The Crisis of Electoral Politics

by Warren E. Miller and J. Merrill Shanks.
Harvard University Press, 640 pages, $45.00 hardcover/$19.95 paperback.


THE publication of the classic work The American Voter, in 1960, led many to question whether Americans were living up to democratic theory's expectations of a well-informed and active electorate. The critical findings of this first in-depth examination of national survey data were startling, especially in light of indicators that contentment with politics was widespread at the time. Back then three quarters of the public trusted the government to do what was right all or most of the time, people were generally satisfied with the party system, and the national turnout rate was at its highest since 1908.

If the message of The American Voter was that not all was well with American democracy, The New American Voter bears the opposite message. Warren E. Miller (one of the authors of the original work) and J. Merrill Shanks have produced a three-part book that provides an analysis of declining turnout rates, an examination of changing patterns of party identification, and a comprehensive model of voting behavior, which they apply to the 1992 election. After 500 pages of analysis of survey data the authors complacently conclude that "nothing we have learned suggests that the basic institutions in our system of choosing a president are in need of repair, other than that which can be provided by wise and effective leaders." Many observers of the 1996 presidential campaign might wonder whether they were looking at the same country as Miller and Shanks.

Once again in 1996 the turnout rate of Americans was nothing for our leaders to brag about at G7 meetings. As Miller and Shanks rightly point out, the first decision citizens must make on Election Day is whether or not to go to the polls. Here's how our turnout rates in 1996 and 1994 compare with those for recent elections in the other G7 countries:

Percent Voting
Over the past several decades no other G7 country has ever had a turnout in an election for its lower legislative house as low as our 49 percent turnout in 1996, let alone the abysmal 39 percent in 1994. And if this weren't embarrassing enough, newly emerging democracies have surpassed our turnout rates. Recent presidential elections in Taiwan, Russia, and Poland produced turnouts of 76, 69, and 67 percent respectively. Millions of South Africans stood in line for hours to vote in their country's first election open to all races, in which 87 percent of the eligible electorate took part. Of course, after the initial enthusiasm for democracy wears off, turnout should fall somewhat in these new democracies. Such a pattern has occurred in the former Soviet satellites, but their turnout rates have remained high in comparison to ours.

Americans once had a reasonable excuse for relatively low turnout rates: the aftermath of the Civil War. For more than a century the states of the old Confederacy were a major drag on the nation's turnout rate, owing to racial discrimination, the poll tax, and lack of party competition. In the contest between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon only 40 percent of adults in those southern states voted, whereas the turnout in the rest of the nation was a respectable 70 percent. By 1996 turnout had risen in the states of the former Confederacy to 46 percent, but had fallen in the rest of the country to 50 percent.

Some analysts have interpreted this precipitous drop outside the South as reflecting growing alienation, and thus widespread disengagement, from government. Miller and Shanks take issue with this view. Focusing on generational patterns in turnout from 1960 to 1988, they find that whereas those who were of voting age by 1964 maintained consistently high levels of turnout, Baby Boomers and post-Boomers have voted at lower rates. Inquiring minds will naturally want to know what has kept the post-Second World War generations from going to the polls. Miller and Shanks fail to find any answers to this key question in the survey data. They simply surmise that the turmoil of the 1960s and afterward must have discouraged many of these citizens from getting into the voting habit.

Though the authors stress the importance of common generational experiences, they neglect the one factor that most altered socialization for these younger generations: the introduction of television. A regular scholarly finding is that people acquire less information about politics from television than from newspapers and talking to others. TV's fast-paced and superficial view of the political world has led to a generation of voters who are underinformed about politics. For example, a Gallup poll in June of last year found that 75 percent of people born after the Second World War could identify the host of The Tonight Show, but only 50 percent could name the current speaker of the House -- the most visible in recent memory.

Miller and Shanks write that asking why the politically uninterested don't vote is like asking "why those who have never heard an opera don't sing operatic arias." But comparisons of survey data from around the world show that Americans actually report relatively high levels of interest in politics. So why do people in other countries vote more often? Walter Dean Burnham, a noted elections analyst, has long argued that socialist parties elsewhere mobilize the working classes in a manner unknown in the American environment of competition between two middle-class parties. There is clearly some truth to this -- but even as leftist parties like the British Labour and the German SPD have moved away from class-based appeals, turnout has remained relatively high. Other fundamental differences between politics in the United States and in the other G7 countries must be at the root of the American phenomenon of low turnout. One such factor is the overwhelming range of offices and referenda about which Americans must make decisions. In the most recent election, for example, I was asked to make thirty-six marks on my California ballot. Other countries may have many parties to choose from, but their citizens have to make only one or two choices on Election Day. Surely it is not coincidental that the only established democracy with turnout rates as low as ours -- Switzerland -- has also inundated its citizens with voting opportunities. Build a user-friendly electoral system and voters will come; build a complex system and they'll stay away. The recent "Motor Voter" Act and other reforms may have made it easier to register, but voter turnout remains low because America's political system is non-user-friendly. (For more on this aspect of American politics see "Running Scared" by Anthony King, in the January Atlantic.)

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