- Why America Stopped Voting: The Decline of Participatory Democracy and the Emergence of Modern American Politics
“Electoral participation needs to be understood” Mark Kornbluh tells us,”within the larger context of American culture and society.” I doubt many scholars would disagree, but Kornbluh asserts that “missing from the scholarly discussion [of changes in voter participation] has been an understanding of the social roots of mass participation in the nineteenth century and the role that social change played in eroding that system over time.” [2–3] I am not convinced that most of the scholars he cites as examples—Walter Dean Burnham, Paul Kleppner, Frances Piven, Richard Cloward, among others—are guilty as charged. Nonetheless, by so boldly posing the problem in his title—Why America Stopped Voting—tying his analysis to concerns about declining turnout in recent decades, and then arguing that the explanation for this trend lies in changes which took place in the Progressive Era, Kornbluh successfully grabs the reader’s attention.
What follows is a primarily quantitative analysis of voting trends between 1880 and 1918. Kornbluh nails down some predictable conclusions with vigor and precision. Participation in presidential elections averaged 79.2% between 1880 and 1896, 84.1% in the North. Only in the South and the mountain states did turnout average under 70% and even in the South turnout averaged 60.3%, higher than the national turnout in any election for the last half century. Low rates of roll-off—failure to vote a straight ticket—and drop-off—decline in turnout between a presidential election and the subsequent congressional election—also indicate that most voters were part of a “core electorate” with intense partisan enthusiasm and consistent participation.
Turnout fell sharply after 1896—from 79.2% national presidential turnout from 1880 through 1896 to 65.0% from 1900 through 1916. While Southern turnout dropped most sharply with the arrival of Jim Crow, turnout dropped in every region. This drop, Kornbluh argues, was permanent. While turnout rates fluctuated in subsequent decades, they never rose “much above pre-World War I levels. In terms of mass participation, the 1916 electorate rather closely resembled that of the middle and late twentieth century.” (99). The changes between the 1890s and World War I were permanent.
How come? Lower turnout rates after 1896, the author convincingly demonstrates, correlate with declining competitiveness and changes in the rules and procedures for conducting elections. More voters turned out (both before and after 1896) when closely balanced state contests hinged on a few thousand or even a few hundred votes. Fewer voters turned out when outcomes did not seem in doubt. Similarly, fewer voters appeared at the polls when new rules and procedures—ranging from laws explicitly designed to disenfranchise to more stringent registration and residency requirements—made voting more difficult.
So far so good. Competitiveness matters. Rules matter. No student of electoral behavior would be surprised to hear that, but Kornbluh offers systematic and convincing proof for his era. [End Page 989]
But Kornbluh promised an analysis of the social roots of these changes. To fulfill that promise he needs to tell us why elections became less competitive, who mobilized to change how states and communities conducted elections, and why advocates of reform—as they usually called it—succeeded.
What he offers as explanation is mostly disappointing. Basically he has two answers. Electoral politics became less salient because of “a narrowing of the role politics played in daily life (114)” and because the administrative state usurped many of the functions heretofore carried out by the party system. Neither explanation is original and neither really addresses the social roots of change. Results become their own explanations. What is missing is any sustained analysis of the social processes leading to these results. Who fought for rules changes and who opposed them? What motivated both advocates and opponents? Who wanted an administrative state with less direct popular participation and who didn’t? Who benefitted and who lost...