Reformers took the fun out of voting

November 21, 1999|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- The nation held its breath. Or was it stifling a yawn? In any case, presidential politics became serious last week because a bunch of candidates broadcast television ads. Consider how far American politics has come to be this sort of spectator sport.

Once upon a time, Americans' zest for politics astonished the world. In Jules Verne's "Around the World in Eighty Days"(1873), Phileas Fogg, passing through San Francisco, gets swept up in a tremendous election hullabaloo. Fogg asks if the awesome commotion is for "the election of a general-in-chief, no doubt?" He is told, "No, sir; of a justice of the peace."

Nineteenth-century political speeches, writes Michael Schudson, were "long enough to help kill two presidents -- William Henry Harrison, who died from complications of exposure at his own inauguration, and Zachary Taylor, who died after the dedication ceremonies for the Washington Monument." In 1858, the first of seven Lincoln-Douglas debates, in Ottawa, Ill., a city of about 7,000, was witnessed -- you cannot say heard -- by about 20,000, none of whom, in those days before direct election of senators, could vote for either candidate.

American politics, at that time the best entertainment money did not have to buy, was entering its era of maximum popular participation. But soon "progressive" high-mindedness would help put a stop to that.

Mr. Schudson, of the University of California, San Diego, argues in his book, "The Good Citizen: A History of American Civic Life," that politics from the colonial period through the Revolution was a "politics of assent." Elections were acts of deference, ratifying rule by the gentry, which regarded political office as an obligation connected with social standing.

Ethnic rivalries

But urbanization produced heterogeneous populations, newspapers (by 1794 they were 70 percent of the weight in the postal system) fueled argumentation, and immigration produced fierce rivalries among ethnic communities. Soon mass-based parties replaced the politics of deference with the "politics of affiliation."

Between Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt, writes Mr. Schudson, no president captured the public's imagination, yet "these were the years of the highest voter turnout in our entire history. Americans of that era enjoyed politics." It was not elevated politics. It was a sport of rival social groups organized into teams (parties) around "ethnocultural" issues -- immigration, church schools, temperance -- at least as bitterly divisive as today's social issues.

But in the late 19th century in the North, 70 percent or more of those eligible usually voted in presidential elections. This was partly a tribute to political machines: Pennsylvania's Republican organization had 20,000 wage-earning workers -- more employees than most of the state's railroads. And Mr. Schudson says that during the Gilded Age as many as 20 percent of New York City voters may have been paid in some form or other as Election Day workers. Then righteous reformers and caring government took much of the fun, and a lot of the voters, out of politics.

Reformers wanted fewer parades and more pamphlets -- voting should be not an act of group solidarity but an individual act of informed competence. Parties, said reformers, should not just rally committed followers, who often were, well, not the sort of folks who knew which fork to use. Rather, parties should persuade the uncommitted.

The coming of solicitous government gave people rights to things they once received for services rendered to the party. In the 19th century, Mr. Schudson says, people could "smell and taste the material benefits in politics." Under the 20th-century's sanitized, omnipresent and omniprovident government, services became less connected with elected officials than with bureaucracies, so "self-interest in political life became more of an imaginative leap."

Freudians step in

By 1924, the New Republic was wondering about "the vanishing voter." But by then World War I propaganda had proved that opinion could be manufactured. And Freudians, crowd psychologists and sociologists were suggesting that individual autonomy is a chimera. This theory emancipated intellectuals from the obligation to respect democracy and became an (unspoken) axiom of modern liberalism and judicial activism.

Today government does more and more for citizens who vote less and less. Celebrating expertise and stigmatizing partisanship, the remorseless improvers of our politics have the reformers' perennial aspiration of replacing politics with administration. Witness John McCain's John Brown-like passion to purge politics of "special interests": Only unspecial interests should be heard from.

The improvers have always aimed at reducing the passionate and increasing the cognitive ingredient in voting. Think of that as you watch the candidates' ads.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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