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The Big Vote

Gender, Consumer Culture, and the Politics of Exclusion, 1890s–1920s

Liette Gidlow

Publication Year: 2004

Low voter turnout is a serious problem in American politics today, but it is not a new one. Its roots lay in the 1920s when, for the first time in nearly a century, a majority of eligible Americans did not bother to cast ballots in a presidential election. Stunned by this civic failure so soon after a world war to "make the world safe for democracy," reforming women and business men launched massive campaigns to "Get Out the Vote." By 1928, they had enlisted the enthusiastic support of more than a thousand groups in Forty-six states. In The Big Vote, historian Liette Gidlow shows that the Get-Out-the-Vote campaigns—overlooked by historians until now—were in fact part of an important transformation of political culture in the early twentieth century. Weakened political parties, ascendant consumer culture, labor unrest, Jim Crow, widespread anti-immigration sentiment, and the new woman suffrage all raised serious questions about the meanings of good citizenship. Gidlow recasts our understandings of the significance of the woman suffrage amendment and shows that it was important not only because it enfranchised women but because it also ushered in a new era of near-universal suffrage. Faced with the apparent equality of citizens before the ballot box, middle-class and elite whites in the Get-Out-the-Vote campaigns and elsewhere advanced a searing critique of the ways that workers, ethnics, and sometimes women behaved as citizens. Through techniques ranging from civic education to modern advertising, they worked in the realm of culture to undo the equality that constitutional amendments had seemed to achieve. Through their efforts, by the late 1920s, "civic" had become practically synonymous with "middle class" and "white." Richly documented with primary sources from political parties and civic groups, popular and ethnic periodicals, and electoral returns, The Big Vote looks closely at the national Get-Out-the-Vote campaigns and at the internal dynamics of campaigns in the case-study cities of New York, New York, Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Birmingham, Alabama. In the end, the Get-Out-the Vote campaigns shed light not only on the problem of voter turnout in the 1920s, but on some of the problems that hamper the practice of full democracy even today.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press

Series: Reconfiguring American Political History

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. ix-xi

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Introduction: Making Dominance

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pp. 1-15

In 1872, Harper’s Weekly, a middle-class magazine of current events and fiction, celebrated the election season with a line drawing of “Pennsylvania Miners at the Polls” (see fig. 1). Dressed for work, lunch buckets in hand, the miners thronged at the polling place set up for them near the mine shaft, eager to deposit their ballots into the glass globe signaling the party of their choice. ...

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1. "Civic Slackers" and "Poll Dodgers": Nonvoting and the Construction of Discursive Dominance

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pp. 17-45

“Poo-pooh! I never vote!” the man sniffed, lazily reclining on pillows, casually puffing a cigar (see fig. 3). He might look like an upstanding citizen—middle- aged, upper class, clothed in a smoking jacket and banker’s pinstripes, the very picture of masculine respectability—but in the wake of a Great War...

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2. "A Whole Fleet of Campaigns": The Get-Out-the-Vote Campaigns in Overview

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pp. 46-76

“Register So You Can Vote November 8th.” In 1927, on Fountain Square in downtown Cincinnati, the local League of Women Voters erected an immense billboard to summon citizens to civic duty. “Civic thermometers” put the tally of registered voters in public view; each city ward’s “thermometer” would rise as the registration numbers climbed. ...

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3. "Vote as You Please"—But Vote!": The Leadership of the Get-Out-the-Vote Campaigns [Includes Image Plates]

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pp. 77-109

“VOTE AS YOU PLEASE—BUT VOTE,” the stickers urged, patriotically presented in red, white, and blue (see fig. 9). Businessmen, factory owners, and merchants from coast to coast brought the GOTV message to colleagues, customers, and employees by pasting these stickers on business correspondence, newsletters, employee pay envelopes, and customers’ parcels. ...

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4. "Good for at Least 100 Votes": The Get-Out-the-Vote Campaigns at the Local Level

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pp. 110-139

On the day before the September primary, the Grand Rapids, Michigan, League of Women Voters sponsored a parade to drum up enthusiasm at the polls. “With the Firemen’s band at its head,” a procession of twenty-five cars “decorated in patriotic colors and bearing pennants with slogans admonishing all voters to use their voting privilege”...

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5. The Expert Citizen: Civic Education and the Remaking of Civic Hierarchies

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pp. 140-160

In the 1920s, the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company took an intense interest in improving the civic qualities of immigrants. Met Life agents personally met newly landed immigrants at the boat, put them in touch with relatives, boarded them on trains bound for their final destinations, and hired a Washington lobbyist to help with difficult legal cases. ...

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6. The Methods of Wrigley and Barnum: The Get-Out the Vote Campaigns and the Commodification of Political Culture

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pp. 161-193

In 1927, in an advertisement in a businessmen’s magazine, the San Francisco Chronicle pitched its power to reach consumers by touting the civic qualities of its readers. The Chronicle promised advertisers that its pages were a good way to catch the eye of “Mr. Solid Citizen,” the reader who was at once a husband, father, and businessman. ...

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Conclusion: The New Regime

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pp. 194-199

Middle-class and elite whites in the early twentieth century succeeded spectacularly in their efforts to contain the radical potential of universal suffrage. By the 1920s, immigrants, ethnic Americans, and workers had practically disappeared as respectable participants from discussions of civic issues in the large-circulation daily newspapers...


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pp. 201-202


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pp. 203-231

A Note on Method and Sources

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pp. 233-252


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pp. 253-260

E-ISBN-13: 9780801899010
E-ISBN-10: 080189901X
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801886379
Print-ISBN-10: 0801886376

Page Count: 280
Illustrations: 4 line drawings, 11 halftones
Publication Year: 2004

Series Title: Reconfiguring American Political History