, when they decided to endorse Democrat William Jennings Bryan, who was running as a representative of the silver mining interests; after his loss the movement splintered and faded.
While the imposition of “voting reform” by Progressives has largely been seen as a reaction by middle-class nativist reformers against urban ethnic working class political machines, it can also be read as an attempt to blunt the rising potential power of radical urban working class political parties. Socialist success in the United States during the first two decades of the twentieth century potentially heralded a new electoral order that could have forced an open acknowledgement of class politics. Instead the Progressive reforms: nonpartisan elections, city-manager governments, separating local election years from national, party primaries and even the secret ballot shifted the balance-of-power from working class voters and urban machines to an educated, white, native, middle-class segment of the population.
While not all of these reforms were bad (like the secret ballot), there was no corresponding effort towards proportional representation, multi-member districts or much more than lip-service towards public campaign financing. Reformers had “cleaned up” government by blunting urban voters’ power, and with it limited the rise of groups like the Socialist Party.
In the South, especially North Carolina, the dominance of racist white elites was challenged by the success of the Populist movement’s alliances with African-American voters. In North Carolina a coalition of People’s Party and Republican elected officials held sway in the state legislature from 1894-1898 and were able to institute a series of reforms that increased voter participation, democratized government and empowered poor whites alongside African-Americans. Though the coalition was tenuous especially due to continued racism inside the People’s Party, it was only defeated by an armed white uprising in 1898 and corresponding electoral defeat by the Democratic Party, which quickly instituted Jim Crow laws to prevent another coalition from forming.
Finally, a landmark study by Piven and Cloward in 1988 showed that after the 1896 elections the anti-turnout forces succeeded in suppressing voter turnout by making participation more costly in the North and nearly impossible in the South for many; laws outside the South mandating personal registration on workdays made it nearly impossible for working class voters to register, and poll taxes in the South eliminated voting for most poor whites and blacks. Party competition nearly ceased regionally, leading to large swathes of one-party districts, further depressing turnout.
The Lingering Effects
While there have been notable successes in extending and broadening voting rights – largely due to the women’s suffrage, labor union and civil rights movements – the effects of the broad-based attack by the ruling class on working class and petty-bourgeois electoral parties in the late-19th century lingers over a century later. Voter turnout collapsed in 1900 and never recovered to late-19th century levels; we applaud today when it approaches 55-60% in presidential elections even though in other nations there would be cause for alarm if national voter turnout dropped to that point.
The crushing of electoral movements that bring broad gains for their working-class and poor supporters has the effect of demoralizing supporters. Greece today is a perfect example: Syriza was elected in January of 2015 with a groundswell of support for radical confrontation with the Troika, against austerity budgets and with an ostensibly anti-capitalist platform. From January-June – until the betrayal after the “Oxi” vote – the populace saw the potential for a radically different future from the one offered by the Troika. Yet during this period the ruling class used its time-worn tactics: co-option of Syriza’s leadership and more right-wing elements, castigation and crushing of the left, and a threat of economic violence against the country if it did not comply.
Correspondingly, Greek voter turnout collapsed in the September, 2015 elections, declining from 63.6% in January to 56% just nine months later.
Political scientists Thomas Ferguson and Walter Dean Burnham have shown that voter turnout in the United States from 2012-2014 declined to levels not seen since before 1840. Any uptick in 20th century voting must be seen historically as that of working-class American voters during the New Deal era (1932-1972) that were mobilized by the Democratic Party because the party leadership and donor base were willing to ally with organized labor to push a Keynesian economic agenda at home and an internationalist foreign policy abroad. Once the ruling class was no longer interested in doing that, the collapse of the New Deal coalition was assured and the Democratic Party was no longer interested in mobilizing workers as a class. Voter turnout collapsed below 60% in the 1972 presidential election and has never since approached that level.
Marten Gilens and Benjamin I. Page released a study in 2014 and wrote
“In the United States, our findings indicate, the majority does not rule—at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes.
When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites or with organized interests, they generally lose. Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the U.S. political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy change, they generally do not get it…
The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”
There is a fundamental political consciousness in non-voters that, more-or-less, what Page and Gilens say is true. A century of co-opting, stymieing and crushing mass social movements and we have arrived at an era where the elite no longer desire or need to mobilize vast quantities of people to vote in elections, just a small and motivated group of wealthy and educated whose interests are still catered to by the political establishment – the Occupy’s famous 1% ruling class and Thomas Frank’s 10% professional class.
What Is To Be Done?
There are reforms that clearly increase voter turnout:
- Automatic Voter Registration: Making it easier for voters to remain registered means they are more likely to turn out on election day.
- Proportional Representation: giving voters more choices seems to increase turnout.
- Election-Day Holidays: By allowing weekend voting or national holidays voters would be more apt to participate, especially if the elections took place during warmer months.
- Competitive Electoral Districts: turnout is usually higher in races with competitive elections.
- Consolidated Elections: By eliminating multiple elections and consolidating votes onto one, or at most two days a year, turnout can be increased substantially.
- Lower Voting Age: Numerous countries have lowered the voting age to 16 with positive turnout results.
- Campaign Finance Reform: Giving non-corporate candidates a chance to win elections could increase voter interest substantially.
- National Popular Vote: Electing a president by national popular vote would increase voter participation in the majority of states that are usually reliably one-party.
Of course the likelihood of any of these being achieved without a struggle against the ruling class is low, because the success of a number of the reforms would open the door for linking mass social movements and political parties, leading to electoral success. The professional class – the system-managers and ideologues – would be mobilized immediately to defend the superstructure of elite control.
Yet fighting for reforms that would increase voter turnout would also have the effect of mobilizing and educating vast segments of the disaffected into a broad radical social movement/electoral coalition of the working class. Perhaps, as Leon Trotsky opined, it is the task of the working class to expand and consolidate the democratic gains for which the bourgeoisie is no longer interested in fighting.